The words echoed down the Rose Garden’s access tunnel, bouncing between concrete walls.
“Where’s Joey? Where’s Joey?”
LeBron James walked past the throng of fans who stood hoping for an autograph. The Miami Heat just blew a 13-point halftime lead in a 92-90 loss to the Portland Trailblazers Jan. 10. But something else was on James’ mind.
“I have to meet Joey,” he said.
James saw Joey Cawyer, a 23-year-old from Cheney, WA., confined to his wheelchair. James bent down and gave him a hug. He turned to the man’s mother and told her to stay strong.
Cindy Cawyer-Anderson quit her job months ago for a moment like this. She wanted to give her son the chance to meet his idol.
Two weeks later, Cawyer was gone.
“All he cared about was LeBron”
Friends called it a “bromance.” Family anointed them the “quad-pod.” Drew Peterson, Caton Oyolokor and Thang Nguyen grew up with Joey Cawyer. In Cheney, they spent hours arguing a simple question: LeBron or Kobe?
For Cawyer, the answer was easy: LeBron.
“He liked the fact that LeBron was raised by a single mom because Joey was raised by me – a single mom,” Cawyer-Anderson said. “I think he just liked his story because of that. He liked the way he played from the beginning.”
In April 2010, doctors told Cawyer he had stage IV brain cancer. The malignant tumor would launch an assault on his surrounding brain tissue. Doctors said the cancer would kill the former soccer player in a year.
Cawyer refused to slow down. He continued to play in Spokane’s annual 3-on-3 Hoopfest with his best friends, Peterson, Nguyen and Oyolokor despite the grim prognosis. Cindy Cawyer-Anderson said he would begin counting down to next year’s event the day after his team was eliminated.
“I’d say basketball was as important to him as soccer,” Drew said.
“It was just in his blood,” Cawyer-Anderson added. “He was just a huge NBA fan. He was just into sports since he was three. He loved it.”
As the cancer progressed – and James established himself as one of the most dominating players in NBA history – Cawyer became a bigger fan.
“You could tell when he was diagnosed, his passion for LeBron and basketball became so much more,” said Lindsey Peterson, a longtime friend. “I remember his first birthday the day after he was diagnosed. All he cared about was getting his jersey. All he cared about was LeBron.”
Drew Peterson understands the power of social media. An aspiring sportswriter at Washington State University, he wanted to fulfill one last wish for a dying friend.
Lindsey Peterson had logged onto her Facebook account and posted a message to a page representing James. She asked the NBA MVP to meet Cawyer when the Heat played the Trailblazers.
Drew Peterson had another idea: Twitter.
“After she made that Facebook post I made another Facebook post and just said, ‘Lets take it to Twitter,’” Peterson said. “Everybody #MeetJoey. We just got a few of our Facebook friends involved and then it took off.”
College basketball personality Dick Vitale, UFC fighters, Seattle Seahawk safety Jeron Johnson and Gonzaga basketball players Kevin Pangos and Sam Dower saw the hashtag movement and retweeted it within days.
People from around the country reached out to the trio, sending direct messages through the social media sites offering sympathy.
“We were getting 800 retweets and thousands of followers,” Lindsey said. “I don’t even know if they knew Joey.”
“I knew me and Thang got messages from people who were like, ‘Oh, I’m up in Alaska and I hope this #MeetJoey thing works out,’” she added. “This other guy is like, ‘Oh, I’m down in Florida and I’ve never met Joey, but I’ve been retweeting.’”
Oyolokor, living in Seattle to attend the University of Washington, had no clue his group of childhood friends were orchestrating a meet-and-greet with the most visible player in the NBA.
“Three people who hit me up who were UW students were like, ‘Hey, your friend in your picture – I’m seeing this thing about tweeting to see LeBron,” Oyolokor said. “In a way it was like how has this already traveled here? I guess the overall experience was surreal.”
One Last Road Trip
Cawyer-Anderson knew her oldest son had only a few days left to live. The cancer was progressing. He rarely spoke.
Cawyer-Anderson helped plan the trip to the Trailblazers game knowing Joey would soon have to enter hospice care. There was no guarantee he would get to meet his idol.
“I’m not sure,” Drew said when asked to reflect about the trip’s importance. “But for some reason Cindy and I thought that Joey was just hanging on so he could make that trip to possibly meet LeBron.”
In reality, James had no idea who Joey was as he sat and ate breakfast the morning of Jan. 10.
Enter Francine Hansen, ex-wife of billionaire hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen. The latter agreed in January to purchase the Sacramento Kings with the hope of moving the team to Seattle.
The former knew the right people within the Trailblazers’ organization. After a friend of Lindsey’s told her about Cawyer’s condition, she contacted Nguyen through Twitter a few days before the game.
“She has connections around the whole industry sports-wise,” Nguyen said. “She got in contact with the people who knew LeBron and she told them to have him check his Twitter.
“He checked it at breakfast.”
Francine Hansen spoke with the Trailblazers front office. She arranged tickets for the group as well as post-game access passes.
“You could tell that Joey wasn’t really there those last few days,” Drew said. “He wasn’t mentally there, but you could tell when LeBron came over, he knew who he was and was just kind of star-struck.”
It also gave Peterson and Nguyen a chance to share one last memory with a childhood friend. Their best friend.
They drove from Spokane in Nguyen’s Lexus the day of the game and met Joey and Cindy at the Trailblazers ticket office. Cawyer-Anderson’s voice quivered when she described the meeting that ensued. With the cancer progressing, Cawyer had struggled to speak in the last few days.
But now as James, and Heat teammates Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen, surrounded him, Cawyer found his voice once more.
“His eyes were just like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’” she said. “He smiled and he talked to LeBron. He hadn’t hardly been saying much of anything.”
Thirty-two months Joey Cawyer lay in bed at his Cheney home with a collection of family and friends by his side. Two weeks had passed. The 32 months of radiation, chemotherapy and countless doctor visits were over. “I was just sitting there literally waiting for my best friend to take his last breath,” Drew Peterson said. “I was just thinking of all the times we had together and how I would never be able to talk to or hang out with him again.”
The last time Joey spoke he told his mom he loved her.
He knew the cancer won.
Cawyer died Jan. 24, 2013.
“It was all so emotionally overwhelming and surreal,” Peterson said. “It just felt like a nightmare that I was about to wake up from. It still does.”
A Memorial to Honor
Last month, at a senior center in north Spokane, the friends gathered again to honor Joey’s life.
They spent two hours packed together to honor Joey’s impact on their own life.
“One of the things about Joey is that he loved without prejudice,” Cawyer-Anderson said.
“He loved his friends as close as anybody could love family.
”It was those friends who helped give Joey and his mom one final gift.
“It was honestly the last hurrah,” she said. “Joey only made it to Jan. 24 so it was honestly the last good thing that happened in his life.”
Inside the room hung Joey letterman’s jacket, twirling slowly from a string.
Not far beneath it was a black-and-red Miami Heat jersey.
The number on the back read “6.”
The name said “James.”