When her dad died in June, Shirley Wang promised herself to live less tethered – to be OK with risks and plan great adventures.
The 22-year-old had just completed her degree from Tufts University and spent the spring fretting over where to land next. She thought back to something her father, Lin Wang, had suggested as a post-graduation endeavor: move to his homeland, China.
So after the cancer killed him, Shirley Wang booked a one-way flight.
She had spent the two years since her dad’s diagnosis learning all she could from him: about his childhood in China, his life inside the Cultural Revolution and his immigrant community in Iowa City, Iowa, the events and experiences that shaped his life before she and her brother were born. Along the way, she used her skills from studying journalism to become her family’s memory-keeper.
She wrote her dad a short story about her dog Junior, a Shih Tzu whom he never wanted but who grew to be a comforting companion through all the pain. For Father’s Day, she asked friends and family from across the globe to send her 30-second video messages for her dad, which she compiled into a 20-minute film that he watched on repeat.
She queried her dad, a cat-litter chemist with a Ph.D., for the kind of information that didn’t come up in casual dinner conversation. She wanted to ask as many questions as possible, before he could no longer give her answers.
What came of her inquiries, her wish to remember, was published Saturday morning on NPR’s “Only a Game”: a story about her father’s unlikely friendship with NBA star Charles Barkley – one she and her family had dismissed as far-fetched until Barkley appeared at Lin Wang’s funeral.
Her dad had told versions of the story for years. She just never really believed him.
“Something like Charles Barkley showing up at your dad’s funeral, that’s a full perspective-shifter,” Shirley Wang said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, two days after her heartfelt tale swiftly went viral. “I knew there were a lot more questions I needed to be asking.”
— NPR's Only A Game (@OnlyAGameNPR) December 16, 2018
She spent the next few months being curious, revisiting the taped interviews she had conducted with her dad before he died, from the comfort of the couch in their family room. In China, navigating failed SIM cards and time differences, she talked to Barkley on the phone.
Last Friday, Shirley boarded a plane home to Iowa City for the holidays, landing the night before the story debuted on air. Lying in bed with her dog and her mom Saturday morning, she listened to herself, her dad and Barkley talk about the dear friendship that now bonded them all.
The package, told in words and sound, recounted how Lin Wang and Barkley came to meet in a hotel bar in Sacramento, California. Wang spotted the NBA Hall of Famer, introduced himself and asked to take a picture. The two kept chatting, first over drinks and then over dinner, about basketball and their children. Barkley felt Wang was genuine. Wang saw similarities in their life paths – born out of challenges, successful by perseverance.
Their friendship was fast and natural.
“Certainly, I told him I had a good time talking with him, hanging out with him,” Wang told his daughter. “He said the same thing to me, and he left the phone number. He said: ‘Whenever you’re in Atlanta, New York City or Phoenix, check out with me. If I’m in town, we’ll hang out and have a good time.'”
And they did – over dinner; during basketball games; on set with Barkley’s “Inside the NBA” co-hosts, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. In June 2015, when Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, died in his Alabama hometown, Lin Wang booked a flight and attended the funeral.
In an interview with Shirley this fall, Barkley explained his surprise when her dad showed up.
“You know, it was obviously a very difficult time,” Barkley told her. “And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re, like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’ ”
And three years later, when Barkley appeared at her own father’s funeral, Shirley was equally surprised.
“I was talking to my childhood friend when she suddenly looked stunned. I turned to look behind me,” Shirley wrote in her story. “And standing there – drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall – was Charles Barkley.”
Barkley had never met anyone else in her family, Shirley said, and yet he stood before them that day and delivered a eulogy about her dad.
When Shirley interviewed Barkley months later, she asked the NBA star what the two had talked about. His answer caught her off guard.
“The main thing we talked about was you and your brother,” Barkley told her.
Shirley told The Post that she had every intention of keeping the interview professional, but “it quickly turned into a conversation with one of my dad’s friends,” Shirley said. “Similar to my dad, Charles Barkley gave me a lot of advice.”
In the few days since her story was published, Shirley said hundreds of people have sent her personal, lengthy emails about their own grief and experiences with cancer. Strangers have sent her pictures of her dad and Barkley, more evidence of the friendship Lin Wang had so treasured.
“It’s such a simple story, a story that’s been part of my life,” Shirley told The Post, “and it’s just an added bonus that it has resonated with so many people from so many different corners of the internet.”
Shirley, I met your dad and Charles at a hotel randomly one night in Atlanta. Both Charles and your dad were extremely nice and a ton of fun.
Although our paths only crossed the one time, he seemed like a wonderful person. You wrote a beautiful tribute to your dad. pic.twitter.com/d3sMfggS88
— Brien Davis (@briendavis2) December 15, 2018
“I can’t believe I’ve made so many people cry,” Shirley told The Post. “I don’t know how to respond to that. I’ve wanted to give everyone a virtual hug.”
In the chaos of it all, Shirley said she is trying to stay focused on why she first set out to tell this story: to continue finding ways to learn about her dad’s life, even in his death.
“I’m just trying to take all these moments to talk to my dad and feel him with me and connect with him more,” she said, “so I can continue to understand.”