You’ve Got Mail
A peek into the mind of a superstar. And our inbox…
by Myles Brown / @mdotbrown
Subject: Who’s Your Daddy?
As you know, I’m pretty forgetful. I would blame it on ‘college’, but to be honest, college never really ended. Anyway, Boyz II Men were at the Minnesota State Fair last week and they reminded me that we don’t ever talk anymore. But I was hoping we could find something to argue about.
As we both know, Mitch Albom is an opportunistic hack. Sunday’s righteous indignation towards Antonio Cromartie was just the latest assurance of such. As I tweeted-cause apparently that’s my thing these days-after reading it, Albom has shown little concern for single mothers or fatherless children before this bile, so perhaps he should find another column to meet his deadline. I’m sure Morrie has some new revelations to share with him from Heaven. Or some other such fuckery. However, trite as it was, it did remind me that we never finished our previous conversation.
I finally read the new GQ last week. Good stuff. I found the author’s incredulity with ‘The Decision’ fallout baffling, but I didn’t look to him for any insight into the game, just LeBron. Some of the article’s finer points are things we’ve discussed ad nauseum, but I still found these passages particularly interesting.
As the only child of a single mother-Gloria, who gave birth at 16-James grew up poor, alone, never knowing his father. At first he and his mother lived with his grandmother in a big, roomy house, but when James was 3, his grandmother died. Heart attack. Christmas Day. (When I ask him later to pick the angriest he’s ever been, he picks that day.) With little education and scant work, Gloria couldn’t hang on to the house. She and James hit the streets, moving constantly, and when James was in the fourth grade he essentially stoped attending school. He also spent many nights by himself, praying for his mother to come home. Sometimes she disappeared for days. “I became afraid that one day I would wake up and she would be gone forever.”
….. The greatest players use anger as fuel. Michael Jordan played every night with something like road rage. Bryant resented Shaquille O’Neal, then resented the world for persecuting him about Colorado. The greats have chips on their shoulders, whereas James seems to have nothing on his but those football-sized delts. Maybe he doesn’t have enough anger? Maybe he’s too good at repressing his anger? “Are you a sports psychologist?” he asks. No. But he’s conceded in the past that he might not have the killer instinct of Kobe. That still true? “I hope not,” he says. “I don’t think so. I think I’ve gotten to a point now in my career where I do feel like I have a killer instinct.” Just a theory, I say. In his line of work, it seems like anger equals success. That’s an awesome theory,” he says. Some truth to it? “Maybe.”
…….. More than his elbow, people continue to question his will. Again, the playoffs. Why did he stand around? “I’ve never been standing around,” he says. “That’s not me. Even if I tried, I couldn’t do it. The fact that me and you are sitting here right now by ourselves is an uncomfortable feeling.” Standing around in the playoffs, sitting with me in a locker room-I don’t get the connection. And yet I still feel compelled to apologize. “No, it’s okay” he says, and now he’s the one sounding apologetic. He murmurs, “I like being around people.” I know, I say, taken aback by his downcast face. The fatherless boy who sat alone nights, listening to sirens and gunfire, wondering if his mother would come home, grows up to be a man who doesn’t like to be alone.
I’m human-even a sensible one at times-so I completely understood and empathized with the plight of Baby Bron. However, I’m also a fan and in some measures, a critic. As such, my initial reaction was, well…”Fuck that. He cheated the game, the fans and in many ways, himself.” But putting my own righteous indignation to the side for a moment, I decided to consider the bigger picture.
I thought about this for quite a while and as with any discussion of LeBron, quite naturally my thoughts turned to Kobe-specifically his childhood. Then Michael Jordan and his childhood. Both are the products of upper-middle class, two parent, stable and happy homes with plenty of siblings. A solid and supportive foundation for a child to grow and realize their potential, which is completely atypical of the hardscrabble backgrounds many NBA players escaped. Of course both are also the preeminent examples of tireless dedication and insuppresible will.
I kept thinking. While there are few similarities on the court, there isn’t another player in the league who could identify with LeBron’s upbringing more than Allen Iverson. Or is it LeBron who should identify with A.I.? Regardless, we should all know the story of Ann’s Son by now; teenage mother, absentee father, abject poverty, surrounded by raw sewage and an even more toxic environment outside the front door. Then there was the brawl, the conviction, the incarceration, the appeal and the release. The Waltons thought they had it bad.
These were two boys who were forced to grow before their time, more familiar with the harsh realities of life than any child should be. Two boys faced not only with the responsibilities of essentially raising themselves, but providing for their families. Honestly, these were two boys who by any statistical measure should probably be dead by now. So the minute they shook David Stern’s hand as a #1 overall pick, they were two men with far different definitions of success than the rest of us. This is to say nothing of their drive, talent or desire to win, but ultimately, they wouldn’t be defined by a ring, but the lives they left behind.
That being said, I understand Bron’s desire to replicate his high school experience, just as I understand A.I.’s love of the nightlife. These are two men compensating for a lost childhood, no? But according to the cognoscenti these are two men who are also missing something. Focus, dedication, ruthlessness…..I don’t know, something. Which begs the question, could they have exhausted their will just to achieve what they already have only to have even more required/demanded of them? Did Michael and Kobe not only have the advantages of talent and timing, but of a relatively easy home life? Is there a correlation between childhood and ‘killer instinct’?
Granted, this is a small sample size, but there are more examples. The mere mention of Shaq’s name should be sufficient, so let’s move on.
Ironically enough, Bron and A.I.’s biggest detractor has been Charles Barkley, a player routinely criticized for his lack of commitment and conditioning. Charles was another son of a poor single mother and openly acknowledged the emotional turmoil he endured through early adulthood.
He speaks hardly at all of his father, Frank Barkley, who left Leeds when Charles was a baby. He tries to appear indifferent, but finally he admits, “I hurt to the extent that I wish he had been there and hurt that he wasn’t. I was very angry and very resentful all my life, until the last couple of years.”
It’s not a stretch to say that a man crippled by anger for much of his life simply didn’t have the desire to manufacture more anger in order to compete with a raging despot like Jordan. For all his bluster, couldn’t it be that Charles just wanted to be-or actually was-happy?
Conversely, Earvin Johnson is a clear cut case; two loving parents, nine smiling siblings and a trail of adoring fans and championships have followed him since high school. But just as God planned, there is no Magic without Larry, who happens to be our first outlier. A bio isn’t necessary, the man’s pain is visceral. Is it worse to never have had a father at all or to lose the one you’ve known and loved to the bottle and a bullet? It’s certainly not a contest I’d want to be in. You want hardship? Larry Joe Bird had it in spades. But he also has them rings n’ things we sing about. Whatever ‘it’ was MJ and Kobe had, Bird had it first.
Of course some mouth breathing bigot could explain this all away with a wave of the hand and a simple cliche: A hard working white man with talent and true grit can’t be stopped by anyone. But it’s not that simple. Was he a product of his time? Is it the money? I won’t pretend to know, but it’s worth exploring. That’s where you come in, being white and all. Ha. I kid. I think.
Anyway, this has gone on long enough. I trust you see what I’m getting at and won’t oversimplify this as “No daddy, No ring”. And yes, I’m well aware of the slippery slope that is pop psychology, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play with anyway.