ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Les and Kimberly Standiford woke up in their Pinecrest, Fla., home Wednesday morning facing one of their toughest days of every year. April 3 should have been the 22nd birthday of their son, Alexander.
He has been gone three-plus years now after passing away suddenly on Dec. 22, 2009 during his freshman year at Florida State. Yet in Les' email Wednesday morning came an unexpected note.
Alexander, known as Z, or Zander, to his friends and family, loved basketball. Loved playing with his old teammate, Tim Hardaway Jr. They met as middle schoolers in South Florida and continued playing throughout high school.
Zander was a grade older and he and Hardaway Jr. often hung out at the Standiford home close to Palmetto High School. Zander was one of the first to tell Hardaway he would make it big and would reach the professional basketball world.
But Z never got to see it.
All these years and the Standifords never knew how Hardaway kept his old teammate in his memory all the time. Then came the email. Hardaway -- now a junior guard at Michigan -- has been writing "R.I.P. Z33" on his left shoe this season. Zander is one of four deceased friends and family Hardaway honored before every game this year.
"In a way, Zander, to me, lives on in Timmy," said Les, an author and creative writing professor at Florida International. "Sometimes, it's difficult to watch Timmy because it calls to mind some moment when they were playing together back in high school.
"It would be difficult for me to keep watching, because the memories become so vivid."
They never knew a piece of Zander's memory stuck with Hardaway. On his left shoe, Hardaway inscribes "R.I.P. Z33/RS#2", for Zander and Ralei Sealey, a former AAU teammate who died in a drowning accident in 2007.
Hardaway's right shoe is reserved for family, "R.I.P. Granny/Kay," in black lettering for his great-grandmother, Maggie Brown, and his great aunt, Carolyn Brown. Maggie died in 2008. Carolyn, who had been one of Hardaway's biggest supporters and almost like a second mother to him, died on Aug. 31.
Hardaway plays for those four every time he takes the floor for Michigan.
"Zander and Ralei, those were my teammates and my closest pals," Hardaway said. "They always had faith in me, always believed in me."
Hardaway and Ralei were teammates on the South Florida Heat. Hardaway still considers him the "closest friend I think I've ever had growing up."
They met through basketball and their friendship became much more. Hardaway can still recall, before they were in high school, Ralei going right at a young Brandon Knight in an AAU game and how happy they both were after. "He was kind of like a big brother to Tim," former South Florida Heat AAU coach Tony Perkins said. "Actually, Ralei was a very, very talented basketball player. He reminded us of [how] Tim's dad played. [He] had a killer crossover like his dad.
My granny and aunt, they are family. You play for your family. A lot of this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for them.
”-- Tim Hardaway Jr.
"Even though he was very small in stature, he kept everyone in check. Tim was timid a little bit. Ralei was constantly on him and tried to make him tough."
Perkins said that after Ralei's death -- which happened at a regatta in Key Biscayne, Fla., in August 2007, just before Hardaway's sophomore year of high school -- he saw a different player. In some ways, a different person.
It forced Hardaway to mature.
"He kind of withdrew a little bit," Perkins said. "He took it very hard. Out of all the kids I've been around, he took it the hardest."
Ralei's name was the first Hardaway started writing on his shoes, beginning at Palmetto High.
While the one shoe represents close relationships formed through basketball, the other signifies those who helped raise him.
"My granny and aunt, they are family," Hardaway Jr. said. "You play for your family. A lot of this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for them."
They kept Hardaway in line when he would visit Carolyn, known as Auntie Kay, in San Diego and later, on the south side of Chicago and Calumet City, Ill. They watched over Hardaway when his father would be on road trips or when the family visited Chicago.
Auntie Kay gave Hardaway hot wings as a kid -- he'd make a mess with ranch dressing -- and was the one who hosted family July 4 gatherings. Auntie Kay sometimes had 10 family members in her home during the summer, hanging out and having fun. When they all lived in California, the Hardaways once flew from northern California to San Diego just to celebrate Tim Jr.'s birthday with her.
"He loved Auntie Kay. Everyone loved Auntie Kay. Everyone," Hardaway's mother, Yolanda, said. "So many people loved Auntie Kay, it wasn't even kin, just neighbors, they called her Auntie Kay.
"It was something about little Tim, he was like her favorite."
It made Aug. 31 even harder. Yolanda received a call while preparing for Tim Hardaway Sr.'s birthday the next day that Auntie Kay had died. She waited a couple hours before telling her husband.
The next day, Yolanda called her son in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she said he was shopping at Meijer preparing for his junior year. She dreaded this call.
"Tim was devastated," Yolanda said. "He was so hurt. I didn't want to tell him. It took me everything. He was so done. He was literally done. I felt so bad for him."
Yolanda said her son hung up the phone and she didn't hear from him for three days. Auntie Kay, the last of the four people on his shoes to pass away, changed the way he viewed things.
Auntie Kay, according to Hardaway Jr. and Yolanda, had served in the Navy. The next week, he went to Michigan's game against Air Force and for the first time, listened to the national anthem differently.
"After she passed, I was still heartbroken," he said. "I was in tears when I went to the Air Force game and they were playing the national anthem. It was a tough feeling. Every time the national anthem comes up, that's the one person I'm always thinking about."
Watch Hardaway this weekend at the Final Four. Pay attention to him during the anthem, when all the memories of his great aunt return, of his family and friends loved and lost.
Watch him after, too. He'll likely tap his chest four times. Once for Maggie. Once for Auntie Kay. Once for Ralei and once for Zander, the four people whose memory he carries with him every day.
From his head to his heart to his shoes, they remain with him. He, too, stays with them.
All season long, as Hardaway has led Michigan to its first Final Four in 20 years, the Standifords watched from Florida, sometimes having to find tricky ways to watch games.
They thought of the past four years. Of Hardaway Jr. and his father showing up at shiva after Zander's funeral and telling them whatever they needed, they would be there to help. They thought of Tim Sr. signing basketballs as a prize for a charity 3-point shooting contest, "3's for Z," in 2011 in remembrance of Zander's death.
Recently, they thought to what their son would think now. Maybe he would have gone to Atlanta to watch his old friend play. Or maybe he would have watched at home.
"He would have been 22 [Wednesday]," Kimberly said. "He'd be in the living room watching Timmy play this weekend. Even when we were just watching the last game, my older son was a basketball player and tennis player [and] he was saying, 'Oh my God, Zander would be going nuts right now.'"
On one of the hardest days of every year for them, the Standifords received that unexpected surprise Kimberly called "special": Remembrance of their son on the biggest stage in the sport Zander loved: the Final Four.