We have many cultural commentators today decrying the loss of the traditional family and the decline of fatherhood. Some of their concerns seem grounded in the previous decades—divorce is down, for example, and fathers are more engaged than they were. In other respects, observers are right that families are dealing with serious struggles. The past few years of politics and pandemic have certainly not helped familial harmony for most people. The He Gets Us campaign is even airing ads during NFL games about families and the need for healing in relationships. There are plenty of fractured families in the news and in everyday experience. Yet, too often, we are failing to appreciate the good examples that exist in the culture around us. Consider the NBA.
Entering the 1990s, the NBA had an “image problem.” Attendance had been low in the 1980s, the league was not much of an international brand, and people did not always have positive associations with the players. In 1991, David Stern became the commissioner and began changing the culture. Some of his changes had to do with the international fame of the league and its players, some had to do with things like the pre-game dress code. As the 1990s and 2000s progressed, riding the Dream Team, Michael Jordan, and Stern’s “business casual”—the league’s image was transformed. Today NBA players also have more control over their destiny and better profit-sharing than athletes in most other leagues. When people talk about the NBA now, the discussion is often about the players and the game—not the cultural impact. Inevitably, we return to the debate over who is the GOAT, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? What non-fans are missing is perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the NBA: its embrace of fatherhood.
You cannot follow the NBA in any way and not notice the NBA dads. In December 2022, Celtics player Jayson Tatum took a game off so he could attend his son’s birthday party. It wasn’t all that surprising. Tatum is one of the hottest players in the league, but he is also known to almost everyone as Deuce’s dad. Tatum loves to have his son around. There is a very heartwarming video of them reuniting in “the bubble” in 2020, with millions of views. If you don’t know the NBA, you might think this is a particular trait of Tatum’s. But if you watch, you know better.
These children are not accessories. NBA dads genuinely love having their children around. Watch pre-game warmups and you’ll see Giannis with his son. Postgame sends the same message. In 2021, Russell Westbrook was proudly showing off a sweater designed by his four-year-old son. Watch players walking to/from the game and you might observe Steph Curry holding his son’s hand while his son greets Klay Thompson. It’s not only sons who are so adored. A few years ago, Curry’s daughter Riley was a press conference favorite. Even many NBA fathers whose family units are complicated or incomplete have put extra time into parenting. Dwyane Wade is raising not only his own children, but also a nephew.
For many NBA parents, being a father is a cornerstone of their identity. LeBron James is an excellent example of someone who has embraced fatherhood. Raised without a father, James became a father himself at just nineteen. But being a good dad has been one of his greatest pursuits. In a recent Instagram video celebrating his oldest son’s birthday, James acknowledged how much he has learned and grown from being a father, and how he has been able to better understand things like “patience, commitment, and joy.” It’s a moving video, filled with footage from his son’s life. Much of James’ Instagram is dedicated to his family and showing love for his three children. While some parents experience rivalry with their offspring, James had his sons debut new colorways for his signature shoe. His children are at the center of his life.
There are plenty of bad role models for families and fathers on television. The hit HBO show Succession features a father about as far away from what is desirable as possible. Many real life public figures are also disappointing. But if you tune in to the NBA, you will see a league filled with men who delight in their children. The NBA knows this. They’ve put together compilation videos celebrating NBA dads. But many of us don’t realize that such heartwarming content is just a click away.
A Tale of Two Cities famously opens with a line that begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” We have around us many people who only want to believe in the worst of times. Whether on the right or the left, very few cultural observers seem to see much not worth wringing our hands over. In many cases, people will stumble onto some relatively rare or statistically insignificant phenomena and decide that it signals doom. Or we take the example of one individual and their flaws and use them to delegitimatize an entire institution. We do not have to think or live this way.
There are plenty of unhappy realities around us, but there are also happy realities. We do not have to deny the existence of evil to see good, but if we deny the existence of good, we are living with a distorted view of reality. If we see something horrific on television, we can use that to convince us we inhabit a hellish culture, or we can change the channel and see what else is out there and then decide. We can try to have a more comprehensive view of reality. For some of us, that may mean turning to unexpected places for encouragement. For all of us, that means not being blind to the good before our eyes. So, let us celebrate the good when and where we find it. We can start by appreciating the NBA dads.
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