IN MEMORIAM - VIC TAI CHENG (1974-2005)
It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to the Season of the Vic
(Top to bottom, L to R) At Anthony's Wedding Flight Knights
reunited, Vic and best bud Evan, plus B.Yang, all minus Ant
Dream League Names Most Inspirational Player Award After Victor Cheng (1974-2005)
MAY 31, 2005 -- "I thought we'd get to see forever, but forever's gone away. It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday." What a song that was from the brand new group Boyz II Men back in the summer of '91. That's the summer during what was supposed to be my boring sophomore break from Cal when my boyhood friend Gus Hsu introduced me to his buddies who were still in high school. I already knew Anthony Wang (Dream League's webmaster!) and Brian Yang (DLNYC commish!) from the Silicon Valley Chinese high school basketball team from four years past, but better yet, Paul Hsu, Evan Hu, Victor Cheng, Eric Chen, and Chin-Chi Tsai (now laying the groundwork for DL San Diego, btw!) loved to ball too.
That was also the year when Nike came out with its Flight line of shoes and someone in the group dubbed us the "Flight Knights". Sometimes we'd get in a groove and play many evenings in a row at Ortega Park only a block from Eric's house, sometimes we just hung out and played some cards, watched TV, talked, joked around, and went home late. Mostly it was myself, Evan, Victor, Paul, Gus, and Anthony. Even though that was the summer of Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, and oh, one-hit wonder Justin Warfield with his "Season of the VIC", we were actually a bunch of nice alcohol- and drug-free suburban teenagers raised by good parents. We still had our obligatory baseball caps, winter jackets, Timberlands, baggy jeans and Addidas, though -- but Nike was still sacred on the court. I really can't recall how we spent all that time. I just remember we were like family.
Throughout that summer and the next we were real close. I remember we spent one New Year's either in Victor's MPV or Gus's blue Dodge Caravan (a lemon!). We also spent another New Year's at Brian's house blasting Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" -- I have no idea why. Those summer and winter breaks hanging out together felt like an eternity. It's still hard to believe that was fourteen years ago.
Exactly twelve years after that magical summer of '91, we would reunite by playing on the same team in Dream League. Somehow I got a hold of Gus by email and we finally hooked up again on the court with Paul, Evan, and Victor. Except I learned that Victor now went by "Vic" just as I had ditched "Richard" for "Rich" after my high school days. I jokingly called our team "Flight Knights Exhumed" (aka "FKE"). Now it's not that funny a name anymore.
Three days ago we attended Victor's funeral in his hometown of Houston. It's still hard to believe Boyz II Men's song, which I always felt was just a nice acapella tune, now means so much to me. It's still hard to believe the first known Dream Leaguer to pass away is our very own Vic. It's still hard to believe he'll never play ball or just hang out with us again.
Turns out Vic was special to a great many people and it was almost like his passing was somehow meant to happen now. First of all, the most logical way for me to attend the funeral was to use my dad's American Airlines miles, which afforded me the exact itinerary as Gus's, allowing us to reconnect for the entire 8-hour trip when we otherwise would have been too busy with work or family to see each other on a regular basis.
Then when we arrived at the service in Houston, I was astonished to see a video in the lobby with snippets of Vic as a member of the Houston Rockets' staff, even showing disadvantaged kids how to block out at a basketball camp. I was instantly so proud of Vic, especially doing something very similar to what we do at Dream League. I saw Eric and asked if he had known about Vic's role with the Rockets. Eric said he just heard Vic secured a job months ago, but did not know where. As we entered the service, we saw members of the Rockets' staff at the podium praising him and shedding tears. This aside from the dozens of family members who had attended.
Later we approached the casket and gave our condolences to Vic's mom and dad. I had never really met Vic's parents. I stood behind Gus as we passed Vic's body. Gus introduced himself to Nancy, Vic's mom, who said that she knew about Gus's positivity and role modeling in terms of Christian faith from what Vic had told her. I was not quite sure if Vic's mom would know who I was, though. In fact, back in '91, Vic had gotten in trouble with another Rich and I hoped she wouldn't mistake me with the other Rich. I was once again astonished when I introduced myself to Vic's mom and she said, "Oh, you're the one who runs the basketball league, right?" Wow, Vic had mentioned me to his mom. I knew Vic loved to play in Dream League, but I never knew it was to be the topic of conversation at some point with his mom!
After the service was over, Vic's dad invited us Californians to dinner with them. There, we got a chance to get to know Vic's parents. Nancy was so kind to us and very introspective. She mentioned many other stories and events leading up to Vic's death that really gave meaning to everything. From my perspective, Vic had always struggled to find meaning in his own life. It appeared that he found his calling as a minimum-wage (it's only $5.15/hour out in Texas, not $6.75 like in CA or $7.75 in SF!) part-time staffer with the Rockets, on his birthday no less. His Houston friends and family worriedly asked him if he was getting paid enough, but he replied, "It's for the love of the game!"
Then on his mom's birthday, he was promoted to full-time and he excitedly emailed his mom about it. The Rockets personnel even gave him the nickname "The Machine", in terms of his dedication to his work. To top it off, Vic's mom said that the Rockets needed to bring in a psychologist last week so that Vic's co-workers could cope with his passing. And that the Rockets had made that professionally made farewell video that was playing in the lobby at the service. And that they were going to honor him this upcoming week and asked her to stay until Thursday to do so. That spoke volumes in terms of him becoming part of the Rockets' family in just a few months' time. Just as we had become family back in the summer of '91.
Vic even told his mom that he admired Dream League and someday wanted to do a Dream League in the Houston area. That explained how Vic's mom knew me. While I regretted that Vic would never be able to achieve that particular goal, I felt like I had been blessed by an angel. I simply can't explain how much it means to me that my line of work had been praised by Vic. In a way, Vic had already started planting the seeds of a Dream League in Houston with his dedication to underprivileged kids.
After the dinner graciously hosted by Vic's parents, Gus, Paul, Evan, and I headed out to Yao's new restaurant and had a few drinks. It was good 'ol times just hanging out together. What's weird was, Eric, Lily Lin, and Ivy Hsu (Paul's sister) had already left on their own flights back to the Bay Area. Brian and Anthony were not available, so it was Gus, Paul, Evan, and me again, just like so many times in '91 -- Lily and Ivy were the girls, so they did their own thing, Brian was always out on a date or something and Anthony was usually at home feeding that addiction to video games. At Yao's or even at the funeral, I kept on expecting Vic to be there to say something self-effacing and funny yet thoughtful like, "Man, that was a sad funeral. That guy was a good guy. Why did he have to leave? Shoot, I deserve to go before that guy, I haven't done half as much as he accomplished!" Then Vic would probably make some joke about history of laziness or whatever. Despite being a big fella with an imposing figure, Vic was always the introspective one and the one who tried to find meaning.
See, that's the thing about Vic. He only had good things to say about you. He always looked up to everybody and praised people. What's ironic is, that in and of itself is an extremely admirable and rare trait, almost of pure innocence, which is why we're all now looking up to you, Vic.
When he played ball, he always played with clear love for the game. On FKE, he often took BART from the South Bay just to make it to our games in Oakland. Now how many players in Dream League do you know of who would take BART just to play limited minutes off the bench?! He attended our last six games in a row during our magical run in the playoffs. Whenever he was in the game, I with my captain hat on was always worried about him getting his minutes, but often times he would sub himself out because he'd be tired after a few runs up and down the court. He was always positive on the bench, saying "good shot". I don't recall him ever saying anything negative, not even so much as a "C'mon, guys". Vic exemplified the love for the game and his teammates. That was probably the last team Vic ever played on in an organized league. It's fitting that it was with his old Flight Knights buddies. I'll always remember that season as the "Season of the Vic".
Vic, I would like to hereby honor you by naming our Most Inspirational Player Award after you. From this day forward and retroactive to Most Inspirational Player Award winners from seasons past, the VIC TAI CHENG MOST INSPIRATIONAL PLAYER shall be given at least once per year to certain players who exhibit the inspiration for basketball that you always did. The trophies shall always bear your name and the award will be nicknamed "The Vic".
We'll miss you, Vic, but the strength of your legacy and the proudness we have for you will ease our sorrows and help us become better human beings.
"And I'll take with me the memories to be my sunshine after the rain. It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday."