MEMPHIS – At the beginning, we never really considered the end. We just wanted to get a dog. When we first met, her name was Star. We eyed each other through the wire grate on her cage, on what was basically death row of the dog shelter in East Harlem.
From looking at her, it was clear that Star was a grab bag of breeds. Her hair was too long and she didn’t smell great. She had a pronounced underbite and she was just a bit larger than the type of dog we were looking to adopt. Eventually, we took her outside to a play area, and when I sat down on the ground, she immediately hopped into my lap. She knew exactly what she was doing, because that sealed the deal.
A few days later, that shaggy dog and I walked out of the pound (although not before she stopped to poop in the lobby), slid into the backseat of a yellow taxi and rode across town to our fourth floor walk-up on the Upper West Side. Star bounded up the stairs so quickly that I had to run to keep up.
And so we had a dog.
She was ostensibly a birthday present for my fiancé, although getting a dog was something we both wanted to happen. We have always been dog people, and had lived together in New York for a few years without any pets or kids. We needed something to fill that void.
First, we needed to address the name. At the time, I worked at SLAM magazine as the online editor, and I was writing what were essentially daily blog posts (although the word ‘blog’ had not yet made its way into the lexicon). We wanted to give our dog a new name that was fun and unique, so I asked my readers, and a few people seized upon the obvious hoops angle and suggested Starbury. I had recently written my first SLAM cover story on Stephon Marbury and appreciated his style of play, so Starbury was the name we selected. (I had crowd-sourced my dog’s name before I knew what crowd-sourcing was, via a blog, before I knew what a blog was.)
Naming a female dog after a male NBA player led to occasional confusion when meeting strangers, but we didn’t mind. Starbury may not have been perfect, but she was perfect for us. She was fun and funny and full of energy, but she also loved dozing next to me on the couch while I watched Atlanta Braves games. She also loved snuggling in bed with us on cold winter nights. Like I do with pretty much everything else in my life, I flipped the experience into content, writing about her often. Despite the expenses and logistical headaches, she traveled with us all over the country—my go-to joke at airport check-in counters was that Starbury had Silver Medallion status.
In many ways, Starbury was our child before we knew what it was like to have a child, even if I didn’t really realize it until after we had an actual child. Growing up in Atlanta, my sister successfully petitioned my parents to allow us to get a dog, although my dad quickly assumed all of the duties commensurate with pet ownership: feeding; walking; cleaning up. My sister and I loved that dog, but neither of us ever really had full responsibility.
With Starbury, she was fully our responsibility. And if you’ve never owned a dog, oh man is there a ton of responsibility involved. Just walking Starbury twice a day required navigating 16 flights of stairs. We were constantly buying food, feeding her and cleaning up “accidents,” even the ones we knew weren’t accidents. Over the years, we probably spent more money on caring for Starbury than we did on visiting our parents.
I recall one time when Starbury and I were sitting on the couch and she started making a noise that I knew meant she was about to vomit. I looked around and didn’t see a towel or a rag, so I instinctively picked her up and held her over my chest so that my t-shirt would catch the mess. I realized later that making that sacrifice was basically what being a parent is all about.
I don’t know if there’s any experience that can fully prepare a person for parenthood, but owning a dog sure comes close. Starbury’s complete reliance upon us required our complete attention. We loved her fully, and she loved us back, in her own way. It didn’t matter how my day had gone, but every night when I came home, Starbury was there at the door begging to be picked up so that she could deliver some stinky licks to my face.
We loved Starbury even though we basically knew nothing about her. The paperwork when we picked her up had a birth date listed – we don’t know how accurate it was – which would have made her around a year old when we received her in 2002. The only hints we had to her previous life were that we discovered she had been trained to use the bathroom indoors on a pad, and whenever I played music with a lot of bass, she would hide under the couch. People constantly stopped us on the street to ask what breed she was, but we had no idea. One year for Christmas, my sister gave us a doggie DNA test, where you swab the dog’s cheek and send it away for testing. According to Starbury’s test, there was no primary DNA match, and the secondary matches were for a Chihuahua and a Golden Retriever.
Eventually, we moved to a first-floor apartment closer to the Hudson River that provided more space for Starbury to run. She loved to stalk pigeons she never actually caught, until one day when she jumped at one and it didn’t move, and she actually caught it. Starbury sat there atop the startled bird and looked around, unsure of what she was supposed to do next. As life moved along and family members passed away, Starbury provided us comfort and constancy. When my wife got pregnant, some sort of maternal instinct in Starbury seemed to kick in, and she would get in bed for hours next to my wife’s stomach.
And then, five years ago, we had a son. Even though I’d read plenty online about the ways to carefully integrate a baby into a home that already had a dog, Starbury was mostly nonplussed by our boy’s arrival. A peaceful detente existed for a few years, and then two years ago, just as our son got old enough to hug and play with a dog, Starbury started going downhill.
It was obvious something was wrong. She was throwing up and pooping more than usual, and after running some tests, the vet determined we needed to feed her special food to help her kidneys, which were beginning to fail. Despite my wife brushing Starbury’s teeth night after night, she would eventually need to have some teeth pulled, as well as a procedure to remove some cysts. It was like all the things you don’t like to associate with pet ownership started happening at once. Before long, her legs stopped working, which necessitated carrying her up and down even one step. I wondered if my son understood that having a pet could be fun.
Occasionally, she would summon a burst of energy and take off on a hobbled jog, or get frisky and want to fight over a toy with our son. She was a shell of the dog she used to be, but that shell still held many memories we savored.
We had a vague hope that our move last fall from New York City to Memphis would reinvigorate Starbury. We were going from a small apartment to a house with a yard. And when we moved in, I opened the back door and set her out in the grass. She tried to walk a bit, but her back legs wouldn’t cooperate, and she ended up kind of stuck sideways. She plopped down and sat there in the sunshine. And for a little while at least, she was perfectly fine with that station in her life.
A few days ago, my wife came home one afternoon and found Starbury sitting in a pile of her own poop and vomit, unable to extricate herself. And we knew it was time to make the appointment we did not want to make.
On Saturday morning, when it came time to take Starbury to the vet, my wife volunteered to make the trip. I would stay home with our five-year-old son, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to explain what was happening.
Before they left, everyone gave Starbury a big hug. My hand lingered on her back where her spine had become pointy, and I petted her once-soft hair, which had now turned wiry. As my wife drove away, and because I couldn’t bring myself to be completely forthcoming, I told my son that Starbury might not be returning from the vet.
“Why?” he asked.
Well, I explained, because she was very old and very sick, and the vet might need to keep her there for a long time to keep an eye on her.
I hoped this would give me cover to at least figure out how to talk about death with him. And heck, technically my statement was true — after all, we didn’t know for certain that the vet would recommend Starbury be put down. Perhaps they could administer some miracle drug that would make everything better.
About an hour later, my wife texted me that the vet felt it was time to put her down. Her kidneys had basically failed. Her back was a mess. This time, there was no getting better. And the family we had built over the last 16 years would now be forever different.
I called my son over and figured it was best to be direct.
“So listen,” I said. “Mommy just sent me a note to let me know that Starbury is not going to come home from the vet.”
I blinked back a tear. “Starbury died at the vet.” It felt so weird to say those words out loud.
“Well, Starbury was very, very, very old.”
“As old as Grammy?”
“Starbury was lots older than Grammy.”
My son paused for a moment, then brightened.
“Well, we could always get A NEW PUPPY!”
So he seemed ready to move on. For me, it wasn’t as easy. A few times later that day and in the days that followed, I found myself crying. Dozens of people sent condolences on social media and talked about remembering my Starbury stories from the SLAM days. Friends texted and left Facebook messages. Starbury had made an impact on many lives, not just ours.
Two days after Starbury died, my wife and son went out of town for a few days, leaving me home alone. Starbury’s presence may have diminished over the years, but having no presence from her at all was jarring. It was weird to cook dinner without having to step over Starbury, who spent her last few years skulking around the kitchen sniffing for any dropped proteins while I fixed dinner. At night, I looked around for her to carry her up to bed. But she wasn’t there.
At the end, it’s hard to remember the beginning. Because of the immediacy of her passing, it’s easy to think about what she became in her later years, and how those last few years were tough on all of us. But I’ll always remember Starbury as that shaggy, stinky, snaggletooth puppy who hopped into my lap and made her way into our hearts forever, even with all of her perfect imperfections.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.