If you’ve read this column with any regularity, you’ve likely read occasional references to the 94-year-old angel that is my paternal grandmother, Ruth Urban. Everyone in my extended family calls her “Grama,” and that’s obviously not unusual, but what is unusual is that all of my friends — and the friends of most of my extended family — call her the same thing. “Ruth” just doesn’t feel right. “Grama” does, because she’s the type of wise, warm and elderly woman who embodies everyone’s romanticized notion of a grandmother. This being Valentine’s Day and all, romanticism is all the rage, but the beauty of it for me is that I don’t have to romanticize. Grama’s the real deal, and one of the 37 million or so things about her that amaze me is the clarity and appropriate perspective with which she views sports.
Grama, who has gamely battled chronic leukemia for years, was recently released from the hospital after a three-week stay forced upon her by a “big pneumonia” — her doctor’s words — that would have taken most 94-year-olds to their final resting place. Not Grama, though. She’d never admit it, but I’m pretty sure that as the matriarch of a family with four University of San Francisco graduates, including a son who played basketball for the Dons when they were nationally relevant for positive reasons, she’s waiting to cash it in until she sees some semblance of a return to those glorious days when the talents of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Phil Smith, Bill Cartwright, James “Trouble” Hardy, Winford Boynes and, yes, even Quintin Dailey came in regular swells, washing wave upon wave of wins and sellouts over the Hilltop.
Grama was there — in person, with her son and the three grandsons she helped raise in tow — for almost all of it, and she misses it.
Her final great moment of joy at old War Memorial came many moons ago, after the basketball program returned from its self-imposed death penalty. A young flyer named Gerald Walker threw down the kind of dunk that brings even the most sedentary fans out of their seats, and Grama, then in her 80s, was as wide-eyed wowed as anyone.
“My goodness!” she told one of my brothers. “He’s going to break something!”
Gerald Walker is Grama’s last great memory of USF basketball? How sad is that?
“I don’t know what they’re doing up there,” she told me when I recently asked her about the Eddie Sutton saga that’s morphed into a poorly conceived VH1 documentary. “But something doesn’t seem right.”
That’s Grama. Spot-on as usual. She reads the sports page of her local newspaper daily, and she always seems to have her finger on the pulse of things, but her finger is pressed lightly. “I can’t believe what a big deal they make out of some of this stuff,” she says.
Will Grama have a pulse next Valentine’s Day? Old age and leukemia is a tough combo to battle, but my money’s on the woman I love most. The Dons have a lot of work to do.