October 7 was my dad’s 76th birthday. And, as the saying goes, the older I get, the smarter he gets. And the older he gets, the more I appreciate having such a great man for a father.
My father was never a good athlete. And never really care for sports all that much. He would always watch a game if it was on, but he was never really a diehard for any team or any player. But, as fathers and sons are wont to do, we’d usually find ourselves together in the basement watching the NFL on Sundays in the fall and basketball, both NBA and college, throughout the winter and into the spring.
We used to play catch in the backyard. And he tried his best to teach me how to throw a tight, NFL-caliber spiral (never quite got the hang of it). And the way he taught me to shoot a basketball, instead of shooting over my head, I shoot with the ball nearly resting on my right shoulder, still plague me to this very day. My dad was able to teach me a lot of life lessons using sports as a metaphor that have stayed with me for years.
I remember when I was playing basketball in the 5th or 6th grade in a neighborhood recreational league. There was a boy on the other team that was pushing and shoving my team and the referees weren’t calling anything. Frustrated, I pushed him back. My dad, while the game was in progress, came down out of the stands and grabbed me by the arm and told me, “Son, we don’t do that. You will not behave like that.” Despite my protests, he continued. “wrong is wrong, even if you don’t get caught.
When I was in the 8th grade, I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time on my basketball team and voiced my displeasure about it to my dad. He asked me how I was practicing. I answered by telling him that I was working hard, I was sweating and running and everything. His response: “Just because you’re running and sweating doesn’t mean you’re working hard. That’s only half of it. You have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.” To eighth grade me, that didn’t make a lot of sense, but the older I get the more I realize what he was trying to tell me, that understanding the “why” you’re doing something is just as important as the way in which you do it.
Whenever my dad and I would watch a game, he would always tell a story about someone he knew growing up that was a great ballplayer or watching some of the all-time greats play. My dad was a huge Oscar Robertson fan and loved to talk about how he would put on a show whenever the Cincinnati Bearcats would come and play the Louisville Cardinals at the old Louisville Armory. And he could tell stories for days about Louisville Central High’s on Cassius Clay before he became The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.
Growing up, we had season tickets to Louisville basketball and football. To this day, one of my greatest memories growing up was my parents letting me stay up to watch the national championship game in 1986. But for all the red in our blood, when I decided to attend the University of Kentucky, he went straight to the bookstore and bought a “UK Dad” cap and T-shirt and has cheered for the Cats ever since (while still pulling for the Cards). While he grew up in a different era, his mindset didn’t stay the same, proudly wearing his Big Blue attire and firing back at anyone who would dare to ask why a black man from Louisville would allow his son to go to UK, a school that employed a racist like Adolph Rupp. My dad’s response was always very clear and sometimes peppered with a few non-Sunday School words: a school cannot be racist, it’s a thing, only the people that run it can or cannot be racist and if black people can’t attend a college that might have at one time, employed a racist, then where can they go and in America, what can they do? And everyone that knows him knows that his youngest son attended UK and that he couldn’t be anymore prouder of that fact.
My father is older now and a few years ago, he was diagnosed with early onset dementia, the same affliction that has struck famed Tennessee Women’s basketball coach Pat Summit. I fully understand that there are far more debilitating diseases and ones that take a far more physical toll on individuals and families. I cannot, however, think of something as cruel as a disease that will take away a person’s memories and, really, their essence. So now, my dad’s stories are a bit more repetitive and some of his facts are a bit off, but I find myself enjoying them more and more. Once a month, I give him a stack of my old Sports Illustrateds and ESPN the Magazines and he reads them over and will tell me that there wasn’t a better basketball player than the Big O or that Jim Brown is the best football player of all time, so what are these clowns trying to prove? And I just smile and nod.
Sometimes, sports is about just wins and losses. Sometimes, sports can be a way for fathers and sons or mothers and daughters to bond and for one generation to teach life lessons to the next. As I work to raise my two daughters, I can only hope that I can follow in my father’s footsteps and give them the same values and lessons that my dad passed on to me.
Happy Birthday, Dad. You’re definitely my MVP.