Cal center Kameron Rooks returns to the college home of his deceased father Sean Rooks, who passed away in June

California center Kameron Rooks has heard the words of his late father, Sean Rooks, in his ears as he's recovered from two surgeries in the past eight months, and now, he and the Bears return to his dad's collegiate home for the first time since his passing.

It's the middle of May. California seven-footer Kameron Rooks sits back in one of the middle lanes of Eagle Bowl, just around the corner from his mother's home in San Marcos, Calif.

His father, 12-year NBA veteran and former Arizona star Sean Rooks, is in rare form. 

"I can see him smiling, us having a good time as a family, again," Kameron says. "My parents are separated, but that was the first time we all got back together."

"Sean and I, we loved each other," says Susanne O’Brien, Sean's ex-wife, and Kameron's mother. "We just weren't good, married ... We’ve tried to get back together so many times, but we actually separated probably about 10 years ago. We had some get-back-togethers in between there, but we officially divorced probably six years ago.” This night, though, is a special occasion. Khayla, Sean and Susanne's 17-year old daughter, is getting ready for prom. It's an occasion few fathers would miss, and the 6-foot-10 Sean wasn't about to turn down the opportunity. But, before putting the fear of God into Khayla's prom date, he wanted to get a little goofy.

"He was hilarious," O’Brien says. "There was nobody in the bowling alley, but us, for the most part. We were kind of isolated -- maybe it just felt that way, because we were all in our own little bubble. He would point at fake people and pretend they were cheering for him. He was hilarious. He was in grand Sean fashion, that's for sure."

Of course, Sean is talking smack. It's something his son is used to. Every time Kameron's Bears have faced off against Sean's Wildcats over the last three years, there was plenty of pre-game trash talk on the phone, and over text. When Kameron was young, that competitiveness expressed itself in "grueling" basketball workouts at the local gym. 

“Honestly, there were times where you had to tell Sean, ‘Sean, he’s a kid,’" O’Brien laughs. "He was like, ‘I don’t care. He’s got to learn.’ Sean was one that said, ‘You’ve got to love the game, and if you love the game, you put your heart into it,’ that kind of thing. You would have to build Kameron back up, sometimes, like, ‘It’s OK, Kam, you did a good job,’ and Kameron would go in one direction, and I’d look at Sean, and go, ‘You’re an adult.’”

As hard as Sean could be on his son, on the court, off of it, he was a court jester.

“He was killin’. He was killin'," Kameron says of that night at the bowling alley. "He was talking trash to me, being dumb, being funny. He was just being a big goofball, like he always is.”

“Any time that he could win something, and talk crap, he was so competitive, and he was in his element, in that regard," O’Brien says.

Two weeks later, just after an interview with the New York Knicks, Sean -- who, after 12 years in the NBA, was rising up the coaching ranks, hoping to get a team of his own -- collapsed inside of a restaurant in Philadelphia. As he suffered a fatal heart attack, he was getting a call from the Knicks; they wanted to offer him the job as Director of Player Development.

On Saturday, both Kameron and his mother will return to the McKale Centre in Tucson, Ariz., for the first time since Sean's passing.

Kameron, in a phone interview this week from Tucson, speaks of his father in the present tense. "We all do," his mother says. There's good reason for that.

"He’s always been there for me, even when I’m having a hard time. He always knows what to say to cheer me up. He’s always positive," Kameron says.

Sean's most persistent advice to his son still echoes in his head: “'Enjoy life, and just trust the process. Everything happens for a reason,'" Kameron say. "Obviously, I just need to keep fighting, to keep overcoming these obstacles, and just focus on the positives in life, instead of the negatives. That’s what he really taught me: Just enjoy the process, and have a good time. Life is too short. Life is too short.”

The Meet-Cute

O’Brien played basketball in high school. She said proudly, in a phone conversation this week, that she held her own agains her future husband playing one-on-one, while they dated during college.

Hell yeah," O’Brien laughed. "He was vicious. I could relate to Kameron. I would go in, and he’d swat my shot off the walls. I would tease him: ‘You’re always trying to back me down, because that’s all you can do, is back me down.’” O’Brien had offers from a bevy of smaller schools coming out of high school, but she wanted the big-college experience, so she headed to Arizona, planning to just be a student. Nevertheless, she tried out for the Wildcats' women's team.

"In my first practice, I did all the running, and I did everything with the team, played a little bit, and I ran into the bathroom. I think I got hit on in the bathroom, which threw me, because I was from a small town, and I was like, ‘OK, that threw me,'" she said.

One coach, she said, told her that she was 'too pretty to play basketball,' and that she should 'pick a guy off the men's team and play basketball with him.'

"I was like, ‘Dang. That was rough.’ It should have been my call to say, 'Screw you; I'm going to play, and I'm going to show you,' but I decided to take his advice, and I went and found myself a guy off the men's team, and I was happier," she said, facetiously. 

For O’Brien, there was a mourning period for the loss of basketball in her life, and for two years, despite applying to the lottery for the right to buy student tickets, she didn't attend a single men's game. There was one man, though, who caught her eye.

In the middle of her sophomore year -- Sean's redshirt junior season -- the two crossed paths a few times on their way to class.

"He used to walk by me all the time, and I thought he was really special," O’Brien said. "I had a class in a different area of the school. We met in January, so classes had just changed and we had just started. I found out that he always crossed my path, so I would wait by the library, because he would always pass after this one class. One time, he came out and passed, and him and Wayne Womack were walking together from the library, and through this hall. They were both huge, and taking up all the room, so I busted through and said, 'Excuse me,' and broke through the two of them."

As O’Brien made her way to her car, she turned and batted her eyes in Sean's direction. It worked. He asked for a ride to practice, despite the fact that, at 6-foot-10, he barely fit into her Pulsar NSX.

"It was the tiniest car, and he folded up in my front seat -- it was just a little two-seater," O’Brien said. "His knees were up by his ears. I'm a Diet Coke freak, so I was like, 'I have to get a Diet Coke, so you're going to have to stop with me.'" 

Sean did just that, and paid for his future wife's beverage. 

"We got back in the car, and literally, I drove in a circle, because his practice was maybe another 10 steps away from where I picked him up," O’Brien said.

Sean asked for her number, and, O’Brien said, "That's all she wrote."

On the Road

Drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the 30th overall pick in 1992, Sean Rooks embarked on his professional career. O’Brien fell pregnant with Kameron while Sean was playing in Texas, and when he got traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1994, she went to Dallas and packed up his things for the move. That summer, the two wed.

From an early age, Kamron was a regular presence in NBA locker rooms. Following his stint in Minnesota, and then part of a season in Atlanta, Sean Rooks came back to his then-wife in Southern California, playing for three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. After a two-year stint back with the Mavericks, he played three more seasons in L.A., with the Clippers.

“He brought me in the locker room. I was a ball boy at one point, too, for the Clippers," Kameron said. "I was cool with Keyon Dooling and Wang Zhizhi, Corey Maggette. I was really cool with them. I liked them a lot, especially Keyon Dooling and Andre Miller.”

When his playing career ended, and he moved into the coaching ranks, Sean took an assistant job with the Bakersfield Jam, the NBA Developmental League affiliate of the Phoenix Suns.

"He was running back and forth. We were in Claremont at the time, and he was running back and forth basically between our house and Bakersfield," O’Brien said. “It was brutal. We even went to Bakersfield, me and the kids, and we went for Kameron’s birthday, actually, and we watched a game and everything, and then all of us went to Magic Mountain. It was on our way home.”

Still, whenever he was home, Sean made time for his children, teaching both the finer points of the game. Kameron, of course, ended up in Berkeley. 6-foot-1 Khayla, who has a photo of her and her father pinned to the top of her Twitter feed, has signed to play basketball for Washington, and is currently averaging 18.5 points per game for 24-2 San Marcos (Calif.) Mission Hills, the No. 33 team in the nation.

"When he was home, he would take me to the gym, and we would work out, and his workouts were brutal," Kameron said. "He was always finding ways to help me." 

A Team of His Own

As with his workouts with his son, Sean Rooks wanted to be able to keep up with his players, as a coach. In the months before his death, he'd lost weight and dieted. Knowing he had an enlarged heart, he was working to stay healthy not just for the sake of staying healthy, but so he could be on the floor with men half his age. Though he was still under contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, the team brass allowed him to interview for other jobs. He'd already gotten an offer to become the head coach the Charlotte Hornets' NBADL team. He'd served as an assistant in the NBADL with Bakersfield (now the Northern Arizona Suns), the New Mexico Thunderbirds (now the Canton Charge) and the Sioux Falls Skyforce, before a one-year stint with the Skyforce's parent club, the Phoenix Suns. For the past two years, he'd been an assistant for Philadelphia.

“He wanted his own team. He was a great coach," O’Brien said. "He was like, 'I've got to get on the floor with these kids, and they can't make me look stupid.' He was really trying, and he looked phenomenal."

He'd already been coaching Kameron his entire life, and as Kameron continued his collegiate career, his father would be coaching men just a few years older than his boy. Sean also had a steady hand when it came to the psychological side of the game. He was a major part of his son's recovery from his torn ACL as a sophomore. When Cal traveled to New York for the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden, Sean made sure to see his hobbled son, and go out for dinner.

“Whenever we traveled to the East Coast, he was always there," Kameron said. “We’d just have dinner, have a good night with each other. I remember seeing him in New York, and that was a really good time, too. Right after the game, I got to see him, got to go eat with him. He just told me to focus on my rehab, focus on my lifting, of course, because those are the things that are going to get me back even better. Also, he said, ‘Just trust the process. Everything happens for a reason.’ Sometimes, mentally, it was hard to do. Now, I see what he said: Enjoy the process, trust the process. You see Joel Embiid, he was out for two years, three years, and my dad was able to coach him, and now look at him – better than ever.”

Hard on Himself

Sean Rooks was relentlessly positive with his son, always upbeat. It was cruel irony, then, that he was relentlessly hard on himself. 

“I’m pretty sure [the heart attack] was because of all the stress he had," Kameron said. "Being away from the family, it does put a toll on your body. I wish I could have been there, more, for him. That’s what was going through my mind, was that I wish I could have cheered him up, and calmed him down, so he wasn’t as stressed. I didn’t know that was hurting his body.” 

“He says that all the time, and it breaks my heart," O’Brien said. "There’s nothing that Kameron could have done. Kameron, I think, sometimes, he felt that […] you always think that you didn’t do enough, or whatever, when something bad, like this, happens, and you wish and wish and wish you could have moments back, and you could shift it. All the things that Kameron went through, Sean had already gone through, so Kameron would call him and just be like, ‘Dad,’ and Sean would walk him through it, and tell him how to do something different on the floor, tell him how to talk shit to somebody who was bothering him, or, ‘You’re a big guy so you might have to mush a couple people along the way; it’s OK.’ Sean did a really good job of trying to be that guy."

Father and son shared more than just rare altitude. They also shared a hypercritical view of themselves. Yes, he was unfailingly positive and supportive, but, O’Brien said, that wasn't who Sean was, away from his children.

“He was kind of a negative guy about himself," O’Brien said. "I think, Kameron, his personality, is a lot like his dad’s, so he’s really negative about himself, so you find yourself always trying to be super-positive, to keep him up.”

That's what Sean did with Kameron. He did that by telling him to trust the process, "and enjoy the journey, yep," O’Brien laughed, recalling the same words that her ex-husband used to repeat to their son. That's what Sean told his son the day before his surgery, on June 6, 2016, to fix a stress fracture in his fifth metatarsal. After having missed a season with a torn ACL, working his way back into shape and dominating down the stretch as a redshirt sophomore, the injury was a setback.

The Worst Phone Call 

As Sean got on a plane from North Carolina to Philadelphia, after his interview for the Hornets' D-League job, he wept for his son.

“He was sobbing, sobbing," O’Brien said. "He called me, just sobbing. He said, ‘I’m so embarrassed, sitting on this plane and I can’t stop crying.’ I’m like, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ He said, ‘He’s worked so hard. I’m so sad. He just works so hard, and he’s come so far.’ He just broke down. He couldn’t control it.” Despite working on the East Coast, when Kameron underwent surgery for his ACL, Sean was there. 

"When we came through the doors, he was waiting in the waiting room, before we went in," O’Brien said. "We got to the surgery center, not expecting Sean. We were just going to check in, and there he sat, to make sure he was there for Kameron.”

He couldn't be there for his son's foot surgery, but he and Kameron did talk.

“The last time I talked to him was the day before my surgery," Kameron said. “We were mostly talking about, he said I was going to be alright, and everything was going to be good, that it was just another obstacle that I needed to overcome. Obviously, he said, ‘Trust the process, enjoy the process.’”

Sean then called O’Brien, both before and after the procedure.

"Usually, because Kam’s had a couple surgeries now, so when Kam goes into surgery, I’m usually freaked," O’Brien said. "We’d usually have conversations while I was waiting, and he would try to calm me down, and tell me it’s going to be OK.”

Kameron came through with flying colors, but he was in for a rough night. He couldn't get comfortable, and after sleeping in, O’Brien helped him find his way to the couch. She went and showered, then put on some sweats so she could take care of her seven-foot-tall baby boy. Sean had called her the Saturday before the surgery -- she was set to drive up in a rental car that Sunday for the procedure on Monday -- and told her he'd talked to the Cal coaching staff.

"He was like, ‘Suz, I’m calling you, so don’t kill the messenger,’" she said. "I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I don’t think the coaches want you to come, so maybe [...]’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I know you are not telling me not to go, and Kameron’s going into surgery.’ He was like, ‘Suz, I already told them. It’s a done deal. I told them do whatever you have to do; she’s coming.’”

So, there she stood, as her son stretched out on the sofa.

“I was in my house, sitting in my living room," Kameron said. "My mom just got out of the shower. She got the phone call, and I didn’t think she was talking about my dad."

Neither did O’Brien. After getting out of the shower, she saw that her ex-mother-in-law Deborah Brown had called. So had her own mother. She tried to call Brown back, but couldn't reach her.

“I called my mother back, and my mother was hysterical," O’Brien said. "She said, 'I have to tell you the worst thing I think I could possibly ever have to tell you.' Being a mom, I'm panicking."

Khayla Rooks, at the time, was staying with O’Brien’s mother at Kameron’s childhood home in San Marcos. O’Brien’s first thought was of her daughter.

"My heart was in my throat," O’Brien said. "She said, 'No, it's Sean.' I have a brother, Sean, so I said, 'What happened with Sean?' He's the one who has health issues and things going on, so he would be the more likely candidate for something to be wrong. Then, my mom said, 'No, not our Sean; your Sean.'"

O’Brien fell to the floor. Kameron hobbled over as fast as he could, fearing it was his uncle. 

"I'm so sorry," Kameron told his mother, holding her close.

"I'm like, 'No, baby, I'm sorry, because this isn't my brother. This is your dad,'" O’Brien said.

"She told me it was my dad, and we just started bawling," Kameron said. "We were worried about my sister, because my sister was at home, alone, and we called her, and it was just a mess. It was terrible.”

Everything, O’Brien said, was "falling apart around us."

Just two weeks after seeing her ex-husband so full of life, joking and capering around a bowling alley, the whole family together, she would now have to plan a funeral. First, O’Brien called her daughter, in the middle of the school day. Her first thought was to get home to comfort Khayla, but Kameron reminded her that social media would soon inform his sister of their father's passing. So, she picked up the phone and called.

Kameron called the coaches, and told them what had happened. He was headed home with his mother. Within 10 minutes, all four coaches -- Cuonzo MartinWyking JonesTim O'Toole and Tracy Webster -- were in their center's living room, helping to pack suitcases, giving both mother and son hugs, and helping to make arrangements for mother and son to get back to Southern California. 

They weren't done, yet, either. The coaching staff attended the funeral, as did teammates Roger Moute a Bidias and Jabari Bird, who were a part of Kameron's recruiting class.

“For them to drive all the way down there, that’s love, right there," Kameron said.

Sean Rooks was laid to rest two weeks after he passed, at Forrest Lawn Cemetery in West Covina, Calif.

The Bigger They Are

Kameron Rooks's father had helped him get through the trials of his ACL rehabilitation. Sean himself had never experienced that traumatic an injury, but he had torn his meniscus as a junior in high school. His words echoed in his son's head as he recovered from his foot injury, but there was another wound that was still fresh, one that no amount of weight lifting or agility work could help heal.

As Cal readied for the 2016-17 season in October, Kameron ran into one of his father's former teammates, Steve Kerr, at Cal graduate student manager Nick Kerr's birthday party.

"I saw him, and he said that he was sorry for my loss," Kameron said. "I remember him and my dad talking it up on the sidelines at my high school games, in San Diego."

The condolences were well taken, but even with his mother's basketball experience, there was a hole that was just too big to fill.

“I’ve had many, many times where I’ve broken down," Kameron said, including after one of his first practices back, after recovering from his foot surgery. "There was a time right after practice, where I started walking home, and I just burst into tears, because he’s the first one I’d want to talk to, and he’s not there. That made everything even worse. I love my mom, but it’s just not the same.”

Sean and O’Brien had always played good cop-bad cop. Sean would say she was too soft, that she was always "mom-ing" Kameron. She'd tell him that he was too hard. After Sean's passing, she had to take on both roles.

"We did a good job of equaling each other out," O’Brien said. "I remember, in those conversations with Kameron, trying to be harder and tougher, and being more up-front. He's just trying to recover and get back into the swing of things, and I couldn't really tell him how that feels, like his dad would be able to. I can tell him the same stuff -- Trust the process."

Kameron poured himself into basketball, focusing on the game his father loved. Rehab was therapy, weight lifting was release and practice, his sanctuary. He wanted to get back on the floor to work out his frustration, to go through a very different process -- the grieving process -- and prove to his father that he could do him proud.

Then, four games into the season, Kameron -- who had already had some pain and swelling in his knee -- went up for a rebound near the end of a 71-61 win over Wyoming. He couldn't get any lift. It felt, to him, like his whole leg had gone dead. He tried ice, and then a knee sleeve, going back onto the floor, but he had no lift in his legs, still.

The diagnosis was a torn meniscus. It wasn't nearly as bad as was feared, but nevertheless, O’Brien and her son broke down and cried, and the two held onto one another in the Haas Pavilion training room.

It was all too much. Between his foot, his father, and his knee -- the same one he'd had surgically repaired -- Kameron was taking hit after hit after hit. He would need surgery, and would be out, again, four to six weeks.

To lift her son's spirits, O’Brien took Kameron, her mother Roberta, her niece Meghan and Kameron's girlfriend Kristina, to see the Pixar movie, Moana, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

"It was the best thing we ever did," she said. "I wanted to see a different movie, and he said, 'No, mom, let's go see Moana.' So we went to go see Moana. We had to bolt up the medicine chest that night, and he was like, 'Let's go to the movies.' He wanted to see Moana. My kids are 21 and 17, but they love stuff like that. In Moana, Moana loses her grandma, and has a huge connection with the grandma, and the grandma says to her, 'No matter what, you always have to follow your dreams, and know that I'm always with you.' We all left that movie bawling our faces off, and realizing that we were meant to be in the theater at that time, watching that movie."

Finding His Footing

Even staggered, Kameron felt his father's hands pull him back up.

Just enjoy the process, and have a good time. Life is too short. Life is too short.

“It was in the back of my head, but at the same time, I was obviously still bummed out that I wasn’t able to play half the season, because I wanted to play for him," Kameron said. “This was also in the back of my mind: He wouldn’t want me beating myself up, just because I got hurt. He’d want me to just keep working, and keep grinding.”

There were days where it was tough to get out of bed, during the 10-game stretch he missed, from Nov. 27 through Jan. 1, but his father's voice put his feet on the floor, and kept him moving forward. “Just the thought of him, I know he’s watching down, right now, and I know he wouldn’t want me to be in my bed, feeling sorry for myself, thinking, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’" Kameron said. "Don’t get me wrong; I have my bad times, and that’s why I have coach Martin and coach Wyking, and coach O’Toole. They’ve been helping me a lot. They’ve been helping me with my mind, all the coaches have been doing it, doing a good job helping me. I’ll go and visit them, go and talk with them after the game, and then they’ll give me advice, just like Dad did. They stepped up big time, and helped me with my mentality, and helped me to keep plugging away.”

Martin routinely checks in on Rooks, who's man enough to admit there have been tears, just not in front of Martin.

"I just can't cry in front of coach, you know?" he laughed.

"After he had his knee surgery, all the time, I tell him that he has to build on each day," O’Brien said. "You can't think that you're going to have surgery, and a month later, you're going to be back on the floor, just like you were, before. Life doesn't work like that. I just reiterate everything Sean has always said: Trust the process. Enjoy the journey."

That journey now takes Kameron back to where his parents' story began: the Arizona campus. The Wildcats, battling to stay atop the Pac-12, will honor their former first-team All-Pac-10 forward.

"There is a plan to somehow incorporate Sean into our usual customized pregame intro video," said Arizona basketball media relations staffer Matt Ensor.

As soon as Kameron learned that, he texted his mother.

"I said, 'How do you feel about that?' He said, 'I'm OK. I was texting because I was more worried about you,'" O’Brien said. "I said, 'I'm going to be fine.'"

O’Brien will be there for her son. It's appropriate, because it was at Arizona that she met Sean.

“It’s going to be crazy, because, after the game, if we beat them, I can’t talk smack to him, you know?" Kameron says. "He’s always rooting for me, but he’s also rooting for Arizona, you know. He’d want me to win, but if I lose [to Arizona], then he’ll be happy, as well. He would just say that he was proud of me, and how I played well defensively, whenever we went up against Arizona in a game we lost. He was very proud of the way I played, and obviously, we’d exchange some words. I’d say, ‘Aw, Arizona ain’t that tough,’ and we’d just talk trash to each other.”

The emotion of the night will add to an already intense atmosphere. Twice in the last three years, Cal has upset the Wildcats, notching season-defining wins in the process. Now healthy, Kameron Rooks -- who, over the final 11 regular season games last year, pulled down an average of 7.2 rebounds and shot 60.5% from the field -- will be aiming to give his team another stretch-run boost. He's done what his father told him: He's trusted the process -- both in the training room, and in grief -- and despite taking some heavy blows, he's enjoyed the journey.

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