Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Like It When You Call Me Big Poppa

I am hardly an academic, but I am sure that sociologists would say that occupation is “heritable” to some extent: we see many children following in their parents’ footsteps, much more than we would expect if jobs were assigned by random chance. Certainly, a frightening number of my classmates in law school had lawyers for parents. (My parents, meanwhile, would probably like me to work in a job where I order screws for a company that makes ovens or motorboats. Like Warren Buffett, if they don’t understand it, they don’t really like it.)

Basketball is no exception. Tony Parker (Jr.)’s father is an American who settled in France to play pro ball after he couldn’t find stardom in the NBA. Kobe Bryant’s father similarly struggled in the US game before becoming a star in Italy and raising his son there. The Barry boys, Sean May, Patrick Ewing Jr., Chris Collins, Luke Walton, Mike Bibby, Mike Dunleavy, Al Horford: all are the children of ex-NBAers, many of whom are still involved in the sport as announcers or coaches. These are the blue-chippers, athletes whose potential was identified almost from the start. Back in suburban Detroit, I attended middle school with a young man whose father had played for the Lions. He was the brashest, boldest boy in the sixth grade. I sometimes played lunchtime hoops with him, though his talent easily overmastered my gusto. And sure enough, that boy grew up to play in the NFL himself.

Children of athletes receive a package of multiple endowments from their parents that can help them to succeed: genetic traits (I will call this “nature”), an upbringing that cultivates their athletic talent (“nurture”), and the savvy to help them succeed in the business of sports (“street smarts”). Of course, each second-generation athlete receives a unique three-part combination of endowments.

Basketball is the most notable field of endeavor, and certainly the most notable of sports, where aptitude and achievement are strongly heritable – because, as they say, you can’t teach height. It is hard to appreciate how freakish these guys are until you meet them. I am slightly above 5’11” and I am usually the tallest person in any group of friends or colleagues. I have a 6’4” friend and he is a giant to me. And yet he would be considered undersized to play the 2 in the NBA.

To be the pubescent child of a basketball player is like waking up one day and discovering a lightning bolt burning through your forehead: a gift you cannot discard. Everyone can see that you are tall, and everyone knows who your daddy was. Following in your father’s footsteps is not easy. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, a prophecy has surrounded many of these man-children since their birth. On the other hand, if your dad is a billionaire attorney, it’s easier to just do your own thing. There’s no gene for deal-making.

Consider Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. When your mom’s father was a pro wrestler, your dad was a pro wrestler, and you have a few cousins playing O-line in the NFL, you are certainly marked for greatness in something. Johnson had the full three-pack of heredity: nature, nurture, and street smarts. After winning a college championship with the University of Miami, Johnson had limited success in pro football, then became arguably the WWF’s biggest star as a wrestler, and now is one of the only action heroes in film today. The movie star part is a delightful surprise, but in a way, his youth among travelling performers of the ring prepared him to emote and give a 1000-watt smile. (Certainly Hollywood stardom running in a family is nothing new.) Or behold Randy Orton, who grew up in WWF locker rooms with his father and grandfather. What else could he become?

The most piquant exemplar of this is Yao Ming, who was bred, like a prize-losing science experiment, to be a basketball player. His parents were probably two of the tallest people in China, so it was fervently hoped that Yao would be a big one. And young Ming did not disappoint. Yao received plenty of nature and plenty of nurture from the Chinese government, though he probably learned little of the subtleties about how to succeed in the NBA world. By many accounts, Yao has picked up an American ‘edge’ in the last six years, to the point that he was willing to publicly call out Ron Artest last summer. Yao has succeeded as a superstar and kept his nose clean despite having only two of the three endowments.

There are several NBA players who are not the sons of basketballers, but rather the sons of athletes in other endeavors: Grant Hill, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley Jr. From their dads they surely inherited some natural athletic ability, as well as their parents’ intuition as to how the game of pro sports operates. More importantly, all these guys, including the Bryants and Bibbys, grew up with significant privilege. Like the children of most any millionaire, no expense was spared to secure the finest coaches and facilities for the little ones.

There is a third category of second-generation stars, including Cheryl Ford and Jalen Rose, who for a long time didn’t even know that they had NBA stars for fathers. Ford didn’t meet her father until she was 17, and Rose’s father died before they could meet. It’s not every day that one of my colleagues in my law firm announces that he or she is the unwanted child of a former NBA superstar. It fact, it hasn’t happened. Yet in pro sports it seems to happen every year. I would guess that at least a handful of current NBA stars unknowingly have NBA fathers. Clearly “nature” alone can deliver a significant nudge to forge a young athlete.

Did you know, by the way, that in Japan a rice bowl with chicken and fried egg is called "oya-ko donburi" (親子丼)? Literally, "Oya" means parent and "ko" means child. I always thought that was cute. There's something sinister about cooking and devouring the father and son together, though. Each should be insulated from the other's tragedy.

It is difficult for a young man to forge his own identity when his father’s specter is forever shadowing him. Last June, ESPN/ABC ran a fluffy feature showing Bill and Luke Walton on their family couch, reminiscing about early driveway games. That was sweet and moving. But then big Bill, with rightly-earned gravitas, turned right around and picked the Celtics to win the Finals. Ouch. It must be hard for Luke to accept that without the height of a giant or the agility of a slasher, he will never surpass his father’s greatness. The same goes double for Patrick Ewing Jr., who couldn’t make the Knicks’ roster (losing out to some guy from Istanbul) even when everyone thought he would get a charity spot.

Conventional wisdom has it that politics is a family business. Politicians openly acknowledge their royal pretensions, titling their books “A Charge to Keep” or “Faith of My Fathers.” Success among leaders seems heritable to some extent: witness Al Gore, the Bush boys, Mitt Romney, the Kennedys. (Travelling through New Mexico recently, I became aware of the race for the state’s Third District congressional seat, between this guy and this guy. Or consider the current U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, a Lebanese smackdown between the son of this guy and the wife of this guy. Who is likely to take Obama’s Senate seat if BHO wins the presidency? Why, Jesse Jackson Jr.)

Elsewhere in the world, the Assads, the Kabilas, the Kirchners, the Bhuttos, and the Sukarnos engineer their own filial succession in nominal democracies. In Japan, it seems that being the grandchild or child of a former prime minister is a prerequisite for becoming PM yourself. But of course there are many counter-examples of successful pols who grew up in the most inhospitable conditions, or devoid of any obvious role models. Witness Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Pierre Trudeau, or even Nicolas Sarkozy, all self-made, all without father figures from a young age, and sui generis. They had neither nature or nurture, and they apparently taught themselves the know-how.

Patrilineal succession works in politics for somewhat different reasons than in basketball. There is no obvious innate trait that marks a newborn babe as a future politician. It may be that children of political families become unusually steeped in the mechanics of campaigns and governance. Their father’s (or sometimes mother’s) profession is unusually exciting: who has not, just for a moment, imagined himself the king of the world and an object of mass adulation? Most importantly, voters make decisions on a variety of “gut” factors, including name recognition. How else could an Italian woman become the head of India’s founding party? Many Republican voters in 2000 thought they were restoring the former President Bush to power. Basketball is not quite like that. Coaches might give Coby Karl a second look because of his father, but if he has no game, he will ride the bench. Even Michael Jordan’s kid could barely earn a college scholarship, and chose to be a walk-on elsewhere.

What exactly makes George W. Bush a successful politician? (Put aside the failure of his presidency on the merits; one cannot gainsay that he won four elections in a row from 1994 to 2004.) It is not obvious that he inherited any preternatural charisma from his father, through either nature or nurture. The elder Bush was a very good fonctionnaire for the Republicans throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, but he was not a people person. Bush, though, is roundly thought to be funny and charming, and has attracted great loyalty from his Texas associates.

A seminal episode in the life of the younger Bush came when a drunken Dubya, frustrated at his lack of success in life and his failure to equal in any way his father’s accomplishments-to-age-40 (Dubya lost his first political race at age 32, launched solely on name recognition, and then his oil ventures failed to make money), challenged his old man to a fist fight. The story is so juicy as to raise the scent of apocrypha, but somehow I can imagine “Smoke ‘em out” George, who has no sense of shame or irony, raising his dukes.

In the Bush family, politics is a duty, a calling. The father and grandfather of our current president were national politicians, and his great-grandfathers were wealthy capitalists. All the Bush men attend Yale and join Skull and Bones, and then they enter public service. (The next generation of Bushes will likely not be excluded.) But entering politics is an option. Jeb and George W. chose to run, while their two brothers chose other vocations. Your freedom is not so clear when you are the tallest kid in your class. For the children of NBA ballers, height and handle can be both a gift and a curse.

Mike Bibby did not hear from his father for years while the elder Bibby pursued a coaching career, even when they played and coached in the same college conference. Kobe Bryant did not speak to his father for many years after his marriage. After finally acknowledging his children Cheryl and Daryl, Karl Malone still refuses to acknowledge his son Demetrius, who has since made the NFL. Each of these older men may have his own independent reasons for such behavior, but could it be that part of the challenge of relating to a ball-playing child is the pain of watching your child struggle and learn exactly as you did, and being powerless to help? Or in some cases, it may be the sting, which you may not acknowledge, of seeing your child surpassing your achievements.

To be Jellybean Joe Bryant is rather like the challenge of Darth Vader née Anakin: Your son is rapidly appearing more accomplished than you ever were — your talents squandered by youthful hubris. Shall you destroy your son, or make him your protege? Your love makes the first unthinkable, but the second may be unbearable. Each of these options brings its own pain; it might be easier to just leave him alone, at least until he makes trouble. Above all, though you feel this only in seclusion with yourself, the son of Skywalker cannot be allowed to become a Jedi. Your college trophies might not look so impressive anymore.

But this is hardly unique to ball. Professional wrestler Dustin Rhodes (aka “Goldust”), the son of southern legend Dusty, did not talk to his father for many years, perhaps in part because Dustin adopted a damn weird persona in an attempt to build his own identity. Exactly what endowment did Dustin receive from his father that enabled him to succeed as a wrestler? It sure wasn’t big Dust’s chiseled physique. (If Dusty were my dad, I would thank God every day that I ended up with this body and no more.) It was probably a love for the wrestling life and an unconscious imitation of the big guy’s fiery goofiness. The two eventually reconciled, but the pressure of living your life knowing that there is one path you are “supposed” to trod, and that any other fork is abominable, could surely be too much.

On this Election Day (and the first official week of my Yahoo basketball league) I can only wish: Let fathers and sons across the land agree to be civil, even if they vote differently or their fantasy teams are pitted head-to-head!

UPDATE: After I wrote this, I wrote two more follow-up posts later in November about parent-child NBA combos, here and here.

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