Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: A Source Of Light
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
They will lay her to rest on Saturday in Cleveland, a city for which she worked and where her son was a star high school athlete.
David Lighty and mother Emily on senior day.
Photo by Jimi Davidson
There will be profound sadness, but those who knew Emily Lighty also know David Lighty and have realized for years they are virtually one and the same.
Because David is so much like his beloved late mother – her warmth toward others, meaningful actions, positive outlook and radiant smile so woven into her only son – he somehow will still find joy this week and every one following.
David Lighty doesn’t do depression and self-pity because Emily Lighty never believed in it, wouldn’t allow it to permeate into her household.
Ohio State fans recall David dealt with two eerily similar setbacks during his time in Thad Matta’s basketball program. He broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot in December 2008, and the Buckeyes realized his worth on the floor the hard way as they missed out on the NCAA Tournament that next March and were left to go after the NIT crown.
Lighty vowed to overcome the injury and to put purpose to it. He did just that. After being granted a medical redshirt, he worked diligently to return and became a better offensive player, a reliable double-figure scorer in support of Evan Turner, who was much more proficient from the three-point line.
In May 2010, however, Lighty broke the same bone, even though a pin had been inserted during the first procedure. Just as he did the first time, he trudged forward without complaint and found the upside to the situation.
Lighty’s chance to close out his five-year career – which began as a role player for the 2006-07 national runners-up – on a high note and with a talented freshman class headlined by Jared Sullinger was in jeopardy, and Matta clearly was concerned.
But Lighty didn’t flinch, and again he came back stronger.
He did the same thing in high school. Lighty committed to Ohio State in 2005 and was named the area player of the year by the Cleveland Plain Dealer that year, but he also suffered a torn ACL as a junior at Villa Angela-St. Joseph. He carried his team all the way to the state finals as a senior despite the slow recovery.
I remember asking Matta just before the 2010-11 season – one that turned out to be as enjoyable as any I have seen in 25 years of covering OSU basketball – if he had ever seen Lighty’s spirits down. He paused for thought and said he had not.
It turns out Lighty didn’t even have a choice.
David is Emily, and Emily’s wonderful resolve was always entrenched in her son.
“This poor kid, he works so hard and he has to keep taking these hits,” Emily told the Plain Dealer in 2010. “He’s had things thrown at him so often, but he keeps getting back up. I told him this setback is nothing but a setup for a comeback.”
So with deep condolences and an apology for the timing, I called David this week and asked him about his mom’s influence on his unshakable optimism.
“That’s her; that’s her personality,” he told me. “That’s just her thing. She was a light, as people have been telling me. The last name, Lighty, is just perfect for her, because she was a light in people’s eyes.
“She would look for the best in things, and that’s why I’m so optimistic, because of her. She believed there was a bigger meaning to everything. So now it’s on me to try to find that. Because the way I am is all due to her and I know that’s what she’d want me to do.”
Emily Lighty passed away on Saturday due to a cancer-related illness. She was just 52 years old.
A Year Of Struggle
Emily was a working mom. She was a marketing manager for the city with particular responsibility for the Cleveland Division of Police. She was no longer with David’s father, David Lighty, Sr., but the two got along well enough to sit next to each other at Ohio State games.
An adoring Emily Lighty shares the emotion of senior day with her son..
Photo by Jim Davidson
Her life was about her work, her family and the son she adored. She was also was active. In fact, when she began to experience back pain in January of last year, no one became too alarmed.
“We thought it was a bulging disc she got from doing workouts and things like that,” David said.
Still, Emily decided to go to Europe to hang out with David, who was playing on his second professional team in Italy last season. They walked around sightseeing together and she attended his games.
She even went to see her son play in an exhibition game this past summer at St. John Arena pitting lots of former Buckeyes and professional players from Cleveland and Columbus. There was no air conditioning in the building and the players and fans (and reporters such as the somehow less sweaty Brandon Castel seated next to me) dealt with sweltering conditions.
Emily was seated just in front of us and looked gaunt. It was clear something was going on with her health.
David said her pain persisted and the shots she was taking that were supposed to give her some comfort weren’t helping.
In late September, right around Emily’s 52nd birthday, her condition worsened, and doctors ordered her to undergo a battery of tests.
On Oct. 25, a full diagnosis emerged. Cancer.
Just a few month’s later, 24-year-old David was without his mother, his best friend, his light.
I asked him if he planned to speak at the funeral service for his mom on Saturday.
“I don’t know about that one,” he said. “That’d be pretty tough.”
A Constant Presence
What isn’t difficult is recalling the good times, the memories that won’t ever wander away.
Dave has one that is hard to top.
Ohio State entered the 2011 NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 team in the country and the top overall seed, and as a reward the Buckeyes got to open play at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. David got to play a pair of games there before a mass of family and friends and the Buckeyes were on top of their game.
OSU wiped out Texas-San Antonio by 29 points in Friday’s action, and Sunday was even better. Lighty and teammates Jon Diebler, Dallas Lauderdale and Nikola Kecman all received their college degrees that day and the Buckeyes went on to throttle eighth-seeded George Mason 98-66.
Emily Lighty snaps a picture of David Lighty following the George Mason Game.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Lighty had a huge hand in the romp. He not only scored 25 points he also canned 7 of 7 three-point attempts to set a school record. Directly after the blowout and going through the handshake line, Dave bee-lined to the stands to embrace his mother.
It was one of the best moments I’ve ever witnessed in sports.
“That was pretty much my last home game, you could say, in college,” he said. “It being here, the city I grew up in, was just perfect.”
The standing of the program at the time, the level of play reached that day, the postseason setting, the family support surrounding the team that Emily helped create, and four players earning their degrees on top of it all, it all makes March 20, 2011 an apex moment for Ohio State basketball in a generation.
Athletic director Gene Smith recently cited that day in announcing a pay increase for Matta.
Here is what I wrote about the George Mason game at the time. I asked Dave if he’d ever had a better moment in his life.
David and Emily Lighy share an embrace after the George Mason game.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Basketball life, no,” he said. “That’s it. That and Senior Night.”
Not coincidentally, his parents were on hand for that game as well.
In fact, Emily and Dave Sr. went to the vast majority of their son’s home games at the Schottenstein Center and to just about all the away games that were drivable, too.
“That was a huge factor in me picking Ohio State, so my mom could come down and see me play,” Dave said.
While other players sometimes try to mask their affection for their mom or how much they miss home so as not to be teased by teammates, Dave never cared about the flak. In reality, they quickly grew to love Emily, too – and they certainly liked her hospitality.
She and her mother, Grandma Lighty, sent food down to the Buckeyes last season even while Dave was playing overseas. Emily also attended William Buford’s senior sendoff despite her back pain.
“There were so many great groups of guys that came through, but this is just such a special group,” Emily told the PD as the Buckeyes prepared to head to the 2012 Final Four. “That group of guys was the best, most sweet and respectful and kindest group of young men of all the years I was there. I became pretty fond of all of them.”
Dave never expected to go through more injuries and an extra year of college, and he certainly didn’t expect he’d be saying goodbye to his mother this soon. But Emily was there for his entire childhood and formative years. She became a big part of his college experience as well, leaving an indelible mark on her son and those around him.
“I have a lot of comfort in that,” Dave said. “And it’s not over yet, either. I promised her some things, so she’s still pushing me to accomplish my goals and be a better person. She’s still here with me, that’s all.”
One of those goals was to buy her a house. Another was to go as far as he could in the sport of basketball.
“She wanted to see me play my best, and in my mind that means the NBA. It just motivates me even more.”
Honesty, Integrity and Respect
Dave is now in his second full season of professional basketball and is the leading scorer for a top-level French team, JFS Nanterre. He leads the squad in scoring at 13.9 points per game and is shooting an impressive 55.1 percent from the field, including 42.6 percent from three-point range.
Despite Lighty’s star status, team officials allowed him to return to the States when it was apparent his mother’s condition was grave.
“They were great about it, which is one thing I was very happy about,” he said. “Actually, I was supposed to leave on Sunday to come home. They had sent up a plane ticket for me to come home, but I got a call saying I should probably come home earlier, and that same day I called them and told them I need to change my ticket to Thursday and I ended up missing the game that we had Saturday. They were real understanding of it.
“That’s one thing that you pretty much don’t get a lot of overseas. Sometimes it’s a lot of trouble to do something like that with teams over there because of the way the contracts are written. But they were real understanding of it. They’re a family-first organization, as they say. I’m just grateful that they allowed me to come home.”
Nanterre actually doesn’t play again until Feb. 23, which means Lighty may be afforded more time to be with his remaining family. His thoughts between now and then will be dominated by memories of his mom, and they will keep the trademark smile on his face.
“There are so many,” he said. “But one of the things that stands out is she always told me, ‘honesty, integrity and respect.’ Those are the three things in life I had to have if I wanted to be a great man. That’s what she told me. So that’s what I tried to live by.”
Emily always wanted her son to try to make informed choices and grow from them. So when Matta was pushing for Dave to commit to Ohio State and get the ball rolling on what turned out to be the top-rated recruiting class in the country, she allowed him to process the decision.
“First, we put everything in God’s hands so He could guide me to the right decision, the right choices and give me wisdom,” Dave said. “But she gave me my own freedom to choose. She gave me her input, her thoughts on stuff, of course.
“She felt the same way I did about Ohio State and, as you can see, she loved it just as much as me.”
Soon after graduating from VASJ, Lighty did something completely out of character and created headlines for the wrong reasons. He and a couple buddies decided to fire off a pellet gun and Lighty happened to hit a 55-year-old jogger at the school’s outdoor track.
Officers made arrests and Buckeye fans were left wondering what kind of kid Matta had recruited to the program.
“The maddest she’s ever been at me in my life,” Lighty said with a laugh. “She was so mad she didn’t say anything. So when I saw she was like that, I knew I let her down. That one was tough for me.”
The case didn’t go to court until after Lighty’s freshman season at OSU. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, apologized publicly and even made sure to shake the hand of the victim.
“That’s her, too,” he said. “That was me wanting to own up to everything that happened, but that was because of her. With every action, there’s a reaction, she always told me. There are consequences and repercussions for what you do, so if you live up to them then you go from there.”
Never To Be Forgotten
Lighty went on to a magnificent career at Ohio State, breaking the record for most games played and registering 1,458 career points, which ranks 20th on OSU’s all-time list. He also gained a well-earned reputation as a topnotch defender, someone who could shut down any opposing player at any position.
But Lighty’s top accomplishment was being a part of more wins than any other player in the history of the program.
“I have said this, I think David Lighty will go down as the most underrated player to ever play at Ohio State,” Matta said a couple years ago.
“The things that he brings to this program, all the intangibles he brings, he is definitely one of my all-time favorites that I’ve coached anywhere.”
And Lighty did it all without a me-first attitude, exactly as his mother required.
Matta was so fond of Lighty’s willingness to exert himself, lead others and lift the morale of the team that he once raved that the university should build a statue to honor him.
If that statue is ever built, it will have to include room for mention of David’s mother, who became the unofficial team mom during one of the greatest eras of Ohio State basketball.
David is a giving person because Emily was a giving person, and he learned the value of that in how people responded to his mom. More reminders of her kindness and reach have flowed in this week.
When I asked Dave if he’s heard from some of his former teammates after news spread of his mother’s death, he said, “All of them.”
One of their fondest memories is when Mama Lighty cooked a massive meal for the entire team and their families during the NCAA stopover in Cleveland.
What was on the menu?
“A little bit of everything, really,” Dave said. “We had spaghetti, different kinds of chicken, a little bit of pasta alfredo. And every time there was a home game (after that), food was being brought down.”
David chuckled at the end of his sentence, but you could hear him trail off.
Another wonderful memory. Another reason to miss “Mama.”
*For information about services for Emily Lighty, or to pay your respects online, go to the following link: Lighty obit.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.