This love story, both a human love story and a basketball love story, began with a hat. Yes, this is an unusual love story, the one that starts with the hat, so follow along.
A young man named Ben Teh was 12 years old and living in New Zealand when he went to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland on a family vacation. While he was there, he noticed a sporting goods store across the street. The place was filled with the hats of all the marquee American sports franchises, notably the Chicago Bulls and the New York Yankees. But Teh didn’t want to be like everybody else, wearing one of those hats, so he looked around.
And then he saw it: An Indiana Pacers hat.
"It was the only Pacers hat left in the whole store," Teh was telling me Tuesday morning over coffee at the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency.
That, then, is how a Kiwi who grew up on rugby, Aussie Rules Football and cricket became a crazed Indiana Pacers fan. He would play the NBA '98 video game and always pick the Pacers as his team. He would watch them during the rare ESPN game when they were shown. (The first live game he ever saw on TV was The Brawl). More recently, he has paid for NBA League Pass. He follows local blogs, consumes Indy-area media coverage of the Pacers. He has followed them religiously since the late 1990’s, the days of Reggie and Antonio and Dale Davis and Rick Smits and Mark Jackson. When Pacers games come on TV in Australia, it's usually 9 or 10 in the morning.
"I try to work from home those days," Teh said.
These days, he’s a huge Paul George fan.
"And George Hill, the whole hometown hero thing," Ben said. "It’s weird that I have this huge draw to Indiana. And for no real reason."
Because of a hat, a lonely hat in a Los Angeles sporting goods store.
"She (Malinda) thinks I’m crazy," Ben said later, sitting with his wife on the Pacers' bench during pre-game warm-ups Tuesday.
For confirmation, I turn to Malinda.
"He is crazy,’’ she said, laughing.
This is how crazy: The couple were married in 2015 and have just gotten around to taking a honeymoon. They hoped to spend five weeks traveling throughout the U.S., spending time in New York, New Orleans and other locales. Instead, they spent two days in San Francisco and then came out to Indianapolis, where they’ve spent five days and have now attended two home Pacers' games.
This, naturally, raised a question, one I posed to Malinda: "What did you think when he said he wanted to spend a good portion of your honeymoon in Indianapolis?"
Malinda looked me straight in the eye and said this: "Because of all he’s done for me. I wanted to do this for him. He moved to Sydney to be with me. I just want to see him happy."
This is where it stops being a basketball love story, at least for a minute, and starts being a true human love story. Because Malinda, who Ben fell in love with the minute he saw her at a Melbourne bar, was also quite ill. She was suffering, and continues to suffer, with Stage 4 breast cancer. The cancer has spread to her back and her legs. The prognosis is as dim as one might expect. But Ben didn’t care. Not a bit.
He asked her to marry him, and she said yes. He asked her knowing all the while she might not be in his life for very long. And yet, there was never a moment’s hesitation. Not one.
"It was an easy decision," he said. "I love her."
A love story that started with a glance
There’s the unlikely basketball love story between Ben Teh and the Pacers, but the better love story, the truly human love story, is the one between Ben and Malinda. This one doesn’t start with a hat. No, this one starts with a glance.
Ben saw Malinda in a Melbourne bar, and he was smitten. Immediately. Right then and there. "I knew she was the one the minute I saw her," Ben said. "I know it sounds crazy…"
Was it love at first sight for Malinda? "Uh, I don’t think so," Ben said.
He was living in Melbourne at the time and she lived in Sydney, but they made the long-distance relationship work for a couple of years after their initial meeting in 2012. Then, during a trip together to Vietnam, they were involved in a car accident. Malinda suffered fairly minor injuries to her legs, but blood tests revealed something more pernicious and heart-breaking: Stage 4 breast cancer. How could this be? Breast cancer isn’t supposed to happen to women so young.
"We found out six months after we first met," Ben said.
Which is why Ben, a 28-year-old occupational therapist, picked up from New Zealand and moved to be with his 32-year-old wife, first in Melbourne and then in Sydney. But you do things for the people you love in your life. He puts up with Sydney, a city he dislikes. She puts up with his Pacers' obsessions. It works.
"It was Stage 4 from the very beginning,’’ Ben is telling me. "But it was a dream of hers to get married and mine, too. I knew it was important for her, especially, because we really didn’t know how much time we had."
He paused. "It’s hard," he said. "I don’t think a lot about it (the cancer) to be honest. This holiday has been good because we haven't had to think about it a lot. It’s good to get away. At home, you think about it a lot more, of course. But we get home and we just take it day by day. I don't think about the future too much because if I did, it would be too stressful, and I need to be there for her. It’s about enjoying every day and telling the other person, 'Look, we need to enjoy all the time we’ve got. Every single day.'"
These have been brutal times for the Tehs. Malinda has done radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which have sapped her energy. She has undergone a mastectomy. When I first met Ben in the morning, he apologized because Malinda was still in bed; no apology necessary, of course. The cancer also affected her kidneys, which required stents. Of course, those got infected. Now the cancer and the pain have spread to her back and her legs.
Twice before, they had planned to take their honeymoon after being married in 2015, but Malinda’s health issues, and doctors’ concerns about her well-being, made that impossible. So they sat down and mapped out a five-week-long trip to the States, planned to visit New York, Chicago, New Orleans and, of course, Indianapolis.
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"I said, 'Sure, we’ll fit Indiana in as long as I get my New York, my New Orleans, my Caribbean; that was the plan, five weeks," Malinda said. "Then my doctors said no. One week, at the most."
"So we said, if we’re going to go anywhere, it’s going to be here (in Indianapolis). Because he’s given up so much to be with me. He moved to Melbourne when I got sick, then moved to Sydney. I know he wants to move to London someday, but with me being sick, we can't go there. He wants kids; I can’t have kids. But he's never, ever made me feel guilty about any of that."
They flew from Sydney to San Francisco, spent two days there, then made their way to Indy, where they spent five full days before flying out early Wednesday morning.
"I thought people would be, like, Amish."
I wondered, what did Ben expect from Indiana, this distant spot on the globe?
"I thought people would be, like, Amish," Ben said, laughing now at the absurdity of it. "I thought there would be horse-drawn carriages and things like that. And windmills, lots of windmills. And that it would be flat. Which it is; it’s very flat. But we got in, we went out to Kilroy’s and the place was packed with people. That whole area (of South Meridian) was packed. That’s not what I expected."
When Malinda has been able to summon the energy, the Tehs have hit all the Indy spots. They went to St. Elmo’s and were nearly floored by the shrimp cocktail sauce. They went to Bluebeard for lunch. They hit Kilroy’s because both love pub food. And every night? A trip to Steak 'n Shake.
"We don’t have real milkshakes in Australia; kind of like thin shakes," Ben said. "We went to St. Elmo’s, she had the surf and turf and then she helped me finish off a 38-ounce steak, we were filled, but we still had to stop for a shake. Every night, we’ve done that."
The Tehs may have been two completely anonymous Aussies visiting Indianapolis to watch basketball if weird fate hadn’t dropped in for a visit. Their first day here, Ben walked into the Pacers' gift shop – "He lives in there," Malinda said – and saw someone who looked familiar.
He believed it was Conrad Brunner, the long-time reporter who works for 1070thefan.com, who he reads on a regular basis. Ben introduced himself and asked for a picture, only to learn that it wasn’t Brunner, but Eddie White, the Pacers’ director of corporate communications. Understand, Brunner is, um, follicly challenged. White has a full head of curly hair. But never mind that.
It wasn’t Brunner, but the Tehs ran into the right man at the right time. They told White their story, never mentioning her cancer, and White thought it would be cool to give the Pacers' visitors the royal treatment. They got tickets. They got gear. They got a visit from Boomer. They got on the video board and were interviewed by FoxSport’s Jeremiah Johnson.
And they watched basketball, first the Sunday game against Houston and then Tuesday night’s loss to the Chicago Bulls.
"The smile on his face during those games, seeing that, made it all worthwhile for me," Malinda said.
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Both of them were smiling broadly, their eyes wide, when I caught back up with them before Tuesday night’s game. They were sitting on the team bench watching pre-game warmups. A moment later, Donnie Walsh sat down two seats from me.
Ben was flabbergasted, looked at me and mouthed the words, "Donnie Walsh."
"You think he would take a picture with us?" he said very quietly.
Sure, I told him.
"Will you ask him for us?" Ben wondered.
I asked Walsh, himself a cancer survivor, and he happily obliged.
"Mr. Walsh, you’re a basketball genius," Ben told him.
Then they retired to their seats a few rows behind the Pacers bench. Things would get worse. And then they would get better, so much better.
After the game, we were escorted back to the Pacers' practice court when players' friends and families are congregating.
"Man, Nikola Mirotic," Ben said of the Bulls player who scored 28 points in Chicago’s 98-96 victory. "He just went off on us."
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And then Indiana’s Jordan Hill walked in.
They knew they would be meeting with Hill, who is very active in the breast cancer community and lost his mother to the disease when he was three years old. But this would be no ordinary meet and greet. For a few minutes, they talked about Ben's Pacers' obsession while Hill signed a jersey and a T-shirt. Clearly, the Tehs don't want to advertise Malinda's condition, but Hill knew about it and felt it was important to address it.
"I’m very involved with Susan G. Komen, just trying to show my support and show love and do what I can to help raise funds," Hill said. "It's a terrible disease. But it’s curable, it’s fightable."
Malinda: "Yeah, we’re still fighting."
Ben: "We’re positive, but we’re scared."
Hill: "Back in the day, we didn’t have the medicine we have now. Just keep fighting. A lot of people have fought it and won the battle."
He clasped his hands in prayer, looked Malinda straight in the eye.
"I’m praying for you," Hill said. "You’ve got a great husband here."
Photo credit: Indiana Pacers
He turned to Ben, put his arm around him: "She’ll be OK. She’ll be OK."
Hill then asked them if they might be coming back to Indy April 16 for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
Hill: "Would y’all come?"
Ben: "We would if we could."
Hill: "Why couldn’t you?"
Ben: "Probably, financially, it’s something I couldn’t afford."
Hill: "So if I took care of it, would y’all come?"
Ben was flabbergasted. "Are you serious?" he asked.
Hill: "If I took care of everything, the room and board and the flights, would you come?"
Malinda looked over at Ben, a perpetually upbeat young man with a quick laugh.
"Look, you made him cry," said Malinda as she shook and wiped away her own tears.
That's real love
They briefly discussed their schedule, the fact Malinda has another kidney surgery scheduled, the fact they’re supposed to go to Hawaii for his father’s 70th birthday. They kept thinking, saying, "There’s got to be a way."
Ben turned to Hill and they embraced. "This means so much to me, means so much to her," Ben said. "The last three years have been so tough for us, so tough."
Hill, still in deep embrace, looked at Ben. "She’s your soulmate," he said. "It’s so great that you’re standing by her and supporting her. That’s real love, man. That’s real love."
There were more hugs all around, and Hill finally left for the night.
Malinda turned to me, her eyes red.
"You know, every month, we say things are going to get better," she said. "Every year, we say things are going to get better. And every month, every year, it never gets better."
She smiled through her tears.
"It finally just got better," she said. "It got better."
A love story. That started with a hat.
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Photo credit: Indiana Pacers