The Shadow of Chad Brown’s Smile
Late last night, Chad Brown passed away in New York City, the place of his birth. He died at the excruciatingly unjust age of 52. I was asked to write a tribute to Chad, which appears HERE at WSOP.com. Writing that narrative reminded me of an afternoon with him earlier this year. I had the opportunity to visit Chad here in Las Vegas. At the time, he was staying with Vanessa Rousso. Although the pair had already been divorced for a few years by then, they remained very close and were good friends until the very end of his life. Accompanying me on that day was Rich Korbin, the longtime marketing executive at PokerStars.com. This is the story of that special time and place.
The shadow of Chad Brown’s smile was a comforting place to be.
Even when tested by the dire prospect of his own mortality, he refused any pity. He steadily rejected the notion of allowing a malicious intruder to interfere with the joys of living fully each day on his own terms.
During the final years of Chad’s life, he fought a long and at times painful battle with the heart and determination that came to define him while living, and now widely remembered and revered in this, his time of passing.
Driving over to see Chad one last time was a difficult journey. What precisely does one say when face-to-face with someone you care about deeply, who is facing a terminal illness? Do you bring up cancer? Should you talk about it? Is the looming end of one’s life an appropriate topic for discussion?
Any fear or apprehensions we had that afternoon were erased instantly when Chad answered the door, and he flashed that smile. In the shadow of his eternal optimism, we no longer were gazing upon a man who was sick and dying. All we saw was a friend who seemed happy to be alive and eager to squeeze every last moment he could from what time he had remaining.
The three of us sat together in a semi-circle around a dining room table. There were no wristwatches or clocks, just words, and thoughts. In fact, no distraction could lead us astray from the poignant realization there wouldn’t be many more of these opportunities. And so we had to take advantage of that as best we could.
Chad absolutely adored baseball. The 2014 Major League season had just begun. In his customary way, Chad had opinions about everything, including how all the teams would perform this year. Moreover, he was eager to share his views with us and debate the finer points of the game. Whatever the subject was, you couldn’t out-debate Chad. He always seems to have articulate, well-thought ideas and opinions. And when he didn’t know something, he possessed an even more valuable gift, which was the ability to listen. And learn.
We knew Chad played baseball when he was younger. Once, he even had a promising career. He could have played in the minor leagues. Who knows what might have happened had he decided to take that path in life? I never knew the reason for his detour much later into poker. I just assumed Chad had been injured. Perhaps he was forced to abandon his dream of playing in the big leagues after something serious happened. Then and there, I was surprised to learn the real reason for Chad’s change of heart.
Chad explained that being slightly undersized physically, he would have been at a competitive disadvantage against other up-and-coming players. More than one baseball insider made it clear to Chad that if he was serious about playing in the majors, he’d have to start juicing – in other words, taking steroids.
As much as Chad wanted to play baseball, that price was too high. For one thing, steroids were dangerous. Second, they were illegal. Third, they were unethical in Chad’s opinion. He likened using steroids to cheating. Sadly, while he took the high road, many others in the game did not. And so baseball’s legacy continues to suffer because of the so-called “steroids era,” when people like Chad were the exception to doing what was right. Too bad there were not more Chads, not only in baseball. Everywhere.
Time no one was paying attention to, passed. The sun began going down. There were more baseball stories. There was laugher. There were memories. We heard about games he attended at the old Yankee Stadium. We learned about Chad’s old neighborhood in the Bronx. He remembered and reminisced. We listened and enjoyed, feeling as though we were there.
Chad’s illness came up a few times. He didn’t avoid it. Rather, it just seemed talking about it was an afterthought to more interesting matters. Cancer may have invaded his body, but it wasn’t about to intrude upon his mind and spirit. And since we didn’t have that much time left with Chad, we weren’t about to allow the attacker into what we viewed as our private conversation. It wasn’t invited.
None of the world’s problems were solved that afternoon, special as it was. Even talking about baseball can’t erase pains nor provide clarity when the persistence of so much uncertainty lingers. It takes something far stronger to allay our troubles and give peace. Something like seeing Chad Brown’s smile.
One last time.
In all our memories.