By now, many of you have read about the jarringly sudden demise of Peter Sauer, the captain of Stanford's improbable 1998 Final Four basketball squad. While '98 often feels like eons ago, it wasn't. Sauer was just 35 years old, which is an awfully young age to go.
The 6-foot-7 father of three collapsed and died in the midst of a pickup basketball game. There were no symptoms. He hadn't been complaining of some lurking malady. He hadn't ran himself silly; he was purportedly in excellent shape. He simply stopped living, just like that. A player lauded for his "huge heart" seems to have died from one: A postmortem indicates he had an "enlarged heart."
For those who knew Sauer the man, husband, father, and brother these are times to grieve. For those of us who knew him only as a wavy-haired guy in a Cardinal jersey, this is an introspective moment.
Your humble narrator recalls Sauer's playing days well. I was at U.C. Berkeley at nearly overlapping years to his Stanford run. Among Cal fans of the day, Sauer inspired a searing loathing -- that, with the benefit of age and hindsight, I now realize indicates he was doing something right. The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference.
No young athlete ever grows up hoping to put together a Sauer-like career. Everyone wants to "Be Like Mike." Michael Jordan is richer than a sultan and, for all intents and purposes, was the greatest basketball player to ever breathe. But he doesn't seem very happy.
If Jordan were to die during a pickup ballgame, oh, it'd be big news. International news. Outpourings about his incredible skill, fanatical drive, and movie-worthy rise from high school bench player to The Greatest Ever would drip from every article. This would all be true. But it'd be the rare story that noted We the People didn't really know anything about the real Jordan, but only the fictionalized, consumer-friendly version of himself he and his commercial partners presented to the public. His real personality -- which could be very ugly indeed -- was kept out of the public eye.
Obituaries -- especially obituaries of young, handsome, talented, wealthy people -- do not present much in the way of nuance. There may well have been a darker side to the athlete and family man recalled by Sauer's contemporaries. Fair enough. Everyone is only human. But what resonates more -- and far more than Sauer's ability to put the ball in the basket just under four times a game during his college years -- are the specific ways he was recalled. It means a lot to be a "great teammate." It means more to be a "good person." It means the most when it's true.
For those who only knew of him from afar, Sauer's death offers the opportunity to reassess what's important in life. No, he didn't find fame and fortune in the NBA. Instead he earned a degree, played several years in sunny parts of Europe, married at 25, started a young family, and launched a successful career. That sounds pretty good, doesn't it? In fact, isn't that about as good as it can get? If Sauer had any time -- a millisecond, even -- to consider the sum total of his life prior to his sudden death, would he have any massive regrets? Would he wish he'd done things differently?
No one will ever know. If Sauer's grieving contemporaries are to be believed, perhaps he wouldn't.
Sauer probably never got a final chance to assess life, the universe, and everything. But we do. Thinking big thoughts and asking the big questions is intimidating. But it's never too late to do it.
Until, inexorably, it is.
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