From the Archive: There's Daddy
Note: In 2015, the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the first time. That year marked the rise of the Warriors as an NBA juggernaut, to use LeBron James' description, and the debut of young Riley Curry. Tonight, the teams meet in the Finals for the third consecutive time, something that has never happened before in NBA history. I'm taking that as an occasion to post a previously unpublished blog about the Curry family, the NBA, and NBA fatherhood. There's a lot more to say about this topic, and I have much more to add. However I decided not to update the piece. - sm
In 1998, Sports Illustrated featured on its cover a young Khalid Minor, dressed in brown overalls and a black turtleneck, holding a basketball with his diminutive hands, looking up at the camera, his eyebrows slightly furrowed, his mouth still, his lips curtaining any hint of a toothy grin. Khalid looks serious, his gaze unflinching. The main cover line reveals the reason for young Khalid’s grave countenance. It reads, Where’s Daddy?.
Khalid Minor is the son of Greg Minor, a former small forward for the Boston Celtics. When the magazine perched on newsstands, Khalid became the face of what Sports Illustrated deemed a startling epidemic: the growing number of out-of-wedlock children fathered by NBA players. The cover story delineated what they called the NBA’s All-Paternity Team, a cohort of players, from all-stars to bench-fillers, who had faced paternity litigation or who were already financially supporting children mothered by women they had not bothered to marry. According to the article, Khalid was but one in a slew of NBA children living in various parts of the country being raised by single mothers who were compelled to take legal action to receive the financial support their children deserved from their young and rich biological fathers. Some players were already married, their positive paternity tests revealing their infidelity. While others were seemingly rolling stones; one night stands or brief sexual affairs resulting in 18-year financial commitments.
Greg Minor was branded as the apotheosis of feckless fatherhood, after his ex-girlfriend and Khalid’s mother, Celeste Rowan, claimed Minor was abusive and abandoned her and their three children despite his promises to the contrary. Rumors spread that Shawn Kemp was suffering from alcoholism until it was posited by sources close to Kemp that his play had suffered due to the stress of paternity suits and the inability to see some of his children. Kemp’s former Seattle SuperSonics teammate Gary Payton was outed as the father of Gary Payton Jr. and Gary Payton II, who were born four months apart. In 1994, Shaquille O’Neal rapped that his biological father hadn’t bothered to raise him; the Sports Illustrated cover story showed that some of the bars Shaq Fu spit were applicable to other members of the NBA fraternity.
The perceived sexual prowess of professional athletes is an idea as old as professional sports. Though the article was published before everything was available on the internet, David Stern’s NBA was always image conscious, and this was five o’clock shadow on a brand that aimed to be stubble-free. Stern had cleaned up the league’s reputation for being a drug den during the 1980s. In 2005, the Allen Iverson effect and the “Malice at the Palace” presented an opportunity to institute a dress-code, requiring players to adorn themselves respectably with suit jackets and ties. The Sports Illustrated article, though controversial at best, brought stereotypes about Black male virility, masculinity, and familial irresponsibility back into the fore and was surely a blow to the NBA brand. After all, the NBA was and remains a player-driven league dependent upon smiling and non-threatening Black faces to push its product. Even Oprah Winfrey dedicated two shows to the SI issue, interviewing Celeste Rowan and others. The damage was done, and people had questions. Why were NBA players so reckless and irresponsible? Was this story simply an instantiation of a larger epidemic? And why, just a few moments after Magic Johnson retired from the NBA due to having contracted HIV, were players still having (so much) unprotected sex?
Nearly twenty years later, a new narrative about NBA players and Black fatherhood has piqued our embarrassingly low attention spans. To wit: the NBA’s reigning MVP, Stephen Curry, brought his two-year-old daughter Riley with him to a couple of postgame news conferences during last month’s Western Conference Finals. As energetic and engaging toddlers are wont to do, Riley stole the show. She interrupted her father. She yawned. She waved at reporters. Her image and antics stole our meme-obsessed hearts. She sings; she ain’t never scared. She is delightful. Of course, what tickles some bristles others. For instance, ESPN NBA reporter Brian Windhorst echoed the sentiments of many when he twittered that little Riley, though adorable, was hindering reporters from making their pressing deadlines. Others chimed in, suggesting that Curry bringing his tiny doppelgänger to press conferences was borderline unprofessional. And since we are in the era of hot takes, what many thought of as an endearing engagement between a father and a daughter with a penchant for the spotlight has become one of the main subplots of this year’s NBA Finals.
To be sure, Riley Curry is not the first NBA baby to sit atop the lap of her father while he tepidly answers reporters’ questions. Perhaps one of the earliest and most memorable examples of this was Jason Kidd (who was, ironically, also named in the Sports Illustrated article), who used to bring his son TJ to press conferences. TJ fondly recalls those moments, and spoke out about Riley Curry’s appearances. Chris Paul’s son Chris Paul II is a podium veteran. However, those youngsters are silent as sentinels compared to the much more rambunctious Riley.
Despite Riley’s ruffling of certain reporters’ plumage, the NBA has no intention of banning kids from postgame conferences. And that makes all the sense in the world. After all, the NBA positions itself as a family friendly, caring institution with relatable stars, and it has worked hard at repairing the aforementioned blemishes of the late nineties and aughts. More importantly, the presence of children at press conferences troubles the pesky stereotype of NBA athletes as irresponsible and immature Black men accidentally impregnating women in NBA markets throughout the US. And some pundits justify the presence of Riley and other NBA children by reminding us of the narrative that SI, among others, has codified over the years. It behooves the NBA to encourage the presence of players’ children; it counters the narrative SI forwarded. The problem with that, though, is that it implicitly takes the promiscuity and irresponsibility of Black professional basketball players, and by extension Black men, at face value. Both positions presume absent Black fatherhood is an epidemic, when in actuality no such plague exists. But, as so many tales about the alleged habits of Black people go, the truth does not prevent the spread of lies about Black people, especially as it pertains to their sexual behavior. As Mark Twain once (allegedly) said, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
As much as many of us love Riley’s interruptions and PJ Rose’s facial reactions, what certain responses to their presence does is reify the myth of the absent Black father. Some of us defend their attendance precisely because we believe and want to challenge that story, as if such lies could ever be effectively disrupted. Whether we deride NBA players for making babies with too many women or excessively adulate them when they perform as family men, we are revivifying a myth about Black fatherhood. In so doing, what we implicitly welcome is for the continued, though pointless rehabilitation of NBA players into respectable young men who we are more than happy to invite into our living rooms.
That Stephen Curry is the wellspring for this “debate” is telling. Curry himself is a second generation NBA kid. His father, Dell, was also a marksman and one of the NBA brotherhood’s most upstanding citizens. Steph and his brother grew up in NBA arenas, so Riley’s presence is simply a replication of the parenting he received. Steph’s catapult into superstardom has made the Currys a kind of NBA first family of sorts. They are, in a sense, perhaps the best antidote to the narrative of the lascivious Black NBA player that has shadowed the league since little Khalid Minor wondered about his father’s whereabouts. The Currys are rich. They are respectful. They are decidedly normal. They could all graduate magna cum laude from Brown Paper Bag University, Virginia Campus. Steph is only lethal to opposing point guards’ ankles. To use a racialized euphemism, he’s clean-cut. What is more, Steph’s brother Seth played basketball for Duke, and we are all well aware of Coach K’s recruiting proclivities as it pertains to Negroes. (Only the most upstanding ones can become Blue Devils. Word to Grant Hill.) In other words, the Currys are top-shelf level respectable. And yet, they are still a problem.
The fact that a critique exists, that a debate occurred in response to Steph Curry spending time with his child is indicative of just how dizzying and pointless it is to dance with any aspect of the myths surrounding Black fatherhood. Here is a young Black man, whose biological did bother, whose Christian family supports him, who married his college sweetheart and had a child in wedlock, who enthusiastically parents that child, and yet his relationship to his family is still a problem. So much so that Curry’s wife, Ayesha, recently penned an article addressing her daughter’s recent “stardom” and the accompanying backlash. The negative response to Riley Curry’s press conference appearances is simply the latest, innocuous little reminder that in the eyes of the media, which is the white gaze, Black respectability is fallow. It is moot.
What we are reminded of through the prism of sports, of professional basketball is that Black parenting, or lack thereof, will always be critiqued. And that criticism will often come from a largely white, male demographic whose job is to monitor and punish Black (male) bodies. This is why Ric Bucher’s tweet about Steph’s parenting was such a poorly conceived attempt at a joke. Again, sports are a facile analogy, an appropriate microcosm for Black American life. Even if Stephen Curry could make us forget what Dwyane Wade does when he’s on a relationship “break” and Dwight Howard’s affairs, it would not matter. It does not matter. It is a frivolous exercise to engage in a game where even following the rules means we’ve broken them and will be punished accordingly. This is part of why I, why we love sports so much: it is quite possibly the only space where the playing field is close to even. It is our only (viewing) refuge from a furiously unfair real-life game.
As our obsession and response to the lives of Black professional athletes show, once the Black body ceases to entertain, it becomes the receptacle of white critique and is therefore in danger. And instead of countering the ensuing narrative about the lives of Black professional athletes, which is to say the lives of Black people, we should learn from the response to Steph and Riley that the goal should not be to counter, but not to play at all.