Hoop Dreams

Father’s Day advice from Dwyane Wade, Alonzo Mourning, and Joe Biden.

During his campaign, President Obama encouraged young people to follow their dreams—unless those dreams were to become a basketball player. You are simply not that good at basketball, Obama told a crowd of high-school students in Georgia last July: “I know you think you are. But you’re not. You are overrated in your own mind. You will not play in the NBA.”

And yet, less than a year later, here were Miami Heat stars Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning, holding court at a Northeast Washington middle school on Friday, describing how they did just that.

The Wade/Mourning duo was just one of several pairs of men who, as part of the White House’s pre-Father’s Day celebrations, fanned out across the area, talking to kids at schools and community centers about the responsibilities of being a man and a father. Other dad pairs included former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and Run DMC member Darryl McDaniels, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, and Washington Wizard Etan Thomas and Sen. Evan Bayh.

Wade and Mourning did touch on the joys and challenges of fatherhood. But the kids, all between the ages of 3 and 21, all male, mostly wanted to know about their game. “Can you shoot a 3-pointer?” asked one young man who looked about 8. “If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have a job,” Wade replied. Another wanted to know how they became basketball stars. Wade described growing up in Chicago, where he took up basketball because “it wasn’t cool for me to be going to jail at a young age.” Mourning turned the question on its side. “As hard as I worked on the basketball court, I had to work just as hard in the classroom,” he said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You can’t just say, I’m going to be a basketball player and that’s it.”

One boy had several follow-ups: Did they play together? For what team? Why was Mourning retired? Apparently Obama’s message had not quite gotten through. (I was waiting for someone to ask Wade if he really has herpes, but no one did.)

Back at the White House, Wade and Mourning joined the other fathers and a few dozen local students for a “town hall” in the East Room, where Obama discussed the importance of responsible fathers. “Just because your own father wasn’t there for you, that’s not an excuse for you to be absent also,” he told the audience. “It’s all the more reason for you to be present.”

Everyone soon moved out to the South Lawn, where high-school boys sat in clusters, listening politely while the fathers doled out valuable lessons in the allotted 15 minutes. It was like a giant birds-and-bees talk. In one circle, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was making little headway. “Anyone want to talk about your father? Fathers?” asked LaHood. Silence. “I’ll talk about mine,” said the man next to him, before launching into some family history. One student glanced longingly at the Run DMC group.

When Mourning arrived, however, faces lit up. “They know who you are,” said the father who had been talking. Mourning, who retired last year after getting a kidney transplant, waxed nostalgic: “When you get to be our age, you’re gonna want to be your age. So enjoy it.”

Obama soon came by and shook hands with the students. “We’ve got a guy here looking for the basketball court,” said LaHood, pointing to Mourning. Obama smiled. “I already recruited him, he’s on my team.”

The next circle over, Vice President Joe Biden was answering a question at length. “… My No. 2 son, who’s down here, he’s a lawyer. He wanted to go to law school, he went to Yale. Now I don’t like those Ivy League schools, I went to a state school. But all kidding aside, he went to Yale, he didn’t learn anything except how to run a homeless shelter.” 

The lesson being, it’s not about where you go to school. It’s about confidence. “Think about any time you’ve been beat in competition,” Biden said, citing a dubious (but unprovable and therefore ideal) statistic: “There’s an 85 percent chance the guy who beat you is more confident, more self-assured.” Don’t be intimidated, he said. “They’re not smarter than you. They may be better educated, but they’re not smarter.”

Biden was about to make another point when he turned to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was sitting next to him. “The thing I love about this guy—this guy, by the way, helluva basketball player,” Biden said, hand on Duncan’s shoulder.

An aide soon tapped Duncan that it was time to move. Biden turned to see a row of notebooks behind him. “I didn’t realize I had the press behind me,” he said, laughing. “Did I say anything stupid?”

Time for food. Chicken, corn on the cob, and other goodies prepared by top chef and reported No. 1 dad Bobby Flay. Everyone headed over to the grill. Obama shook a few last hands and took off. “What do you want for Father’s Day?” asked one reporter as he left. Obama thought for a second. “A health care bill.”