Jonathan Tjarks, 1987-2022
Remembering a great basketball writer, but even better person
Jonathan Tjarks died last week. He was 34, just a year younger than me.
I had become familiar with Tjarks over the years through his work for the sports and culture project The Ringer, where he covered NBA basketball. He was an entertaining writer and excellent podcaster.
Strangely, though, what will probably be his two most enduring essays have nothing to do with sports.
Last year, Tjarks was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer. He had been sick for a while, he said when sharing news of his diagnosis. He originally thought it was long-COVID. It was something much worse.
Shortly after he got the news, Tjarks published an essay titled “The Long Night of the Soul.” In this essay, he reflected on his cancer diagnosis and how his Christian faith had prepared him for this moment — but not for the reasons one might initially think:
As a Christian, I felt like I was prepared for that moment. But there’s nothing that can truly do that. It’s the long night of the soul. It’s a version of a well-known phrase that I often think of. I don’t care how strong your faith is. Staring into the abyss will make you question everything. I wish getting through it were as simple as quoting a few Bible verses and then going to bed.
I don’t even think Jesus was ready. That’s the first thing I noticed when I read the Gospels after my diagnosis.
Jesus had known for a long time that he would have to go to the cross. It was always going to happen. He still had to do his ministry first. He still had to go to Jerusalem. He still had to have the Last Supper. But then, all of a sudden, there were no other things to do. The cliff’s edge was there. And he was terrified, just like anyone else would be. He might have thought that he would be ready to die. It’s easy to tell yourself when that point is still far away.
It’s different when it’s right in front of you.
Tjarks made no effort to keep his faith a secret, as recent tributes from his colleagues have made apparent. Consider, for example, this episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, where the mourners—none of whom, it seems, are Christians—all remark on how real his faith was (starting at the 21:41 mark):
By all accounts, Tjarks held tightly to an authentic and deeply-rooted Christianity, one that (by necessity) wrestled with life’s most important questions and informed all aspects of his being. It was, it appears, an encouragement to those in his orbit, Christians and non-Christians alike.
As treatments failed over the next several months, Tjarks began to acknowledge the inevitability of his situation. And in March of this year, he wrote what remains one of the most moving things I have ever read, anywhere. “Does My Son Know You?” is a reflection on life, fatherhood, and legacy from a man who knows his time is short. He later joined The Gospel Coalition’s Gospelbound podcast to discuss the essay:
I never met Tjarks, but his life, diagnosis, and death touched me in a way I rarely feel apart from people I’ve known personally. What moved me most, I think, was the way hope was always there, even in the darkest moments. His wife, Melissa, indicated as much in an update following his death:
I know when Jon met God face to face, he heard a hearty “well done, my good and faithful servant.” Jon fought cancer so hard, but more importantly, Jon lived his life so well. We are so proud of him, and know God is even more proud. We can’t wait to be reunited with him in heaven one day. What a glorious day that will be.
It is an incalculable mystery: Christians grieve those gone far too soon, yet rejoice at their homegoing and look forward to reunion in the presence of our Creator.
Godspeed, Jonathan Tjarks. Thank you for leaving a legacy of faith, hope, and love. We will miss you.
You can contribute to the Tjarks family’s expenses here.