CLEVELAND, Ohio — Channing Frye called his father on Friday.
Frye was driving home after the team’s annual Christmastime visit to Cleveland Clinic Children’s. So he dialed his dad, both out of habit and on impulse, moved to do so by that knot in his stomach from spending a couple hours with sick kids at their bedsides.
But the thing is, Thomas Frye, 64, died on Thanksgiving, alone in his Phoenix apartment, 27 days after Frye lost his mother to cancer.
“It was literally just a random thing, I called my dad… and then it was like, it was gut wrenching,” Frye said. “And I think I’m pretty cool with it now, I just, I’m OK with how I feel.
“But yesterday I tried to call him. I think it’s sick, not sick, but kind of crazy.”
Frye is 33. He’s among the NBA’s top-rated 3-point shooters so far at .471 this season, and is player 1 or 1A off the bench for the Cavs. And he’s in emotional hell. His parents, who were divorced, died within a month of each other. This is their story, his story, shared with cleveland.com, of the enormous toll taken on Frye and how he’s tried to navigate such personal loss while his professional life plays on.
Frye said his dad died suddenly of complications from dilated cardiomyopathy, a worse, untreated version of the same condition that caused Frye to miss the entire 2012-13 season. His grandmother found Frye’s dad on the floor; she had come to bring him a plate of food for Thanksgiving.
Thomas Frye was co-founder of a company that offers office support to public and private schools. He had agreed, at Channing’s urging and at Channing’s expense, to move to North Carolina to be closer to family. Father and son spoke at 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, right after Channing scored 14 points and drilled four 3s in a win over Portland. Like they always did.
Frye, his wife Lauren, and two children were at Richard Jefferson’s house for turkey and football that Thursday afternoon when Lauren’s phone rang with the worst of news.
“His last voicemail, literally, is like, ‘Channing…’ I can’t listen to it,” Frye began. “I’ve got to look at the dialogue part, the transcription part. It’s like ‘Channing, I’m proud of you, you know I love you, you know you’re my first son and I love you and Logan (Frye’s brother).’
“It’s just listening to that stuff and then listening to the same thing from my mom, it’s kind of like, it’s sad, it’s sad as (heck) to be honest. But it makes me feel good because I told them both I loved them before they died.”
Cancer usually takes its time. Karen Mulzac-Frye, 58, a former, Emmy-winning TV reporter and producer in Phoenix, had endured several surgeries. Frye kept his mother’s fight from his teammates; no one knew as the Cavs’ 2016 title defense was approaching that Karen was sick. Her last surgery was about a day before Cleveland opened the season at home by beating the Knicks and receiving championship rings.
Frye, who had spoken to his mom right after surgery, promised to come visit soon. He held out hope of an alternative treatment to save her until that final week, when he saw for his own eyes what was coming.
He was at Game 2 of the World Series, hanging out in the suite at Progressive Field with the rest of the Cavs, when a picture popped up on his phone from a close family friend who was by his mother’s side. Karen was down to roughly 75 pounds, from about 130 pounds the last time Frye had seen her in person. The message said for Frye to come west to California, where Karen lived.
The Cavs went to Toronto for Game 2 of the young season. Frye went to be with his mom. He made it to his mother’s side in time, and said his “I love yous.” She died before his car left the parking lot of her apartment complex; he was on his way to get a sandwich.
“It’s crazy to see a loved one so close to death, and then to actually see them dead is just like, it’s crazy,” Frye said. “I’m not going to lie, it still (messes) me up, to this day. I think sometimes people focus on certain things, they get really, emotionally backed into certain things sometimes. My teammates have kind of done a good job staying with me sometimes, because sometimes I’ll kind of just zone out.”
Forty-four devastating days, three funerals and memorial services, burials in Brooklyn, N.Y. (where his mother was from) and Phoenix. Seven games missed so Frye could tend to the arrangements and process his feelings.
But how do you process something like this?
When he returned to the team (after just three days) following his mother’s death, he averaged nearly 14 points over the next seven games. The Cavs stunned teams by playing him at center off the bench, forcing them to choose between guarding the paint against a LeBron James dunk or send a big man out to check Frye on the perimeter. Threes rained down.
Teams slowly started to play Frye differently, placing smaller defenders on the floor and limiting his space to catch and shoot. He’s been slow to adjust, in no small part because of the further time he’s spent away from the team with his father’s death and funeral.
“I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on with me and this whole situation because it’s like, you’re connected to two families through your parents and here’s the honest part — at some point you’re going to have to bury your parents,” Frye explained. “I just think for me, how close they died, how they died, and how young they were really was the thing that kind of (messed) me up.
“You know, I’m inspired to play ball, I’m focused to play ball, and I just think sometimes you need emotional energy to play. And I think right now that’s the part that’s tough.”
Frye’s teammates — remember, they were with him when he got those two, horrible messages; one telling him it was time to come see his mom before she goes, the other to inform him of his father’s death — have been loathe to discuss what’s happened to him.
Jefferson, Frye’s closest friend on the team, said “it’s Channing’s story to tell.”
“It’s tough,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, whose mother and grandmother are both battling cancer. “Anytime you lose a parent, but to lose two. . . He’s got a lot that he’s dealing with. We try to give him the time he needs. It takes him three or four games to get back in a rhythm when he comes back, so, we just know Channing’s dealing with a lot and we try to help him however we can.”
With usual starters James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving resting (per team orders) at home while Cleveland played in Memphis Wednesday night, Frye was pressed into starting duty. He failed to score, and was incensed with an official during the game for not calling a foul when Frye felt he was whacked on the way to the hoop.
The outburst didn’t earn Frye a technical, but he said the way he reacted that night “never happens.”
“I think I’m gonna have to kind of wrangle that in, too,” Frye said. “I think there’s still some things I’m dealing with. Some of it might come out there, so you might see me cuss and scream and throw things. But again my teammates and the coaches and everyone on staff has just been awesome and supporting me.”
Frye is by nature a happy, easy-going guy. When he joined the Cavs in a trade from Orlando in February, it was he who convinced his first-place, championship-bound teammates to realize they were taking themselves too seriously.
Now, understandably, he’s not always able to find his warm smile and perspective.
Frye, his wife and children make their home in Portland, Ore. In the quiet of his car, perhaps en route to or from a Cavs practice in Independence, Frye said he listens to Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song” when he feels like feeling sad. It reminds him of Portland, where it rains about 160 days a year, and of his parents.
“They loved coming up and visiting me there, and for me that song kind of puts me in a mood of like the they’re watching over me,” Frye said. “Even though it’s gloomy, the sun is going to come out.”