Sports and the eternal bond

I work for a smallish newspaper in West Michigan, so imagine my surprise one summer night in 1998 when I walked into the office after staffing a sports event and the managing editor hit me with “How would you like to go to Europe with the Hope (College) men’s basketball team?”
Needless to say, I couldn’t turn my body quickly enough to allow my arm to be twisted.
Oh, there were arrangements to be made. I had to cancel a family vacation with my wife and three sons to Pittsburgh and I had to find someone to take five tickets off my hands for an anticipated visit to watch the Pirates.
I had to coordinate coverage of local events while I was gone while making sure anything I filed from “over there” would get back home in time for publication.
Most importantly, since the date of the trip was only about a month away, I had to arrange to get my passport updated. Yeah, it cost an extra $80 for expedited processing, but how often do you get to go to Europe on the company’s dollar.
Specifically, I was joining 12 players, three assistant coaches and one grandparent, the father of the college’s Admissions Director, on the 11-day trip to The Netherlands. It was called a “Homeland Tour” since Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, has nicknamed its men’s athletic teams The Flying Dutchmen, a reference to the founders of the school being from “the old country.”
The trip had its share of adventures. On the flight over, for example, one of the players swiped my wallet out of my tote bag while I was sleeping and noted that the final three numbers of my driver’s license were 007.
To make our relationship more memorable — we were going to be spending 11 days together, remember — one of them, Brandon Goodyke, immediately tagged me “Lambo,” a reference to a combination of James Bond (007) and Rambo, a reworking of my last name. To this day, players still mention that nickname when I talk to them following their games.
Also on the trip, I got to be very close with the “grandpa” who joined us. As he and I were the only two travelers who were not directly involved with the basketball team, we took time during practices and meetings and such to do some sight-seeing together. And we would meet every afternoon in the hotel lobby for “warme melk en koekjesor,” better known to us as “warm milk and cookies.” Almond cookies.
During some of our daily conversations, I learned that Jim Bekkering, forever to be known by me as “Papa Bekkering,” was college friends with both my father, Peter Lamberts, and my uncle Jack, Jacob Lamberts. “Papa Bekkering” told me some of the misadventures experienced by my father that I planned to share with him when I returned home.
On the night of August 20, I stayed up until 2 a.m. to call my sister’s house back home at 8 p.m. to wish my mom and dad a “Happy Anniversary,” their 63rd.
I’m glad I did because it would be their last. Dad died a couple of months later, on October 30, from complications due to a stroke. Twelve years earlier, on the way to watch his grandson’s high-school football game, dad suffered a massive heart attack. My oldest sister, Ann, told me some years later, than the EMTs had to stop the ambulance twice on the way to the hospital to keep him alive, so we treasured every day, every year, we had dad with us.
I was feeling sorry for myself after the funeral when I mentioned to my other sister, Joan (who has since passed away), that I regretted missing mom’s and dad’s final anniversary together because I was enjoying myself along with a college basketball team on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Joan, who was walking alongside of me at the time, stopped in her tracks, turned around and got as close to getting in my face as she could despite being about four inches shorter than me.
“Look,” she said, her eyes burning and her nostrils flaring, “I don’t want to hear another word. You will never know how proud your father was, walking around telling his friends that ‘My son is in Europe. On business.’”
I hear those words in my head every time I think of my dad, which, all these years later, is still a lot. And I am just amazed how a single moment in time, “arranged” as it was because of God and sports, could create a bond between a father and son over such a long distance.
I miss my dad, but I can take comfort in the fact that both of us were glad that I did not miss that trip to Europe.