A handful of Mike Whitmarsh’s friends went ahead with plans to hook up last Friday and have some fun watching the PGA’s Northern Trust Open event at Riviera Country Club in the Pacific Palisades.
Smoke some cigars. Have a few beers. Enjoy each other’s company. Then head over to the Laker game.
Whitmarsh wasn’t able to join them.
What his pals believe is an apparent accidental suicide messed up his plans. He was 46.
The obituaries about Whitmarsh (beach volleyball database bio here) will read that he was survived by his wife Cindy and two young girls. His friends will painfully admit one of the great players in beach volleyball history, who only turned to the sport at a relatively late age after his shot as a standout college basketball player didn’t quite parlay into an NBA career, was in the process of getting a divorce. He had, in fact, just signed the papers grant it to his wife.
“We are all devastated by the passing of Mike,” Cindy Whitmarsh said in a statement issued last week. “His family, friends, teammates and colleagues will miss him terribly. We appreciate your thoughts and prayers during this most difficult time; it means more than we can express.”
Mike Whitmarsh may have seemed OK on the outside. He wasn’t OK on the inside.
Speculate about why Whitmarsh would choose to end his life — and his friends have been struggling with that since hearing the news of it happening last Tuesday.
He seemed to have such a cool life. And such a legacy. Why would he want to end it? It made, and still makes, no sense.
A year ago, Whitmarsh told Mike Sullivan of the North County Times that watching his alma mater, University of San Diego, return to the NCAA basketball tournament was a joy. The 6-foot-7 Whitmarsh was part of the first USD team to make the NCAA tournament in 1984 He’s still the only player in USD history to lead the team in scoring (18.8 points), rebounding (7.3) and assists (6.0) in a single season.
Leading USD to the NCAA tournament was Whitmarsh’s defining basketball moment. He was picked in the fifth round of the 1984 NBA draft by the Portland Trail Blazers but was cut in training camp. He played three seasons in Europe before getting one last chance at an NBA career with the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves in 1988.
Minnesota’s coach was Bill Musselman, the father of Eric Musselman, a teammate of Whitmarsh’s on USD’s ’84 NCAA tournament squad. But Whitmarsh was released in the final roster cut.
So he turned to beach volleyball.
In a 15-year career on the beach, he won 29 titles. He teammed up with Mike Dodd to win the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. They lost the gold to the U.S. team of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.
Whitmarsh was voted on of the top beach volleyball players of all time during a 75th anniversary ceremony a couple years ago.
Over the weekend, Whitmash’s friends — including Dodd, Kerri Walsh, Casey Jennings and some other AVP players — meet at Fonz’s Restaurant in Manhattan Beach, sat in Whitmash’s favorite booth (where his Olympic jersey hangs on the wall) and ordered his favorite meatloaf dish off the menu. They toasted him, told stories, had some laughs. And some tears.
This morning, his friends will gather again in Carmel Valley for a memorial service at St. Therese of Carmel. Afterward, they’ll head to a reception at Junior Seau’s restaurant in San Diego. His best friend, Jimmy Kelly, and his brother Russ will try to explain to the gather what Mike Whitmash meant to them.
Whitty went to a dark place, where he may have felt guilt, anger and shame and a bleak future living apart from his two young kids. Maybe he had too much to drink at a pal’s house in Solana Beach, got in the car in the garage, turned on the engine and, in an emotional fit of depression, decided it was easier to sleep it off. Forever.
A San Diego medical examiner ruled it suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was found in the garage of a friend’s home in Solana Beach. His friend found him.
“I know if he was driving his kids to school the next day, he would have slapped himself in the face for even thinking about (suicide),” another friend told me. “Never in a million years could I have guessed this would happen.”
Emotions are difficult to control in times of personal anguish. Actions are sometimes even more difficult to stop. Life is too fragile and can go in a direction fast the other way without warning if you’re not careful.
If you find yourself going in that direction some day — maybe you’ve just lost your job because of the economy, you’ve lost a loved one to a sudden passing, or you’ve lost your faith in mankind — stop a second, don’t tell everyone that you’ll be fine, and seek some help. Scream if you must.
Don’t go there alone. Your family and friends will want you around more than any pain you think you may be causing them just by sticking around.
== A story on his passing with comments from former teammate Mike Dodd, plus Karch Kiraly and USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal (at this link)
== A small tribute to Whitmarsh at the AVP site (linked here)
== Those interested in sending condolences to the Whitmarsh family:
13841 Rancho Capistrano Bend
San Diego, CA 92310
== In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations can be made to:
The Jaden and Kendall Whitmarsh College Fund; c/o Torrey Pines Bank
12220 El Camino Real
San Diego, CA 92130
The Mike Whitmarsh Memorial Basketball Fund
University of San Diego
5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110