By the time Mack was ten and fully immersed in competitive basketball, she knew every player her own age and she was very aware of all of the best older players in the region. At tournaments, she enjoyed watching elite older players, and on the drive home she talked about them, analyzing their shooting styles, ball-handling skills, and prospects for playing at the college level. But after one tournament in the summer of 2006, in Bloomington, Illinois, it was a younger player who caught Mack’s attention; and all the way home she could not stop talking about her. Mack was in awe of this younger player partly because her approach to the game was so different. Mack was a pure point guard, a methodical executor of an offensive game plan and a skilled passer, who was more tickled by a slick assist than by hitting her own deep, three-point shot. In contrast, this younger player demanded the ball, relied on her athletic instincts, and was fast and fearless; and Mack respected her athleticism and full-throttle style. But mostly, Mack connected with this player’s joyful exuberance, as she saw a kid who shared her own passion for basketball and for life. Mack not only wanted to play ball with this player, but she wanted to make her a friend, too.
That player’s name was Justice; and little did she know in the summer of 2006 that she was in Mack’s sights, hand-picked for Mack’s impressive collection of best friends. But when Justice arrived at Franklin Middle School as a seventh grader in the fall of 2007, Mack—the big, confident eighth grader—immediately scooped up the new kid in her long arms and “collected” her right away. Justice probably did not know what had hit her; and it took about two minutes before those crazy girls became two peas in a pod. Mack made friends effortlessly, but I never saw such a fast and easy friendship as the one between Mack and Justice. They were soul sisters from the start and had more fun than any two girls in the history of American middle school. Together they were loud and joyful, took advantage of every second to breathe in and experience the world around them, and left a trail of mischief and merriment in their wake. Some of my favorite life moments were spent driving between our house and Justice’s house on the opposite side of Springfield with those high-spirited and noisy girls in my backseat.
In that first magical year as friends, Mack and Justice were still very different basketball players, but that was about the only real difference between them. They were both confident and mentally tough, cheerful, unfazed by popularity and preteen drama, smart but lazy students, witty and sarcastic. In the hallways at school, on the volleyball, basketball, and track teams, and after school and on weekends, Mack and Justice were joined at the hip. Justice became a part of Mack’s eighth-grade friend circle, and Mack spent time with Justice’s group of seventh grade friends as well. And, finally, those girls got to play some basketball together—at Franklin basketball practices (although Coach Bitner would not let them guard one another because they giggled way too much) and on a winning Gus Macker team one summer.
But most of the growing-up memories Mack and Justice made together had absolutely nothing to do with sports. They teased and pushed one another, looked out for each other, and accepted each other unconditionally. They were just kids together, acting like fools, making messes, and laughing…so much laughing…loud, hysterical laughing. I could fill a dozen or more blogs with Mack-and-Justice stories, but I will now offer three that reveal something of the nature of the relationship between these special kids.
Good-natured teasing: One weekday evening as I was preparing dinner, Mack came rumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen. She called for my attention, turned around, and bent over slightly, sticking out her rear end. She pointed to her butt, wrinkled up her brow, and asked: “Is my butt big?” I chuckled and told her that she had inherited some booty from my side of the family. Mack smiled and said, “Dang, I guess Justice is right. Today she was behind me going up the stairs between classes and super loud she yelled ‘Mack! You got some cakes!!’” Mack and I then laughed our big asses off; and Mack forever acknowledged that she did, indeed, have some cakes. It was a favorite expression she employed whenever she was shopping for a new pair of American Eagle jeans. Mack and Justice were always able to engage in such teasing, and I always admired that about them.
Well-placed loyalties: After just one year of attending school together at Franklin, Mack went to Springfield High School; and a year later, Justice went to rival Southeast High School across town. They competed against each other in basketball, and they each embraced the ferocious spirit of their respective schools. Mack was a true Senator. Justice was a true Spartan. And those girls talked a whole lot of smack to each other. But even though they were competitors and lived their school rivalries, they remained fierce supporters of one another, often cheering for each other from the bleachers when they were not in direct competition. They had only been school chums for one year, but their friendship not only survived the school separation, it grew stronger during their high school years. One year at the boys’ basketball City Tournament (which is a huge deal for school spirit and town sports’ rivalries in Springfield, just so you know), Mack made a “dangerous” decision to sit in the Southeast section with her friend. When I questioned her intent, Mack said something like: “City is so much fun, and I just gotta do one with J.C.” Justice provided a Spartan blue t-shirt and Mack joined the Blue Crew on one of the three nights of the tourney, only to be caught “blue” handed yuckin’ it up with Justice in a photo that was posted on the school district website. Some people were appalled that Mack would cross that line, and her basketball coach was horrified by the photo, but when Mack saw it, she shrugged her shoulders and without any tone of apology at all, she said: “oops.”
Friends for Life: Mack and Justice worked hard to spend as much time together as they could over the years. Justice was a frequent weekend guest in our home, Mack hung out in Justice’s basement during the summer, and they included each other in various outings with their own friend groups. Yet sometimes their busy teenager lives interfered, and weeks might pass between face-to-face visits; and then Mack would get lonely for Justice (or vice versa) and say, “I need me some Justice time.” What always amazed me about those girls is that no matter the distance, no matter the time, together they were always at ease. It was as if no time had ever passed at all. Even after Mack went off to Truman State, we moved to St. Louis, and Justice went to college in Kansas City, the girls enjoyed an easy and comfortable friendship that never faded. They really were two peas in a pod. They were life friends. They were sisters.
Many people we meet in life pass by us with little notice. Others play an important role for a time and then fade away. If we are lucky, we will know a few that grab onto our hearts and stay forever. Justice was one of those friends for Mack. Mack was one of those friends for Justice. And that is a beautiful thing.
p.s. I am so very grateful that Justice was a part of Mack’s life, and, in some ways, I now believe that Mack collected Justice not only for herself but for me as well. Justice’s spirit and strength at Mack’s memorial service brought me some solace in those terrible first days without Mack. Her random text messages over the past year have been precious to me, providing humor and support. And the way that she has chosen to honor her best friend by living a good and joyful life is an inspiration to me and should be an inspiration for us all.
Justice’s beautiful and funny eulogy to Mack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9e2NIGnbww
And some social media exchanges that make me smile: