We played basketball once. He carried himself like an athlete, a slow, ducky walk. Had a nice jumper. We won the game, and we high-fived each other, a couple of aging sports writers, able to kid ourselves that we were still as young as the pictures in our minds.
Then came the news that he was sick, that he had cancer, and of course he was too young for this and of course he was too nice a guy for this and of course he got it anyhow. Isn’t that always the case with this damned disease? Cancer. I want to kill it. I want to smother it. It feels like it is everywhere, a plague, a monster in the bottom of the lake that breaks the surface and pulls the best of us down, while the rest of us shoot away, trembling that we will be next.
Cancer. Corky Meinecke had cancer. But he was young and strong and he promised he would beat it, and we hugged his shoulders and said we knew he could, if anyone could. And of course, what we didn’t say was that we weren’t sure he could at all. Who can?
Months passed. There was one night at a Pistons game, it was cold outside, and Corky was doubled over. He grimaced when no one was looking. He stayed late until most everyone was gone. Finally, I helped him out to his car. He walked sort of funny, and I thought at first it was the ice in the parking lot. Then I realized it was the pain. It was so bad he was tiptoeing, as if putting full weight might unleash an agony too deep to bear. I carried his briefcase. He thanked me profusely.
This is how we begin to say good-bye.
Corky Meinecke was not a sports writer. You don’t define a man in such meager fashion. He was a father, a husband, a dear, wonderful friend, a kindred spirit, an unflappable soul with a constant, gentle grin, like a kinder Huck Finn, like a wiser boy next door. He wore turtlenecks and sweaters and gym shoes and he drank beer and for all the egos he covered, there wasn’t a pretentious bone in his frame. Yes, he wrote sports; that was his job, at times, his delight. He wrote well, with flair and spirit. I remember complimenting him once — when he worked for our competition, the Detroit News — about an opening line of his column, one he wrote when Jack Nicklaus won his most glorious Masters at the age of 46.
Corky wrote, “We can all die now.”
If only we could pick our spots that way. If only there was justice in death’s lottery. Then Corky would live for a hundred years, forever shooting jump shots and smirking that grin, as young as his nickname suggested, as beautiful as we all remember him today.