When former ESPN reporter Kate Fagan’s father was diagnosed with ALS, she knew she had to make some changes in her life in order to show up for her family. Despite the wall that had grown between Kate and her father after years of things left unsaid, the two find their way back to their old dynamic, learning some new life lessons along the way.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All the Colors Came Out: A Father, a Daughter, and a Lifetime of Lessons.

Kate Fagan: Thanks for having me. The book looks good in your hands. I’m excited.

Zibby: Thank you. I like feeling it in my hands. I have to say, as I just mentioned to you, I was crying. I was totally crying at the end of this book. I was crying for you. I was crying for my grandmother who passed away who I hadn’t thought about in a month or something. Everything just came back. I was just sitting there sobbing. I guess, thank you for that.

Kate: I hope it was a healthy, beautiful cry. That’s my goal.

Zibby: It was. You did such a great job. I feel like I totally knew your dad. You just did such a great job. I feel like I knew him. What a great guy he was.

Kate: That is the best compliment I can receive. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I thought he was awesome. I think people should know how awesome he is, and a representation of a dad in the nineties. If you watch sports, I think there’s a lot of young girls who will see their interactions with their own dads reflected in mine in this kind of modern relationship. That is a huge compliment that you feel like you got a glimpse of the Big C, as I write about him.

Zibby: Totally. I love, by the way, that it never even occurred to you after you became this big athlete and basketball star, it never occurred to you, because he was so encouraging, that women shouldn’t be basketball stars. That’s the greatest. That’s what every parent wants, is to give all this confidence to their kids.

Kate: It’s a beautiful thing when you have to wait until you’re thirty years old to realize the disparagement that women face, and in my case, women in sports, female athletes, women’s sports. That was a huge gift that he gave me. I watched the New York Knicks growing up. I thought that the enthusiasm and joy that I felt watching them was the same that people felt watching women and female athletes. Yes, this idea of growing up with that kind of confidence and instilling dreams as beautiful things and that people will receive them well, that is a legacy that he gave me.

Zibby: You said you watched all eighty-three or eighty-six games or whatever it was.

Kate: Eighty-two NBA games.

Zibby: Okay, sorry. Whatever, something like that.

Kate: No, no, you shouldn’t know that.

Zibby: I was just impressed by the commitment for that many games. Although, I’m pretty sure my husband watches every single Lakers game there ever is. I’m like, another Lakers game? Seriously? Oh, my god, they’re on all the time.

Kate: Zibby, you got to remember — not that you have to remember, but this was a different time period. I think if I was young now, my attention would be — you’d be competing for it with Amazon Prime and Netflix and Freeform. Back then, Friends was on Thursday night. The Knicks were on three times a week. Those were my options.

Zibby: It’s very true. ER.

Kate: ER, you’re right. There were other shows too.

Zibby: There were a couple other ones.

Kate: Cheers.

Zibby: Cheers, that’s true. It used to be Different Strokes and Silver Spoons. I think I’m older than you, so you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.

Kate: I’ve heard of them.

Zibby: You had this quote about your dad and his devotion to basketball. You said, “His religion had been movement; sweat, a daily offering.” That’s a beautiful way to say that. Nice job.

Kate: Thank you. It’s a beautiful way to say we didn’t go to church.

Zibby: Oh, I didn’t even mean it that way.

Kate: I think it means both, that he was really committed to that kind of — it’s a different kind of religion, almost, a movement of your body and the way you can feel inside yourself and your mind when you are moving your body in whatever way that may mean for you. It also meant for him that he felt that — he had grown up in Catholicism. He had come to this belief that there were different things that could connect you to the universe than just formal religion. It’s kind of a both in one.

Zibby: There’s just so much to talk about. Your dad was 6’5″ and, as you document in this story, slowly came down with ALS. You thought it was something else. There was this false diagnosis, which by the way broke my heart when that one doctor was like, “No, he’s going to be fine.” I was like, oh, great, but then what’s going to happen in this book? Still, just the rollercoaster of the diagnosis and the denial, almost, for those two years when it wasn’t clear if that’s exactly what was happening to him, and then how you lovingly took care of him and really reconnected after all this time. You talked about how when you had come out, you had only come out to your mom. That had been a thing, that you felt almost guilty for not sharing that with him. Then you had this big reunion moment which I feel culminated in the scene where you were rubbing his feet and all that. I just feel like that was such a turning point, you as complete caregiver and sitting there through the night and taking care of him and realizing you sleep in the same way. Tell me what this whole thing was like of having to go through — I know it because I read it. For people listening, what was it like having to go through that with this larger-than-life figure and coming back into this caretaking role?

Kate: I’ve used the word beautiful a number of times on this podcast, but I’ll use it again. For me, it was the gift of a lifetime. I can’t say that I necessarily thought that on the various nights when I was awake all night rearranging things and making sure he’s comfortable. I must say, because my mom listens to every podcast I might do, my mom was the primary caretaker. I don’t want to give off the false impression that he didn’t have anyone and I had to step in.

Zibby: No, no, that was clear in the book. Sorry, Mom. Yes, she was there every minute. You were a relief effort. I get it. I’m sorry.

Kate: Let’s focus on my relationship, for a second, with my dad. I don’t think my dad would have said this at the time. He wasn’t looking at this as a gift or a beautiful thing. Although, at various points, I think he saw the goodness that came from the diagnosis. For me, having grown up alongside him and not even known and taken for granted the way he spent time with me, the way he showed up for me, the things he loved he desperately wanted to share with me, they became the things I loved. As we do as human and kids, you move on. You have grievances. You have annoyances. You let them pile up even as there’s the voice in your head saying, you got to fix that. I was lucky enough to have a dad who showed up for me. These grievances, they existed, but I knew they didn’t outweigh the love and the time. I knew I had to get back around and fix this relationship with him. Even before he got sick, I knew this. It was in me. I knew it. The diagnosis of ALS, brutal diagnosis, a hundred percent fatal disease. A lot of people know about ALS, but then there’s a lot of people who still don’t understand there’s no treatment, a hundred percent fatality. It’s a shutting down of all your muscles including your lungs and your heart and your swallowing mechanism.

There’s the brutality of the disease, but given the fact that I had this runway with him to make decisions about my career, to make decisions to prioritize him, to make decisions to be by his side and have these conversations, that was the gift of a lifetime. I hope when people read this book — a lot of us have those little voices in our head about someone that we know something happened with ten years ago, and it’s still a thorn in the relationship. We all feel these things deep down. I hope the book encourages people to just be braver. A lot of times it is a father-daughter dynamic. There’s something about that. At least, it was for me. It felt like there were more walls up than maybe with my mom. I don’t know all of the reasons for that. I’m not a sociologist. I think it’s probably something that a lot of daughters might feel with their dads. They have a relationship on this one plane, whatever it is, functionality, service. For us, it was sports and service. Ultimately, I knew that we should’ve been more. In this last year, I got to be there and be present and work through my vulnerability and try to tear down those walls with him. I hope the book feels optimistic and filled with love and not just sadness because I want it to be this hopeful book about how we can come back around for people when they need us.

Zibby: It definitely did that. You wove in so much about your career and how that relates to the people in your life who you love so much and putting career first and whatever. You talked about being on this ESPN bandwagon and trying to constantly achieve even though you’re not even sure why and that you were just sort of swept up in it. I think that’s also a great message for people to remember. Are you even pursuing the right goals in your career? Why are you achieving this? Is this actually, deep down, what you want? Do you have another choice out there? Is it time to rethink all of this? Tell me a little bit more about that and even what’s happened now that you’ve had this reckoning with your career aspirations.

Kate: For listeners, when my dad was diagnosed, I was at ESPN. I had gotten to the place where I was doing a lot of TV for ESPN. That may sound, and it was at times, cool. It wasn’t what I intended to do. I wanted to write. There was a lot of anxiety that came along with TV. I was on this career path that I’d kind of chosen, but then it veered off. It was taking up a lot of time and mental space, like careers do. I’d made numerous decisions over the course of my seven years at ESPN on Christmases and Thanksgivings. Sports don’t stop. The NBA plays on Christmas Day because that’s when everyone else is home. There’s got to be, for TV coverage, people working on Christmas Day. I’d made all these decisions almost out of default. I just kind of said to myself when I first started, career’s the thing, and yes to that Christmas, yes to that Thanksgiving, yes, yes, yes, and missing out on so much family and just telling myself, well, that’ll always be there. As we often come to learn, my priorities weren’t aligned right. I knew this deep down, but I think we get caught in this belief system that if we’re on a career trajectory, that you can’t ever hit pause. You can’t ever step off for some time. If you get off, you’ll never get back on. There won’t be room for you. How could you have committed whatever, X years of your life, and then taken a step back? It would feel like “wasted time,” all this obsession with achievement and productivity.

It wasn’t as if my dad got diagnosed with ALS and boom, all of this made sense to me. It was two years between him being diagnosed and my finally saying, what am I doing? If you look at the pillars of your life and it’s your family, your friends, your career, your partnership, how is it that I’m giving to my career and taking from my family? It just started to feel, especially with the ticking clock of my dad’s diagnosis, like I have to shift my belief system. Certainly, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to say, I can pull back from my career. I was in a position where that was a choice that I had to make. It was scary. I spent a lot of time once I left ESPN thinking I’d never be able to do anything ever again at that level. It didn’t matter because the joy I feel knowing that I fixed things with my dad, that is a regret I would’ve carried with me my whole life. Not carrying that and knowing I didn’t do everything right but my heart was in the right place leaves me in a place where I know if I look at all of my decisions with the right priorities in mind, I’ll be okay wherever that ends up. I’ve rearranged those priorities. I have to trust that whatever decisions I make with that kind of lineup in my mind will get me to a place where I’m closer to people rather than closer to some bank account or closer to some public relevance that we think we need.

Zibby: I love that. You were just like, okay, now I got this three-year contract. Forget it. I’m good. It takes a lot of confidence. I’m just so glad that that whole thing happened the way it did and that you took the time and that you have no regrets. That’s great. There aren’t a lot of people who can always say that.

Kate: That’s why the gratitude I feel knowing — if my dad had died suddenly from anything, I would have lived with the shame and regret that I knew that I should’ve had conversations with him and done things differently. In this book, there’s a lot of messages, I hope, the little lessons he taught me along the way, the lessons I learned that last year. I talk to people frequently now who are in similar positions. Whether it’s a different diagnosis, sometimes it is ALS, they’re in the same place that I was three years ago where it feels impossible. How could I rearrange my life? How could I leave here? How could I move here? It’s like a lot of things in life where when you make the commitment, all of a sudden you’re like, the walls weren’t that big to doing that. The hurdle wasn’t that big. Then you get to it and you’re like, this is absolutely what I need to be doing. You know it in your heart all along.

Zibby: ALS is just so brutal. I have a very close friend who has had it for years. She doesn’t like me to talk about it, so I’m not going to go into it. Watching it very up-close and communicating through machinery, essentially, with each letter, it’s amazing what they’ve been able to come up with to get people past the locked-in syndrome. I think about what people must have gone through before, oh, my gosh.

Kate: If I can add one quick thing to that because I think you bring up —

Zibby: — Of course, you can.

Kate: I guess that’s why I’m here, to add things, right?

Zibby: You can add whatever you want.

Kate: What I learned once we had ALS as this center of our life was that one thing the disease of ALS faces is that many people who are diagnosed with it and who live with it don’t want to be the public face of it. I don’t necessarily mean in a commercial. I mean even within their own lives. They become very reclusive, many people, because they no longer look, sound, feel like themselves. My dad battled that. There’s a chapter in the book where he’s like, “I feel like a loser now.” Everything had been taken from him even though he didn’t define himself through some high-level career achievement. He defined himself through small things. Even those small things got taken away. ALS, at times, does have a public awareness problem because it’s such a brutal disease that if you mention it and it’s not in your life and you hear it, you don’t want to think about it. It looks like something you want to look away from. If you don’t have someone in your life and it hasn’t touched you and you’re lucky enough to be able to look away like I did for many years, you look away because life is hard enough already. ALS, in terms of raising money for a cure, fundraising, public awareness of what it is, all of that still has a ways to go. There are hurdles because people die so quickly, so you don’t have that long-term “ambassador,” and then also because it’s so brutal. That’s one of my little soapboxes now, is trying to get people to see the hurdles ALS faces. The people within the ALS community will say repeatedly, ALS is not an incurable disease, it’s an underfunded disease.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s so true, all of that. The only thing that’s untouched is your mind, which is just as sharp as ever. I think people, like you’re saying, are reluctant to put themselves in those shoes. The empathy is like, no, I couldn’t even imagine. You’re like, no, you should imagine. It happens so slowly that the person going through it has so much time to think about it and to know and have nothing they can do about it. It’s the worst, not to make this depressing. If anything deserves funding, it for sure should be this. Terrible. Especially at the end when your dad was saying that there’s the choice, too, of how long you want to live with it — do you want the trach? Do you not want it? At the end, he was like, “I don’t want to leave my people.” Kate, I don’t know how you go to sleep at night. The emotion, oh, my gosh, that’s a lot to have to take with you.

Kate: Yeah, it really is. Again, the specifics of ALS — can we swear on your podcast?

Zibby: Go for it.

Kate: It is a mindfuck on all of these levels because you get to the place as a person, a caretaker, my mom the primary one — hi, Mom — and then me and my sister supplemental and being present, I hate to think of it this way, but the cost on our lives to keep his life alive, even at a quality of life that is incredibly low, it’s a hard equation to balance. There are certain families out there, when they get help from other places, they can balance that. It was these layers upon layers that we were dealing with. Of course, we want to keep our dad alive. If it was certain other diseases, you’re fighting because there’s hope. Maybe something will happen with the certain drug you’re on. You never know. Whereas with ALS, yes, things can go slower or faster, but there is no cure. Therefore, you’re battling, okay, so this is costing me this amount of energy in my life, but I adore you, and how can I be sitting here thinking, I want you to die? I tried to be as honest as I could in the book because I think these are things people think when they’re going through things like this. You’re not allowed to say, but everyone’s thinking these things. Even my dad knew the cost on us. I don’t think he understood fully because his world had been whittled down to a very small viewpoint because he couldn’t move, all of those things. In this book, I tried to be as honest as possible about what we all feel when go through things like this, and not just the love and the — yes, it’s a beautiful thing to be with the person at the end, but also, the horrible things you start thinking. It happens. Even if you think of yourself as a good person, you think of these horrible things. They cross your mind.

Zibby: It’s also their life too. They want to have a certain type of life. Is this good for them? Is this good for you? Gosh, these decisions. It’s like there’s no good decision, right?

Kate: None.

Zibby: Tell me a little more, it was so sweet how your dad, at the end, was welcoming your — is she your wife now?

Kate: Yes.

Zibby: Welcoming your wife and saying, “KB is here,” and all of that. Tell me about that, how you were afraid to come out to him, how over time you — he knew, obviously. Tell me about that aspect of your relationship and coming full circle the way it did.

Kate: My dad and I, when I was growing up from as early as I can remember until I left for college, we spent every afternoon and evening together playing basketball. We were really close, but it was about basketball. There weren’t any other dynamics at play at that time. Maybe they started to creep in in high school when you’re coming into who you are. I’m not just obsessed with the Knicks and playing like I was when I was twelve. We were sympatico. We were an unbreakable pair when we were younger. Then things started to happen. I realized I was gay, am gay. My relationship with him had been so basketball. We played one-on-one. We joked. I guess in retrospect, there wasn’t a lot of vulnerability, which I don’t think is unusual between a dad and a kid. There were certain decisions I made along the way that set us on a different course. One was not telling him. I knew my mom had told him. It’s not like he didn’t know, but there’s a difference between trusting someone and saying it to them. That really created some wall between us. I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t want to be vulnerable with him. I was scared of what he’d say. I didn’t want him to reject me, all of those things. I never actually told him from a — maybe when I was thirty-five. You can’t sit down and recreate that moment. This was a thing between us, whatever that means. I knew he was hurt by this because he would make comments about it. There were times when I was seeing people and he didn’t know how to behave. It built up a wall between us.

Kathryn, my wife now, she’s amazing. That helps, but my dad loved her. You can say maybe he wasn’t great earlier because I wasn’t with the right person. I think that is letting him off the hook a little too easy. He met Kathryn before he got sick. He just started doing all the things that make your heart melt about a dad and someone coming out where everyone he met, he would go out of his way to talk about Kathryn. It just melted that wall, if you can melt a wall. You break it down, whatever you do with it. The way he let her in at the end of his life, he’s now this version of himself that he doesn’t relate to. For a guy who wasn’t good at being vulnerable, ALS, you have to let all of that go. You need people to help you with everything. You need to ask for — he did — to be touched and to be loved. Those are things that most men are not great at. At the end of his life, he wanted Kathryn there. He wanted her to hold his hand just because he wanted to be a part of us and to feel what our lives were going to be like when he was gone. There’s all of this coming full circle. I say all of this also with gratitude and feeling so lucky because, who gets all of this full circle in their life? Yes, ALS is horrible. Yes, there was so much about it that was horrible, but the disease itself forced us to be very vulnerable with each other. If you see someone that you think of as a pillar of strength being vulnerable, you can’t help but feel — it’s almost contagious in that way. You want to reciprocate what they’re going through by breaking down your own walls. All of that happened with all of us.

Zibby: Wow. Where do you go from here? You took the time out of your life to write this beautiful book, which is fantastic. Now where do you go from here? First, from a career perspective, are you writing more books? What are you going to do professionally? From a personal perspective, do you feel some sort of closure now?

Kate: In my mind, closure is — in this regard of my life, not my whole life — the absence of shame. I feel that. When it comes to the choices I made, the relationship with my dad, I don’t feel regret and shame over those. I certainly have regret and shame in other parts of my life. What writing this book has taught me, what making the decisions I did to walk away from ESPN has taught me is that I think in our culture we absorb this messaging that our productivity is what gives us value. It’s hard to rewire your brain to reject that, not completely because I do think purpose is incredibly important in whatever way that purpose manifests in your life. Making these decisions and realizing I’m not sitting here two years after leaving ESPN thinking, what did I do? I’m thinking, there is nothing ESPN could’ve offered me that matches the moments I had with my dad. Going forward from here — this is more of a philosophical answer to your question. Then I’ll give you a more tangible answer.

Philosophically, I approach life differently. I’m not just like, yes, I’ll do that because who says no? You say yes whenever anybody asks you to do anything. I’m like, is it good for my marriage? Is it good for who I want to be in the world? The time I’m going to spend there, is it worth it to be away from my life in whatever way that is? That’s shifted my outlook. Again, I will say I hope that’s applicable to some people. I know that I’m lucky in that it’s not like I have a job, a nine to five, and if I don’t do that job, I can’t pay my rent. There is that. The second answer to your question, I started writing for Sports Illustrated again a couple months ago. I’m working with this new upstart media company called Meadowlark with some ex-ESPNers, so I guess ESPN’s still a little bit in my life. They all left ESPN. I left ESPN for one reason plus some of the reasons they left. We wanted to do things in the sports world that we felt matched the moment that our society is in. As opposed to just completely looking at sports as sports, we think of sports as a metaphor and a vehicle to tell the life story. That’s what we want to do at Meadowlark. That’s why I joined up with them. It feels like the right place to be coming off of — this story of my dad is a sports story, but it’s not. You don’t need to know sports to read it. Although, sports is the through line. I think for a lot of people, sports can be a through line of how they look at family and life.

Zibby: That was a great answer.

Kate: Thanks, Zibby. I like praise.

Zibby: You did a great job.

Kate: Thank you.

Zibby: Now I have some basketball tips, like how you have to dribble the ball the hardest on the last one before you throw it. I’m like, okay, I’m pulling that out with my kids. Now I have a new something for my basketball toolkit, so thanks for that.

Kate: Zibby, if you’re going to tell them to make the last dribble the hardest, they’re not going to throw it, they’re going to shoot it at the rim. You want your whole piece of advice to make sense.

Zibby: Sorry, did I not say that right? Dribble and then shoot, right? Down and then up?

Kate: And then shoot. Not throw.

Zibby: Not throw. Okay, whatever. Obviously, I’m not a — I play tennis. I don’t play basketball.

Kate: I’m sure when it comes to the tennis jargon, you would slay me.

Zibby: I’m better at tennis jargon. I feel like I’m too short. I’m only 5’2″. I felt like the ball was always too big for my hands. Basketball was not my thing.

Kate: Hey, it’s all true. Kathryn’s 5’2″, my wife. It’s similar. She was a point guard in middle school. Then she was like, I don’t know that this is the right path for me.

Zibby: I’m just going to veer off here. Anyway, Kate, thank you so much. This was so nice. Thank you for your book, the beautiful mitzvah, if you will, that you did for your dad by bringing him into other people’s lives, which is really all we can do with the people that we’ve loved and lost, is keep their memory alive. Thank you for sharing him with me and with everybody else and for chatting today. I hope your mom enjoyed it. Bye, Mom.

Kate: Bye, Mom. Thanks for sharing the book with your audience. I appreciate it.

Zibby: No problem. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Kate: Bye.



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