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IOWA CITY - The wild journey began with a cat litter scientist from Iowa, a former NBA superstar and a strange coincidence that would impact their lives for the better.
Residing thousands of miles apart, Lin Wang and Charles Barkley had more than a foot in height difference and led strikingly different lives. Yet, as Iowa City West graduate Shirley Wang discovered, there are more similarities between a sports legend and 'everyone's suburban dad” than meets the eye.
Initially, the friendship appeared unlikely. Scrolling through seemingly one-sided, exclamation point-filled texts between the two men, Shirley saw the story as far-fetched, presumably a joke played on an innocent man. After all, this seemed more like a fantastical party story, especially given that the scientist in question was her dad.
But after Lin was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and their time together became limited, Shirley gave the tale another chance, initiating a one-on-one conversation styled like a traditional interview.
'So many people hadn't taken this story seriously, and when you're being interviewed, you feel very important,” Shirley said. 'It was about treating him with respect and treating his story with respect.”
This primary intimate conversation led to a piece aired on NPR on Dec. 14, 2018. What Shirley was not expecting, however, was the overwhelming media attention this 14-minute podcast received. Less than a week later, she found herself appearing on the Today Show, featured in the Washington Post and cited in celebrity Twitter posts - all because her dad befriended Charles Barkley.
CREATING THE STORY
When Lin returned to his Iowa City home from a business trip several years ago, he bore a strange anecdote: he had met and befriended NBA superstar Charles Barkley in a bar. Over the next few years, the Wang family became familiar with hearing about their relationship. Lin described encounters with this mystery man anywhere from formal dinner events to graduation parties.
It wasn't until Barkley appeared at her father's funeral last June that Shirley realized her father's importance to the celebrity. She described his arrival, saying, 'It was shocking how tall and sweaty he was ... I remember just forgetting that it was a funeral.”
Inspired to continue the story on a larger scale, Shirley messaged Alex Schroeder, a digital producer for the station where Shirley interned in college, WBUR Boston. After pitching her podcast idea, Schroeder realized it would be perfect for sports segment 'Only A Game.”
However, the process took time. Lin's passing prompted Shirley to embark on travels around the globe - to Macau, Greece, anywhere to help distract from her grief and live a life of adventure. This temporarily put her story on hold.
'I was just not in a state of mind to do any kind of work like that for a really long time,” Shirley said. 'Of course, I was writing about my dad and always thinking of him, but taking what happened and putting it into an actual piece that is shared with everyone else ... it can be really intensive.”
While traveling, Shirley decided to resume creating the podcast, communicating with Schroeder whenever she could. Schroeder recalls his surprise that Shirley's cousin communicated with Barkley while Shirley was overseas, as she was concerned that the phone with his number would be lost in her travels.
'We pulled it off because there were all these little quirks,” Schroeder said. 'You wouldn't know that while listening to the final project, it's very polished, but I thought, ‘Wow, everybody's really pitching in to make this work.' It's just a nice community feeling to a story that's already so much about community. The process really reflected the content.”
When Shirley eventually interviewed Barkley, she attempted to remain professional, intending to keep all conversation relevant to the story. This plan shattered, however, when Barkley made comments and gave advice that reflected how a father and daughter would converse.
'It was eerily similar to exactly what (my dad) would say,” Shirley said. 'It made me realize that damn, they had a lot of conversations, and I can definitely go to (Barkley) and ask him things later.”
For several more months, Shirley continued to work with Schroeder and others to create the podcast. Though the work was tedious and sometimes overwhelming to think about, Shirley persisted in telling her father's story with heart and ingenuity.
'At times, I felt paralyzed, and it was hard to figure things out,” Shirley said. 'But I learned how to deal with uncertainty throughout my dad's sickness, so it was just dealing with things day by day.”
PROCESSING THE RESPONSE
Waking up on Dec. 15, Shirley was bombarded with numerous texts, emails and tweets all pertaining to one subject: her podcast. Shortly after airing, the story spread like wildfire. It was shared by thousands nationwide, including prominent figures like Seth Meyers, Mindy Kaling and one of Shirley's personal favorites, Dictionary.com.
Shocked, Shirley said the newfound sensation was like 'everyone was on the same drug.”
'It's like I created this thing that everyone is reacting very viscerally to, but I don't have that visceral reaction,” she said. 'And everyone's texting me about their drug trip.”
For Schroeder, the response's speed was more surprising than the popularity itself.
'I knew it had all the makings of a really great story and be a story that would get a lot of attention, (but) we thought we'd slowly build up recognition,” he said. 'Instead, it found everybody organically. That really speaks to how special that story is.”
Shirley's former high school journalism adviser, Sara Whittaker, was one of many who fell in love with this piece.
'I cried and I laughed,” Whittaker said. 'It was so well written and from the heart. It's hard for so many people to be creative and thoughtful when they're going through something, and I was just really impressed.”
Whittaker wasn't alone in this sentiment. The national reaction to this piece was so impactful that Shirley's story was named one of NBC's 2018 '13 moments in Asian America that moved us.”
'I felt like it was a huge responsibility to be on the list and I felt that I had immediately become a figure,” Shirley said. 'I somewhat unwillingly became representative of so much more than just my own personal experience.”
With more than 2 million views, Shirley's story touched the hearts of readers worldwide, sending them on a roller coaster of emotions as she made herself vulnerable to others. However, the podcast elicited a different reaction from Shirley's family.
'I liked the version of the story that I've experienced better, so I only listened to it once,” said her brother, West senior Mason Wang. 'It represented my dad, not completely, but no story in 15 minutes can do that.”
Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback, Shirley and Mason believe the podcast didn't entirely encapsulate their father.
'I think my dad was different in his own ways, but he's closer to a regular dad than you might think,” Mason said. 'It's not just your archetypical perfect, wholesome, Asian dad.”
'It's just the nature of the story,” Shirley said. 'There's no way of actually summarizing a character in any context. No journalism article can.”
Interviews upon interviews later, Shirley is now looking toward furthering her career, seeking out a position as a production assistant while continuing to freelance. Reflecting on the story's fame, she pondered how her father would hypothetically react to the national attention received if he were still alive today.
'He told me once that he felt really happy with what he accomplished,” she said. 'He never wanted worldwide fame.”
At times, Shirley felt that processing grief and memories with her father on a national stage was overbearing. Nonetheless, she plans to transform her emotions from this podcast into momentum.
'It's been really intense, and I've definitely cried because it was really overwhelming to deal with,” Shirley said. 'But now I get to start my career out of this really honest story; it's a story that I created out of something that I needed for myself.”
Whittaker fully expects Shirley's success will continue moving forward in her journalism career.
'Anything she wants to do, I think she'll be able to do,” Whittaker said. 'I feel like so many doors have opened because of this, and it couldn't have happened to a better person. Her heart's in the right place, and I can't wait to see what great things she continues to make.”
Schroeder summed up the podcast's value by saying it 'teaches us so much about people.” By connecting people from different worlds, he believes Shirley made a lasting impression on all who heard it.
'It hit on so many different things that every time I listen to it, I pick up on something different,” Schroeder said. 'I'm just grateful to have produced a story like this and learned from it. Hopefully these are the types of stories that ‘Only A Game' and myself in my journalism career can continue to tell.”
Most importantly though, Shirley feels that through pursuing this story, she learned more about both her father and herself. Cherishing his memory and keeping him close to heart is what propels her to move forward.
'In Buddhism, you're returned to the earth in some sense, and you live on in that way,” Shirley said. 'That's how it feels: he's just living on in ways that I have to detect myself, but he's always around me. He's touched so many different things in my life, so I'll always have him.”