Last weekend, I took our precocious and fearless 4-year-old daughter Abby to the Utah Flash game with her sister and a friend, both 11.
What man takes a 4-year-old girl from a family with a history of attention deficit disorder to a professional basketball game? A dad with free tickets, that's who.
Midway through the first quarter, Abby had already cried twice because the cheerleaders were rude. They didn't throw HER a t-shirt or a packet of those inflatable plastic noise sticks. (The ones that when banged together produce such a loud, ringing sound you imagine the cacophony inside an NFL player's helmet when he suffers a concussion.)
Finally, worn down, I agreed to take her to the play area for rambunctious kids, but not until the yellow numbers on the scoreboard all said zero.
When the first quarter ended, we went up to the concourse. First we went to get a free balloon, then we began the long trip all the way around the outside of the arena, where every ice cream stand and popcorn booth is a landmine when you are escorting a 4-year-old.
I started to steel myself for the excitement of reaching the area behind the south basket — six trillion kids oh-so-patiently taking turns on two inflatable bouncy thingamajigs. As we walked, I looked down at Abby, then turned slightly to throw something away and then turned back to her.
She was gone.
Vanished. Vaporized. ... oh ... no ... Kidnapped, hoisted into the nearby elevator or restroom, hair cut short and tossed into the back of a waiting van pointed toward Canada.
Minutes of panic.
I ran through the bathroom. Twice. I retraced our steps. Thrice. I tried to think like a hyperkinetic 4-year-old who loves crowds and adults. No luck there.
I needed help. I rushed to an usher. "Help me. ... She has blondish hair. Wearing a white floral print dress."
The usher interrupted me, pressing her earpiece deeper into her ear. ... "Was it a cream floral print dress?"
"Yeah," I said. "Um, yes, that's it. Sure."
"Good news, she's down by your seats near the floor."
I hustled back along the concourse to the portal right where I'd lost her and headed down the stairs. There was the little socialite. Abby entertaining three ushers and two policemen. And wearing .... a RAINBOW-colored floral print dress.
"Daddy," Abby said to the delight of the cops and with all the energy and enthusiasm she packs into every minute of every day, "you got lost."
Guilty and still emotionally hyperventilating, I spent the rest of the second quarter and all of halftime and some of third quarter watching Abby at the bouncehouses. Finally I convinced her we'd get some popcorn if she'd leave, and that Katie and Nikki had to be scared wondering where we were.
Of course they weren't worried about us at all; one had even been invited out to dance on the game floor during halfime, and I missed it. ...
During the fourth quarter, Abby actually let us watch the game. The Flash blazed their way through a 16-1 run to take a 25-point lead. Then they cleared the bench and we were treated to ... nine minutes of dreadful garbage time played by absolute stiffs.
But suddenly Abby — and where did this come from? — was bouncing up and down with every Flash basket ("I like the gray team!) and booing lustily when the bad guys (fortuitously dressed in black) shot free throws.
That was nice, but the night was only just starting to get better.
After the game, we went down to the catacombs for autographs.
With one short burst of encouragement from me, the brave and spindle-thin Nikki stepped up to and stopped the spindle-thin Jeremy Evans as he came out of the trainer's room. Here was a real-life NBA player, on loan from the Utah Jazz to the Flash for the weekend, and Nikki actually asked him for his autograph.
First he signed Nikki's plastic concussion stick. Then Katie's. Then he bent down from 6-foot-9 to sign Abby's — yes, I had found her not one, but two obnoxious sticks.
"My name," Abby informed him with confidence and a measure of gravity, "is spelled A ...... ."
The pause stretched so long I thought Jeremy Evans would give up on her, on us. Instead, impossibly bent so his head was below hers to sign this silly blown-up plastic stick in her hands, he somehow managed to look UP at her with the patience of Mother Teresa.
".... B ... B .. Y."
Thus was born an incredible new family heirloom, now enshrined in our home.
And the 19-year-old Mr. Evans now has four fans for life. He knows it, too. I told him so; he flashed that bedazzling smile of his.
His five ridiculously athletic blocked shots and his three astonishing alley-oop dunks — that's why people call him the Human Pogo Stick! — didn't win our hearts.
What won our hearts was four simple letters in ink, written legibly at the end of a long night on an otherwise annoying inflatable plastic stick by a teenager from Arkansas while he crouched like an 81-inch-tall praying mantis.
God bless you, please, Mr. Evans.
As we walked out the doors into the night, I smiled down at Abby. She beamed back at me.
I realized then that I've never once taken for granted how much I love the feel of my forefinger wrapped in her tiny hand.