“Test Tube Sports Professionals” Bye John Watts

Just a cursory glance on ESPN highlights confirms the professional sports hereditary phenomenon growing all the time.  A recent college basketball game I happened to turn on featured star billing by the announcers for Glenn Robinson the 3rd and Tim Hardaway Jr.

All this father and son torch passing in sports reads like some Old Testament passage be-gating list detailing the tribes of Israel.  Will the circle be unbroken?

It is a powerful statement on genes and pedigree with maybe some of the perks and advantages that go with it.  One of the earliest that I remember noting was Hall of Famer Rick Barry having a total of 3 NBA sons which still remains remarkable in its own right.

Sometimes the father is the top heavy legacy ahead of his offspring like Rick Barry.  Other times it is the reverse as illustrated dramatically with Jellybean Bryant giving way to his internationally seasoned son Kobe.

Mike Dunleavy has a fine NBA playing son aptly named Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Doc Rivers son Austin Rivers plays for the New Orleans Pelicans.

NBA great Doug Collins had a son Chris Collins who also played pro basketball.

Switch the channel to a recent NBA game as Klay Thompson, son of Michael Thompson starts in the backcourt with Steph Curry, (probably the  best of the bunch, whose star just keeps on rising up to a Kobe like superstar level) son of Dell Curry on the Golden State Warriors who incidentally is now being followed by Seth Curry of Duke University.

I just noticed the Philadelphia 76ers with all-star Jhru Holiday and his younger brother Aaron recently added to the same roster.  Again, what are the odds?  When I was lost in childhood fantasy schemes of playing in the NBA while shooting baskets on my driveway as a 12 year old, I remember thinking I was Elvin Hayes or Bobby Dandridge and copiously practicing their shots—but I never dared to dream big enough to also imagine playing with one of my brothers on the same NBA team

It is true in other sports as well.  Clay Mathews III a current pro bowl linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, had his uncle and father both play in the NFL before him, and all three attended USC for their college career.

Sometimes there are cross sport stories like father Calvin Hill in pro football and his son Grant Hill in pro basketball.  Or how about the high character trifecta of Cal Ripkin Sr., Cal Ripkin Jr, (hall of famer), and brother Billy Ripken?  Pretty hard to beat that combination—and all playing on the same time for a brief period too!

Pretty soon if we keep up this rate of multiple ascensions within families—that notorious king of the hill family—the celebrated Manning’s, will not be viewed as too exceptional and rare an occurrence after all (hall of fame father quarterback and perhaps two hall of fame sons?  Pish posh—I can do better than that!) as professional sport triple flushes become more common.   Surely there must be some mysterious chemical mix bubbling in the DNA of various special, that select families share and it only seems to be increasing in frequency.  What are the odds?

Apparently very good—and this is not just unique to athletes either in pro sports.  In the coaching ranks it is very common for a newly hired head coach in the NFL to bring in one or more of his sons to be an assistant coach, sometimes with the intention of grooming him to be an heir apparent.  When the Redskins hired Marty Schottenheimer as head coach, it seems he brought at least one brother and son to be assistant position coaches.  Consider the duo of Buddy Ryan and his son Rex Ryan, head coach of the New York Jets. The fact that son Rob Ryan is the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys is just more gravy for the family legacy.  Traditions such as these become so automatic and natural after a while, that an assumed ascendency becomes expected, as if the competency is  presumed for the sake of nepotism, regardless of whether the person is the best qualified or not.  Seen this way, some families hold on fame can seems to take on the aura of royalty in their respective sports as they span generations.

What I especially can’t understand, and I marvel at all the time, is how well wired emotionally and mentally all these many off-spring prodigies undoubtedly are.  Instead of caving in to the added pressure, these younger players seem to thrive on the live spectator conditions in this rarified air.  It all makes me pose the question over and over again.  What are the odds?

Thinking back to my very puny organized sports career—my poise could unravel very easily just by having certain people in the bleachers (if there were any bleachers) watching me play basketball games.  I even ordered my Mom, as an 11 year old, to limit her viewing of me during games to the far away the thin glass window on the outside door of the gym out in the freezing cold.  So undone was I by crowd attention.

But for all these guys—pressure seems illogical and actually preferable as they too thrive like their Dad before them.  After all, what’s the big deal about living up to expectations anyway?  These guys seem genetically predisposed to blocking out hang ups and deep thoughts so they can single mindedly focus on being brave and accomplishing great things as they approach public life wearing that Alfred E. Newman’s grinning face on the cover of Mad Magazine with the caption—‘What—me worry?”

But let’s turn the clock way back—to the dark ages before the NFL—way back in the pre industrialization days, when sons would often inherit the job of their fathers which usually consisted of a trade or farm work.  Children would be groomed in the family business to insure that the farm or the candle stick shop would continue its own unbroken string of Johansson’s or Struddlehoffer’s for the next generation to come and the next after that.  Great clarity and pride must have been felt by succeeding sons as they learned to be equally adept and safely employed as their fathers before them.  They didn’t think about seeing their faces on a deck of ball cards or making it to the hall of fame one day.  It was a simpler Maslow’s Heirarchy—way before the need for ego gratification became so vital.

Certainly it is understandable that NFL fathers would take their sons to their training camps so as to become acclimated to the conditions while carrying equipment and watching and listening.  Some advantage might be gained by the familiarity of sons hearing fathers talk about training camp and how they best handled the stress at home and kept a healthy balance.

But attaining employment of the NFL or NBA surely is not some sure fire apprentice program like being groomed to be a candle stick maker.  Every advantage gained by nepotism I would think would bring twice the draw back in the form of pressure and expectation.  I mean to say, just imagine going out for the basketball team if you were Michael Jordan’s oldest son or Larry Bird’s first born male.  30 years ago one would cite the teasing factor and all the crush of living up to a highly decorated father.  But today it just seems like a boost and not a hindrance.  I also wonder if professional sports patriarchs encourage this.  I mean to say just imagine if Dr. Julius Irving’s son, one pivotal day while fishing with his Dad, turns to him and says—“Dad I’ve decided I want to enter the medical profession and be a doctor too like you!”  Does Dr. J then later go out of his way to invite his son to join him in a practice?

It also makes me scratch my head and wonder where it all went wrong for me.  My Dad was superintendent of schools in Rochester New York and then Fairfax County, Virginia.  He was in a very prominent position already with the promise of more promotions and even higher ladder climbing to come.  If I follow the logical pattern of these other family professional sports pathways, I suppose it should be naturally expected that I too would manage to become a public county school superintendent since I have my Dad’s genes.

If that is the new logical paradigm; then I would surely be viewed as a disappointment and more than just a little off target in my career results.  To use a sports metaphor—if we were playing on the same team, my Dad would be the Captain while I would sweep the floors during timeouts.

Maybe I should foster some major sour grapes that something wasn’t done to at least my get a tryout as a superintendent of some county just as my Dad was, before it became too late?  After all, how can you definitively know I would stink at being a superintendent unless I had a fair shake at being one—with a minimum 3 year guaranteed contract and a signing bonus?  Yet never was I afforded the chance to carry my Dad’s brief case around and hear shop talk around the water cooler regarding decisions that only school superintendents could make.  Who knows–maybe if I had, then perhaps the know-how and key ingredients would just soak into my system and become second nature like it did for Larry Fitzgerald as a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings (thanks to his Dad who was a sportswriter for a Minneapolis newspaper).

Perhaps if I had insisted harder on tagging along with my Dad at work I could have inherited all the educational philosophies and guest speaking tips for later success through osmosis.  Certainly in my own career, I have struggled mightily with impressing people in high places and doing any serious ladder climbing.

In fact it has been all I can do to just keep my head above water and retain some very non prestigious special education teaching jobs for consecutive years.  So where did my genes fail me?

I would love at this point, to pontificate about the lack of clear cut opportunities available in my adulthood compared with what WW2 veterans could embrace when they returned back to civilian life in the late 40s.  I could stress the giddy momentum of the baby boomer years taking flight and how it offered unprecedented growth and opportunities for advancing the middle class and the prospects for the first time of children doing appreciably better than their parents did before them with a college degree and more material wealth.  The American dream was more than just a catch phrase in a history book then.  And yes I could cite my disillusionment with educational administrations and the paucity of creativity and big ideas needed for success and then say that I would rather stay in the trenches were it is more creative rather than play that game.  I could fashion lots of excuses and alibis and I have believe me.

But this would not be entirely true.  Sadly dear diary, I would sheepishly have to come clean and admit that having waded this far into my professional journey, I can unequivocally say that I simply don’t have the prerequisite personality traits or leadership skills to last even a week as a superintendent in today’s school system.  My Dad retained a great idealism and optimism about changing the educational system with new ideas and innovations to enhance how we educate the youth.  I have never seen the allure of changing the system formally nor had any convince-ability at meetings for swaying decisions.

But maybe I should still examine more closely the pro sports model for family legacies, then I could claim—“hey if only there was a team full of school superintendents in the same county, than I would have a better mathematical chance of following in my Dad’s footsteps like the Manning’s and the Barry’s before me in pro sports.  As it is, there is only one slot and it’s too politically charged and surrounded by too many little minds and ferocious advocates.

If professional sports keep up the family trend however, we may end up having actual farm systems made up of professional athlete ranches that breed thoroughbred athletes like the Mannings and Barrys expressly for the purpose of one day competing professionally under the glare of the bright stadium lights.  These would be separate family farms of course with Grandfathers throwing the baseball or football to their Grandkids who in turns toss it back to their Uncles who loft it to their fathers.  We would stockpile whole nuclear families of “The Natural” and one day when one would retire from traumatic brain injuries or multiple concussions, they would be gently brought out to pasture back to the same family farm they started with.

Who knows? If enough offspring are specially bred with the right diets and exposure to training camps, perhaps entire teams can be crammed with their own blood lines and simply called “The Robinsons” or “The Mannings” as the actual mascot name.  Then when contract disputes arise, the owner could turn to the player in question and genuinely utter that great cliché sports line that precedes a break up—“we really think of you as being family to us son—this is more than just some business decision!”

But I think from a sociological perspective, we also live in a very muddled and inexact age, when the clear cut vocational trades of fathers cannot be so easily passed down as if it were some treasured farm house to keep in the family to span entire centuries.  Change and instability are rampant and give way to divvied up parcels of Condos and Condominiums to replace the 200 acre family farms.  That plus the fact that job titles like Superintendent of Schools or Head comptroller of Public Finance is very hard to duplicate or aspire to as they are so specialized and finely tuned as far as the career training involved.  It’s not as tangible and widespread as being a real estate agent or a lawyer even.

Maybe the best thing we can do for ourselves is to finally subordinate and suppress that old antiquated notion of finding the “American Dream” through our career, and just do the best we can making ends meet, working 3 or 4 jobs as overstressed teachers, isolated file clerks and overqualified baristas at Starbucks.

Then we can still go home at night and relive our childhood fantasies, partaking in that universally appealing “opiate of the masses” practice of turning on the television to watch more and more rich athletes pass their “members only” baton from father to son as we once again wonder bitterly to ourselves—“what are the odds?”


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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