As he walked out of the locker room and onto the court at United Spirit Arena one afternoon back in October, Jordan Tolbert gave himself a simple reminder.
Give Dad a call.
“But after practice, I don’t know what was going on,” Tolbert said. “I guess I had some stuff going on, and I didn’t call him.”
Tolbert, Texas Tech’s 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, had no idea it would be his last chance to talk to his father.
How could he have?
After all, James Tolbert had always been a model of strength for his family.
As a construction worker, he rose early, off to the job at 6 a.m. to be sure that his children — Jordan, the middle child, his older brother, Kenneth, and his younger sister, Breanna — had what they needed.
“He was a hard worker,” Jordan says. “He told me I would be nothing if I didn’t work hard. He would tell me there’s no secret about being good. You had to work for it.”
James Tolbert also served as the disciplinarian. He was strict, Jordan said, someone who could be counted on to levy stern punishment when necessary. If Jordan got in trouble during the day, partaking in any variety of mischief young kids do, he knew his father would be there at the end of the day to set him straight.
“I was kind of scared because I already knew what was going to happen,” Jordan says with a smile. “But he made me disciplined. At the time I hated it, but now I understand why.”
On the basketball court, James Tolbert challenged his son to strive for more. As the tallest kid on the court, Jordan often dominated competition, but his father was quick to point out that each level would bring players more capable of matching up physically. That meant Jordan had to keep improving, had to keep expecting more out of himself.
“His dad would always push him to go harder,” says Andre Crear, Jordan’s childhood best friend and longtime teammate. “He’d always tell him, ‘Jordan, you haven’t done this yet. You haven’t done that.’ Jordan would try to do it the next game because his dad would always push him. He’d always push him harder so he’d do better.”
Jordan had come to relish that influence, and as he grew to understand the reason behind his father’s demands for greater work ethic, the bond between the two grew.
“They had a wonderful relationship,” Jordan’s mother, Trimeka Tolbert, says. “His father also played basketball a little bit in high school, so they just had fun all the time, especially when Jordan grew and could overpower him. They just had an awesome relationship.”
‘I just couldn’t
Jordan Tolbert rubs his jaw as he tries to express, for the first time publicly, what went through him when he found out his father, at 40 years old, had unexpectedly passed away after suffering a heart attack. But how do you put into words the loss of a man whose support and encouragement you had planned to lean on for so many more years to come?
“It was tough, man,” Jordan says after a brief pause. “To wake up to that, I just couldn’t believe it.”
The weeks following his father’s death were a blur for Tolbert. He joined his family in Fort Worth while Tech traveled out of town for a preseason scrimmage. When he returned, there was a lot to catch up on. New coach Chris Walker was implementing new schemes and new systems, but Tolbert had a hard time catching up. He scored 16 points on 7 of 7 shooting in Tech’s opener, running on adrenaline as much as anything else, but he struggled in the games that followed to find a rhythm.
Friends and family rallied around him. Teammates, some of whom have experienced similar loss, stretched out their hands. But everybody grieves differently, and Jordan wasn’t yet ready to just shake it all off and move on. “I’ll tell you, I worried about Jordan,” his mother says.
“I’m not going to lie,” Jordan adds, “I wasn’t living right for weeks. For a long time, I was doing things that wouldn’t benefit me basketball-wise.”
He wondered for a time why he was even still playing. The first time he took up basketball was around the time he was 8, when he joined Crear on a team coached by Crear’s father. As Jordan sprouted up in height — “He grew drastically one summer,” his mother said — he began dominating. He liked the feeling, his mom said, and carried a basketball around him everywhere he went.
“I learned that I was really dominant,” Jordan says. “I thought about that, and then I thought I played because of dominance. A couple days later, I kept on thinking that can’t be the only reason I play.”
Playing with heart
It’s hard to know why some words stick with us while others float by, unable to register. Tolbert said he is lucky to have the support of a great family and caring teammates, all of whom were quick to reach out after his father passed. But it was something his grandfather said recently that brought some calm to his existential angst.
“He told me, ‘Slim, you’re a lover not a fighter,’” recalls Jordan, who earned that nickname, Crear says, because he had no meat on his bones as a kid. “That just hit me in my heart. And I thought that as long as I play with my heart, as long as I put my heart into everything, I won’t have any regrets. So I’d say I just have to play with my heart.”
Tolbert has seemed to rediscover his heart for the game lately. He leads Tech in scoring (9.6 points per game) and rebounding (6.3) during league play, and he is coming off a week in which he averaged 15.5 points and 10.5 rebounds as Tech split a pair of games against Iowa State and Texas.
“It’s good that he has bounced back because he could have easily had a downfall,” says Crear, who plays basketball at Angelina College in Lufkin. “He’s doing well in the Big 12 right now, and that’s a good thing.”
Trimeka Tolbert has spent many days in Lubbock since that fateful day in October. Jordan refers to his mother as his best friend, and they’ve relied on one another often the last three months. Whether they are taking trips to the movies or just talking about life, the bond between the two has strengthened.
“Since his father’s passing, we have grown closer,” Trimeka said. “I’m getting to spend more time down there. I’m just having the time of my life with him. I never would have thought that through sadness this, I would say joy, is coming out of it by me and him getting really, really close.”
Tolbert is now playing, he said, as much for his mother and the rest of his family as he is for himself. When he hears Trimeka cheering from the stands — “She’s always the loudest one there,” Jordan says with a laugh — he knows how much his playing the game means to others.
In other words, he’s found the answer to his “why?”
“I’ve really just tried to refocus myself and reinvent myself,” he says. “Lately I’ve been thinking that I’m not really living for myself. It’s a lot of other people, like family and friends, who want to see me succeed. When times get hard, I just try to not think of myself and think of other people.”
And tomorrow ...
Tolbert drags his long fingers across the brightly lit phone as he searches for another way to explain his healing process.
“I just try to find different ways to motivate myself,” he said. “Poetry is one of the things I’ve been doing lately.”
Tolbert comes across a poem on his phone by the late rapper 2Pac called “And Tomorrow,” which describes the hope the artist clings to even when things on the outside seem to be spiraling out of control.
“... Today is built on tragedies which no one wants to face,” Tolbert says, reciting the poem. “... But tomorrow I see change, a chance to build anew. Built on spirit intent of faith and ideals based on truth. And tomorrow I wake with second wind and strong because of pride. To know I fought with all my heart to keep my dream alive.”
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