It’s a cliché to suggest that someone’s sports hero is his father. The person who taught you how to shoot baskets, swing a baseball bat, field a ground ball, or catch a pass ends up getting a significant jump start on all other contenders. I spent my early years as a sports fan cheering on Tony Dorsett, Michael Jordan, and Frank “Big Hurt” Thomas, my dad got a big jump start on all of them, collecting points for getting in there first. Sure, my father couldn’t hit a baseball 450 feet, windmill dunk a basketball, or juke a defender out of his cleats, but his endorsement of my failed attempts to do so, and patience as I repeatedly failed (until my body caught up with my desire and I failed less frequently) trumped all that.
However, my father was a considerable athlete in his own right. He was a legend, in fact. I should have suspected as much from watching my father shoot hoops in the backyard. I certainly remember him missing shots as we took thousands of them in the backyard, but can’t say that I remember him missing more than a dozen. Ever.
People used to ask me if I knew how good a basketball player my father was. In the barbershop. After church. People who had no reason to say so would tell us he was the best to have ever come from Crowley, Louisiana. That he could outmaneuver smaller guards who should be quicker than he was and run circles around forwards his size (he was 6’3, 220 lbs). He’d take shots that drove his coaches crazy (until they rimmed in) and played in a way that made every coach, except for the one at segregated Ross High School, even crazier. He earned a scholarship to Grambling State and was Willis Reed’s teammate for a year or two in the early 60's, and later became a pretty good high school coach (winning a state championship as an assistant under John Brady, who’d later coach LSU to a Final Four).
Of course, that demanding and uncompromising coach never showed up at 807 N. Ave C.
One of my memories of my father as a basketball coach involved him constructing a rudimentary basketball goal in the backyard. A plywood backboard with a makeshift rim attached, nailed to the roof of the house (thank God there was no homeowner’s association). After dispensing with the fundamentals, holding the ball, dribbling, etc., he then showed us how to shoot. He reared the ball back slightly behind his head, jumped slightly while rolling the ball off the tips of his fingers, and the ball went straight through, not even touching the rim. My brother followed suit, awkwardly, but at least looked the part in doing so. My first shot, however, was a disaster of the most epic sort for someone as good a ball player as my father.
I recall hitting the backboard, but I may be remembering myself better than I was. I did not hit the rim. I did hit the roof, but only the very bottom of it, and the ball had such tremendous and unnecessary backspin that when it hit the ground, it nearly bounced back and shattered my parents’ bedroom window.
My father looked down at me, said something encouraging, and went inside, I suspect, either to cry silently, or more likely, laugh until he wet himself.
Over the years I dribbled a path in my backyard, along with my brother and his friends playing pickup games that literally destroyed the grass underneath. And my father never bothered, never over-instructed me, and seemed content with the fact that we’d rather beat half court traps in the backyard than trap out in the streets.
When my brother and I took to baseball, he not only enrolled us in Little League, and bought bats and gloves so we could practice, but alternately drove my brother and I to Arlington and Houston every summer so we could watch the big leaguers do it. My brother and I became football players (not so much a choice as a dictation by our body types), and there was neither a hem or a haw that we take up basketball. Of course, neither hem or haw would have corrected my shot, but that doesn’t stop many many parents from insisting their children participate in sports. Only once do I remember my father insisting that I participate in a basketball-related activity – and that was when he, my brother, and I saw Julius “Dr. J” Erving play an exhibition game in his final season against the Chicago Bulls at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette. Good call.
Late in my father’s life, in what he said was one of his proudest moments, I was named an All-American football player. In his frailty, he pumped his fist and said “finally.” His dreams left unfulfilled in college as his career was ended too soon from a knee injury, he got to see his son reach a pinnacle of sport; a pedestal he’d deserved but was too humble to proclaim and too unlucky to ever reach.
Or maybe, finally, the basketball star remembered the son’s humble athletic beginnings, and now relished coming back out “in the yard” and watching him play.
Or maybe, he was vindicated in his approach to being a star athlete who becomes a parent. He wanted as much as anything for me to succeed in athletics, but refused to be a helicopter parent, harass coaches who didn’t start me or whom he felt played me in the wrong position, or esteem me solely on the quality of my athletic performance. Rather, he encouraged me to see sport as something to do, not the only thing to do, not the only thing I could ever do. And we still came out on top.
To every father, like mine, who lets his son become who he is to become, Happy Father’s Day.
But I still think my dad could’ve beaten your dad in basketball.