Billy Hunter (National Basketball Association players union Executive Director)

Article from: June 14, 2011

My favorite kind of movie is one about football.  From Any Given Sunday to The Express, football movies show us, fans and athletes alike, the human quality behind the men who become legendary.  And unlike the way sports celebrity plays out in the media, you walk away from these films understanding one man’s story and appreciate that, for better or worse, he aimed to be his best.

I start out with this reference to frame how I hope the world sees NBA players, particularly African-American ones, specifically in relation to their role as fathers.

In 1998, Sports Illustrated published what became a controversial article titled, “Fathering Out-of-Wedlock.”  It depicted an unsavory storyline of NBA players whose fame, wealth, and unstructured lives were doomed to promote the endemic absentee fatherhood that is often commonplace in African-American communities.  Using a few, specific examples of publicized child support cases, the article painted an image of athletes who operate as rolling stones: performing on the court, partying everywhere else, impregnating women, and abandoning their children.

Indeed, there are some athletes who lack maturity and an understanding of personal responsibility.  And there are those women who prospect celebrities for financial gain by actively seeking to bear their children.  But in all, the article was a very harsh projection of what is not a standard among the athletes I have come to know through the NBA Players Association.  While it may be difficult to maintain two-parent homes given the demands of being a professional baller, most guys I know are affectionate and devoted parents to their children.

I’d venture to say that even those players who fall short of heroism do manage to exceed the expectations and standards of the underserved communities where they were raised.  What they lack is an understanding for what matters in life.  They are not driven by malice, but instead a one-dimensional focus on the lure of notoriety.  I don’t want to deny that there are specific issues related to father absenteeism troubling African-American communities.  However, I hope to pose that athletes are a greater part of the solution than ongoing fuel to the fire.

There ought to be more coverage on the good stories that are simple, yet true anecdotes of men who have a devoted love of fatherhood.  To name just a few, players like Charles Smith, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Michael Curry, Alonzo Mourning, Etan Thomas, Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Keyon Dooling, Theo Ratliff, Chris Paul, and Ray Allen exude a respect for the demands of fatherhood.  I recall that Buck Williams, relentless and focused on the court, almost always had his sons, Julien and Malek, with him at games.  As fierce as his rebounds, his affection and attention to his kids was exemplary.  There is no doubt that, along with his wife Mimi, his passion for parenting was an inspiration to other players.  There are many instances of responsibility, but such stories don’t make headlines.

The truth for many young men who grow up with aspirations of athletic stardom is that their understanding of manhood is born out of single-parent, woman-helmed households.  These youth seek to emulate male role models who are either completely absent or found on the streets.  With nothing more than a ball and a dream, those who do make it to stardom, generally, have constructed manhood in the scattered instances they are exposed to it.

Perhaps, it could be assumed that these reflections are those of a passive observer.  My wife and I raised three kids that went on to replicate a value for parenting.  But a former professional athlete myself, I know what it is to go from hopes to opportunity.  I grew up knowing my grandparents as my mother and father.   I felt the stigma of being born of parents who were unmarried, but I decided to adopt the people who were present in my life as role models.  The effect of illegitimacy inspired a commitment to become the father that was absent from my life.  Looking back, the presence of my grandfather and my uncles provided me with the right role models to show me how to fulfill that intention.

My mother and father met and fell in love while she was separated from her husband.  By the time I came along, my mother began reconciliation with her husband.  When she returned to him, I was forced to continue my life with her parents.  As a child I had sporadic contact with my biological father who later married and with his wife formed a family.  So, these were the events that landed me in my grandparents’ household, completely taken by their love and values to spend too much time taking notice of what was missing.

My grandparents were solid, hardworking Christian people with a tremendously large family.  My mother had 17 brothers and sisters, who comprised a close knit family.  When combined with our cousins, we were an enormous clan. The stories and memories that flooded my childhood left me with a great passion for family, and an ear for the wisdom of elders.  Sitting at their feet, my uncles would share stories about becoming men and the hazards of developing a sense of responsibility.  They exposed me to paternal love and engaged me in conversations that forced me to think about the consequences of my actions and the value of hard work.  Such male influences mixed with memorable games of pick up and tackle in my South Jersey neighborhood with my family would later propel me to a football career at Syracuse, and later a stint in pro-ball.

Just as weighty as the games, was my grandfather’s character.  He spent his days performing manual labor as a hod carrier, mixing and carrying plaster for a team of plasterers on construction projects in the area. Every night, when he returned home, he would read the paper, his Bible, and lead the family in prayer sessions.  He would ask me questions and hold me to a standard of excellence. Impacted by my love and respect for him over any specific memory, I was highly motivated to demonstrate to him and my grandmother how much they meant to me.  I went onto college and law school in great credit to my esteem for what their household meant to me.  To me the traditional nature of family is not as important as the adult influences present in a child’s life to teach humility, virtue, support, and love.

To me, fatherhood is about passing the torch and serving as an anchor. Perhaps celebrity is just about being a source of inspiration.  I believe that many of our athletes have been outstanding patriarchs in America, regardless of whether their focus is on the African-American community or the cities that helped catapult their success.  We live in a society where the norm is for athletes to use their celebrity to support a wide range of causes related to our countries issues related to educational access, public health, and civic engagement.  That is a very important signal of the character of the men, and women, in the field and their integrity.

President Barack Obama remarked, at the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, that “[being] there for our neighbors’ sons and daughters” is included in the meaning of good parenting in the 21st century.  I can name many men who have raised funds, provided back-to-school equipment, and opened doors for underserved youth.  So many NBA players are important role models who would otherwise not have a generous male influence in their lives.

In September 2009, David Robinson, “The Admiral,” accepted his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  It was a crowded auditorium filled with his friends, teammates, supporters, and those of the other inductees.  Humbled by the momentous occasion, Robinson began, after making the necessary acknowledgements, “I want to say something to my boys.  David Jr., my namesake, I am very proud of you…”  He went on to share with each of his two sons the difference they had made upon his life, and how much he was looking forward to seeing what they would make of their own lives.  Between thoughtful pauses and deep-seeded smile, he let them and his wife know their prominence in his heart.  To me, this is fatherhood in the NBA.

Perhaps one day, someone will produce the great basketball movie and the world will see the sequence of events that define a man’s accent from humble beginnings and great longing to center court.  We will see his passion for the game, and the will with which he tries to be good for himself, and good for his family.  We will see the work that goes into making him a legend.  And we will see him holding his children, comforting them, sharing with them the power of hope and opportunity.  Perhaps then more people will realize how good the men of the NBA are as father and stewards of society.