The Wonderful, Unlikely Friendship Between an NBA Star and a Cat Litter Researcher

Proof that you can find friends in all kinds of places.

Charles Barkley, right, and Lin Wang, second from right, on the set of TNT’s NBA postgame show, "Inside the NBA."Courtesy of Shirley Wang

Lin Wang was known for talking rubbish at times, but he was right about having a good friend in Charles Barkley, the retired NBA star. A cat litter scientist, Wang struck up the unlikeliest of friendships with Barkley—and both came to each other’s side when it mattered.

When Barkley’s mother died two years ago, for instance, Wang flew from Iowa to Alabama for the funeral. “Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing,” Barkley told Wang’s daughter, Shirley, who produced this intensely personal radio story for NPR’s Only a Game. “I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.'”

It’s an incredible story, too, that began when Wang spotted Barkley in a Sacramento, California, hotel bar. One drink turned into a meal, and dinners for two days after that, and get-togethers in other towns. They talked about pride in their kids and difficult upbringings, and they found they had, surprisingly, a lot in common. One hope they shared: If they worked hard enough, the color of their skin wouldn’t matter.

Their friendship continued until the very end, when Lin contracted terminal cancer. Last June, as Shirley and her family sat at his funeral service at a house outside Iowa City, a 6-foot-6-inch friend of her father’s walked in—and comforted her.

raft of readers praised and comforted Shirley after the 14-minute story aired last Saturday. She tells me she has been humbled by the outpouring. The recent Tufts University grad had taken a semester off school and cut short an internship to be with her father, and now she feels like he left her the gift of his spirit and his story. “I feel like I can dream big now,” she said.

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  • Celebrating bravery. Christine Blasey Ford kept a low profile after her testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. That was, until last week, when she made one of her first public statements at a Sports Illustrated ceremony honoring Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse serial sexual predator Larry Nassar. She told Denhollander via video: “You galvanized future generations to come forward, even when the odds are seemingly stacked against them. The lasting lesson is that we all have the power to create real change.” (Mother Jones)
  • A real tech pioneer. Evelyn Berezin, who died December 8 at age 93, invented and marketed the world’s first computerized word processor. Without Berezin, “there would be no Bill Gates, no Steve Jobs, no internet, no word processors, no spreadsheets; nothing that remotely connects business with the 21st century,” British writer and entrepreneur Gwyn Headley said in 2010. (New York Times)
  • Hands on. A violence intervention program offering mentoring and other free services has led to a dramatic reduction in youth homicides across the United States. The program, called group violence intervention, has been successful in several cities and is now being studied by European countries as well. (The Guardian)
  • Wiping out school lunch debt. One student was told she might not walk at graduation because her family had $300 in school lunch debt. In five days, parents and others raised funds to erase the debt for her and 514 other students in the Stow-Munroe Falls, Ohio, school district. “Every kid should be able to eat lunch,” said Heather Walter, one of the organizers. “No kid should be able to feel they’re putting their family into debt by eating a grilled cheese sandwich.” Thanks to reader Connie Schultz for this story suggestion. (Akron Beacon Journal)
  • Real lives. One photographer chronicles migrants waiting at the US-Mexico border—and finds hope, ambition, and a desire to prove themselves capable and worthy of a new nation. (Washington Post)

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