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Benefield: Former Warriors player, local basketball talent get a reunion 17 years in the making

Bobby Sharp shot nearly 87% from the free-throw line his senior year at the University of Portland. His pre-shot routine was not typical: No dribbles, just a couple of deep breaths and release. Almost nine times out of 10 it would go in for the guy wearing No. 11.

He’d been shooting foul shots like that since he was 10 years old.

HHHHHH

When asked last week about the period, almost 17 years ago to the day, that his son was stricken, Bobby’s dad, Phil Sharp, remembers some things, but others have been lost to time. He remembers Bobby, 10 years old, being in such pain, he had to carry him through the doors of the hospital. He remembers the helicopter flight to Oakland Children’s Hospital. He remembers the care his son received, but not a lot of the details about what procedures were done and when.

Sudden pneumothorax. Intubation. Ventilators. A chest tube inserted between Bobby’s ribs. Intensive care for six days.

“Everything is kind of a blur around you,” he said.

Phil and his wife, Sue, didn’t know, but their son had a unique type of asthma. An active kid from the moment he could walk, he had never shown any signs of the condition.

Once he was out of intensive care, Bobby Sharp was moved to a different floor of the hospital. He started to feel stronger. So much so that the days of bed rest started to test his patience. He played cards with his 12-year-old sister, Katelyn. He visited with cousins and grandparents who, it seemed, made the daily trek from Santa Rosa to Oakland. And he watched basketball. The Golden State Warriors in particular.

The Sharps were not a ?sports-crazed family, which made Bobby Sharp’s sports obsession mildly amusing to all. He didn’t play with trucks and tools as a toddler; he bounced balls.

So when Phil Sharp got a call saying that a friend of a friend had contacted the Warriors’ brass to see if they could do something for Bobby, he didn’t say a word to his son. If it didn’t work out, he knew Bobby would be devastated. Phil and Sue stayed quiet.

Bobby was playing cards with his sister and cousins in his hospital room when there was a knock at the door.

“In walks Earl,” Phil Sharp said.

HHHHHH

Earl was Earl Boykins, the diminutive Warriors point guard with an outsized talent.

“He comes walking in and Bobby just looks up, eyes wide,” Phil Sharp said. “Earl says, ‘Hey, do you know who I am?’ Bobby says, ‘Yeah, you scored 28 against the Timberwolves last night.”

Bobby Sharp proceeded to remind Boykins that he also had eight assists and was a perfect 7 of 7 from the free-throw line - shooting in his no-dribble, deep-breath routine. Boykins, rest assured, was impressed.

“He knew everything,” Boykins said. “That really stands out to me. A lot of people say they are fans, but offhand, to just tell you your stat line?”

Reached by phone this week, Boykins -who is now working for his old Warriors head coach Eric Musselman with the University of Arkansas men’s basketball team - said when the Warriors required players to do a certain amount of community service, he always chose Read to Achieve or visiting hospitals. The other options, building houses, scared him.

“That was never an option,” he said, laughing. “I’m not doing that one. I was terrified.”

So when a staffer asked who wanted to go to Children’s Hospital to meet a super fan from Sonoma County, Boykins raised his hand. When he walked into Bobby Sharp’s room carrying a basketball signed by all of the 2002-03 Warriors, it was the brightest anyone in the Sharp family had felt in what seemed like forever.

“It was extremely emotional,” Sue Sharp said. “It was everything. You just have to know Bob. At two years old he was bouncing a basketball. He knew the whole team. He watched them all of the time. To have one actually walk in, it was everything, especially at that time. It’s hard to say - it meant everything to him, so it meant everything to us.”

Today, Boykins remembers feeling for Bobby’s parents.

“When you walk in the room, the parents are excited, the children are excited, but the reality is, this is not a place you want your child to be in. It’s not a place any parent wants their child to be in,” he said.

So Boykins tried to put everyone at ease. It turns out that his visit had interrupted a card game between Sharp and his cousins. Whatever the game, the Sharps are pretty sure their neighbors made it up, so the rules had to be explained. Boykins sat down for a hand.

“He jumps on my cousin’s team,” Bobby Sharp said. “He went to the other team to go against me. It was probably the first time I was able to feel competitive again.”

Kindred spirits. They battled.

When the Warriors rep who came with Boykins tapped his watch or in some other way indicated that he had done his time and should make his way out, the point guard waved him off.

“He just turns around and says, ‘I’m going to stay until I win,’” Bobby Sharp said.

HHHHHH

Bobby Sharp recovered. He still had to deal with his asthma, but he never again suffered an attack like the one that felled him when he was 10. And he continued to play basketball and he continued to play it extraordinarily well.

He started all four years he played varsity basketball at Cardinal Newman and was twice named the North Bay League’s Most Valuable Player. He suited up at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he was the Big 8 Conference Player of the Year and an all-state first-teamer. He shot 88% from the foul line. His number? 11.

Earl Boykins wore No. 11 his entire career. Eastern Michigan University, where Boykins was an All-American honorable mention pick and earned a degree in communications, retired No. 11 in 2011.

“He was such a hero to me from such a young age,” Sharp said. “He’s 5-5 and playing in the NBA … he overcame stuff, too.”

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Fast-forward to last week. Or perhaps some time before. Alec Kobre, another local great who played with Sharp at SRJC before starring at the University of the Pacific, texted Sharp. Kobre, in his first year as a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas, had news for his buddy.

The message? Arkansas basketball had just hired Earl Boykins.

“I looked at my phone like 20 times before I responded to him,” Sharp said. “It all just kind of aligned.”

For Sharp to come to Arkansas and reunite with Boykins was now a must.

“I knew he really liked Earl Boykins,” Kobre said. “I have been friends with him for a long time, but he didn’t tell me how that impacted him.”

And Sharp hadn’t told Boykins, either.

Sharp and Kobre planned the visit for Martin Luther King Day weekend, both for the extended weekend and so they could watch the Razorbacks host the University of Kentucky on Saturday, Jan. 18. The plan was for Sharp and Kobre to watch the 49ers’ divisional playoff game at a watering hole on Sunday. Boykins said he’d swing by.

So on Jan. 19, almost 17 years to the day from their first meeting, Earl Boykins walked back into Bobby Sharp’s life.

HHHHHH

“To know that I was able to do something for someone 17 years ago and how much it meant not only to him but his family?” Boykins said. “It’s very humbling. It’s hard to describe. It’s hard to put into words.”

Boykins said he often left the kind of hospital visit he shared with Sharp just praying the kid would be OK.

“You just pray that they are healthy,” he said. “You don’t think about anything other than that they are able to live a normal life.”

So to catch up with Sharp, the once-sort-of feeble-looking kid in a hospital room, and see a 6-foot, two-inch sharpshooter who worked his way into a starring role at a Division I program, kind of blew Boykins away.

“It’s hard to become a Division I athlete,” he said. “To become a Division I athlete from where I saw him? It’s unbelievable. I was probably just as excited as him to just hang out.”

So they did. They watched the 49ers. They caught up. But Sharp wanted to make sure he didn’t miss his moment to tell Boykins what the former NBA player, and that visit 17 years ago, meant to him.

“I had always wanted to reach out and thank him for how big an impact he made on me. He probably didn’t know,” he said. “I wanted to thank him for myself and for my family and all that he meant to us.”

He was nervous. It’s not hard to feel those things, but it can be hard to say them.

“To me, he had always had a calming sense even when he talked to me when I was a little kid and was going through the worst of it,” Sharp said.

Boykins just let him speak.

“He’s a humble guy,” Sharp said. “I told him all those things and he said, ‘Man, you don’t need to thank me at all.’”

HHHHHH

Phil Sharp readily admits he was never too much of a sports guy until Bobby came along. Still, as Bobby recalls, his dad would spend long hours on the driveway, rebounding for his son.

So Phil Sharp recalls pondering, as many parents do, about professional athletes and to whom and how much kids should look up to them.

“People fall in love with sports and maybe it’s not as pretty as you think it is, as far as the professional end of it,” he said. “Maybe you worry they idolize them too much. But here’s this man, who has a great NBA career and is just a great guy. Those two things can both be true.”

At 10 years old, Bobby Sharp was meeting a hoops idol, maybe picking up a foul-shooting tip and adopting a jersey number, but Phil Sharp saw something more.

“You really don’t know what the future is going to be for him, and somebody wants to do something fabulous? Somebody that Bobby loves?” he said. “Oh my gosh, it meant the world.”

Returning to those memories isn’t easy for the Sharps. That was a scary time, but both Sue and Phil Sharp have no problem recalling how Boykins’ visit impacted their son and touched them.

“It’s 17 years later and it’s still impactful,” Phil Sharp said. “It was not a small thing for us.

“This is just a great thing that there are good people out there,” he said. “He was just a good example for Bobby in how to live his life.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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