PARKLAND, Fla. — Manuel Oliver has not seen a Miami Heat game in almost a year.
Truth be told, he never was the biggest basketball fan in the first place. He watched a lot of games, was even coaching a team at this time last year, and did all that because of the joy his son got from the sport.
And his son is gone now.
Thursday marks one year since Joaquin “Guac” Oliver and 16 others took their last breaths, all shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a massacre that only heightened the gun-control debate in this country. Manuel Oliver, an artist, only watched and took part in sports because of the bond it allowed him to forge with his son.
“I miss my son every single day,” Manuel Oliver said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m not counting the days. I just miss him. And I decided to defeat that feeling by empowering myself to get out there and make statements through art or speeches. Thursday, to me, is just another day. It will close the loop of the year, one loop of special occasions where we won’t have him. And then a new loop starts, where we won’t have him.”
Joaquin Oliver is the teen who was buried in the jersey of his favorite player, Heat star Dwyane Wade. The boy’s mother Patricia was the one who decided her son should be put to rest in the No. 3 jersey, and when Wade — who lost a cousin to gun violence in 2016 and had been traded back to Miami from Chicago less than a week before the Parkland shooting — learned of the gesture he was moved to act.
He met the Olivers. He learned about their son. He made a surprise appearance at the school on the day it reopened. He made kids laugh and smile and perhaps forget for a brief moment that their school was a crime scene, that their lives were forever changed and certainly not for the better.
“I still don’t have the words to express how much all that meant to me,” Wade said. “I mean, in that moment of grief, in a moment of ultimate sadness and a moment where you know so much was going on the thing that family decided to do was to bury him in my jersey because he was such a fan of mine. It’s still, I don’t know … I’m still very emotional.”
Sports, more often than not, can be a healing influence in times of tragedy.
Such was the case after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when baseball and football resumed a week or two later and the Olympics five months later in Salt Lake City became a celebration tinged in the U.S. colors of red, white and blue. When 49 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016, the Orlando Magic decided to retire the number 49 months later in tribute. The Florida Panthers have never hoisted the Stanley Cup, but they made sure the Stoneman Douglas hockey team did last year in a private on-ice ceremony. Even Stoneman Douglas’ football team, when it won its first game of the season, prevailed by exactly 17 points — the same number of lives lost, a coincidence not lost on anyone.
“Sports bring people together,” Wade said. “Sports bring races together. Sports bring communities together. What this game we play, and the games other people play, can do is special. Not many things or people can bring a community, different races, people of different shapes, sizes, ages together the way sports does. And after Parkland, we saw that. We needed that.”
Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo lives in Parkland, not far from the school. He still feels the anguish of his adopted hometown.
The Panthers’ first home game after the shooting was eight days later, and Luongo took the unusual stance of speaking to the crowd for about three minutes before the opening face-off. The jammed arena hung on his every word. The Panthers rallied in the final minutes for a 3-2 win over eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington.
The Panthers will be paying tribute again in the coming days to those who were lost, with moments of silence and other gestures at games this week.
“Whatever little we can do to help, you know, whether that’s just playing a game or taking the time to say ‘hi’ or whatever it is, I think those are the key little things that you want to try to do as much as possible,” Luongo said. “If we can be doing something that helps with their grieving, we should be doing it. It’ll never be enough, but we should still be doing whatever we can.”
Wade, for obvious reasons, has had Joaquin Oliver in mind often for the last year — especially in recent days, as the anniversary nears.
The Oliver family started a foundation called Change The Ref, with a mission of raising awareness about gun-control laws they want changed and the effect of mass shootings. Even the name has ties to the boy’s love of basketball: As the story goes, he got ejected from a game last year by a referee whose call he didn’t like, and Manuel Oliver — the coach — also got ejected for complaining.
On the way home, Joaquin told his father that their only way of winning that game would have been to change the ref.
“And when I remembered that, I knew what we had to do,” Manuel Oliver said.
With that, the foundation was born.
In a year of anguish, little moments of joy mean more than ever. Manuel Oliver couldn’t watch the Super Bowl this year, because it’s something he and his son usually did together. He doesn’t watch sports on television anymore, for the same reasons. But when he needs a smile, he can look at the trophy in his house from Joaquin’s last basketball season.
In the days after the shooting, Joaquin’s team finished its season without him. The team won its league championship. The Heat were there to help them celebrate.
“I always thought Joaquin was overreacting when he talked about Dwyane Wade,” Manuel Oliver said. “But he wasn’t. I’m not even a basketball fan, but he’s a great dude. Not just him: his mother, his sister, his dad, they’re all great. This took our son, but we’re still here. Joaquin’s parents are still here, fighting for him.”