Sports unite us as fans but also as human beings. Over the course of a season we experience an emotional ballet together – cheering jubilantly for big wins and commiserating and consoling one another after tough losses. Sports often imitate life, sometimes to the point where the line blurs and one flows seamlessly into the other. Some people place sole importance on winning, while others choose to revel in the camaraderie, but we all learn valuable lessons about ourselves and about life throughout the journey of being a coach, a fan, a player or just a spectator.
For one small community in Marin County, the sport of basketball served as a vessel for grief after the loss of a very special young life. The Alex Rayburn Freshman Basketball Tournament was born of tragedy but now serves as a reminder of strength of character, the power of friendship and the importance of teamwork. It also allows those affected by the loss to mourn but also celebrate Rayburn’s spirit and keep his unique memory alive through one of the things he loved the most: basketball.
Rayburn died February 21, 2015. He was celebrating his girlfriend’s high score on a medical school admission test with friends on a San Francisco rooftop when he lost his balance dancing too close to the edge and fell three stories. He was 26 years old. The story of Alex’s death is a terrible one, hard for those who knew and loved him to swallow. But the story of his life and how those close to him chose to celebrate his memory is a thing of beauty.
I knew Alex, he was one of my sister’s good friends in high school. And while I didn’t attend Marin Catholic High School the same years that they did, I was given a front row seat to the evolution of the group’s friendship. While the girls struggled with navigating the cattiness that is high school, the boys cared about one thing: basketball. And sometimes girls, but mostly basketball.
Ray, as he was nicknamed, began playing basketball in the first grade at the Marin YMCA. He would later play for the St. Raphael CYO team and Marin Catholic as well as the North Bay and Oakland Soldiers AAU teams. And while all the teams were important to Ray, the Marin Catholic group would always be slightly more special due to the bond forged by those awkward high school freshman.
“Ray loved basketball, that is the thing that brought us all together,” said Kevin Geck, a former teammate and close friend of Rayburn’s. “We found out that when you lose someone, you remember them by the things that they loved.”
And so the Alex Rayburn Freshman Basketball Tournament was born. Geck put the event together with help from Alex O’Neill and Dan Ahern, also close friends and former teammates of Rayburn’s. Marin Catholic freshman coach Terry Ahern was also instrumental in coordinating and getting teams on board.
“This is something that Ray loved and we all loved each other and we did it together. It is a really great way to keep his memory alive and bring everyone together time after time and year after year,” said Geck. “Doing it last year was very hard, it was tough to keep bringing it back up but I think it’s very helpful to focus everyone’s energy towards this tournament.”
All proceeds from the tournament (entrance fees, t-shirt sales and snack bar items) benefit a scholarship for an incoming Marin Catholic student in honor of Alex Rayburn. This year’s recipient, Raul Rodarte-Garcia, was awarded $6,000 to help with his high school tuition.
“We wanted it to be open to boys and girls, it shouldn’t be a boy’s scholarship or an athletic scholarship, we were more concerned with character and service to the community,” Alex’s father Steve told me during a free moment at this year’s tournament. “Alex was somebody who would always stick up for other kids and not allow bullying.”
— Emily Van Buskirk (@Emilnem) June 26, 2016
The Rayburn family and Alex’s friends were especially happy to award the scholarship to Raul and his family.
“As it turns out, this student comes from a family who wouldn’t be able to come to Marin Catholic without the financial aide of Alex’s scholarship, so it means a lot to them and to us,” said Steve Rayburn.
In fact, Raul’s family was so grateful that they brought homemade tamales for everyone at the tournament and told Mr. Rayburn that they would like to volunteer to work next year.
The Rayburns were also surprised to meet the son of one of the paramedics/fireman who responded to Alex’s accident, as he happened to be in attendance on the first day.
“It was a chance to thank that family for coming to try to help him,” said Mr. Rayburn.
The kids that play in the tournament are also getting far more than basketball experience, thanks to some opening remarks from Alex O’Neill.
“I get through to them that these are going to be the people that are going to be your best friends because if this is a sport that you love you are probably going to end up playing four years of it together and that’s who you are going to hang out with,” O’Neill said of his speech. “That’s something I try to hammer home – just make sure you know that this is going to be your group and to really appreciate each other. I point out everyone in the gym that was part of our basketball team and 10 years later we are still here.”
While Ray’s teammates like to joke that their Varsity team underperformed as far as championship titles go, what they all got out of four years of playing basketball together at Marin Catholic is far more important than any trophy.
“At the time, when you are crying in the Redwood gym after losing to (rival school) Terra Linda by one point, that’s tough,” said Geck. “At the time, you are thinking ‘I can’t believe I did all this and then lost’ but as you get older you realize that it was something greater than just the basketball game that we were working towards. The Memorial Tournament and how we have supported each other the past 16 months has really shown that.”
Ray’s spirit lives on in the tournament – in the hopeful, determined freshman faces, in the friends and family members that volunteer and in the former teammates that come together to play an alumni game after the tournament’s championship game, in the very same gym they once played with their lost friend. They may be older, and slightly slower, but they can feel Ray’s smile just the same and hear the ghost of his giggle breaking the tension at the free throw line.
Alex Rayburn left behind a motto that his friends and family have taken to heart.
“Life is hard, be nice to people.”
It’s a simple yet effective way to live, both in sports and in life. And if Alex were here today, he would have some special words for the young men playing in his tournament.
“He would say you need to love what you do, love the people that you are with, let them know that as much as possible because when you are young, you just take everything for granted, you just think things will be,” Geck shared with me. “Then suddenly they are not. So be expressive and communicative and just do your best at whatever you are doing.”
And most of all, #DoItForRay.
Donations to the Alex Rayburn Memorial Scholarship can be made to:
Marin Catholic High School
Alex Rayburn Memorial Scholarship
675 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard
Kentfield, CA 94904
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.