Sons cheer famous fathers' influence

March 31, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

ATLANTA -- Georgetown, its coach, John Thompson III, told reporters yesterday, is "the son-of team." He quickly added, "And look, Florida might be the son-of team also."

Ohio State might also fit that description, except only one of its players is a "son of." Poor UCLA, then. The Bruins are the only participants in the Final Four without a player whose father's name is instantly recognizable - as an athlete, and most likely as a basketball player. How'd they crash the family picnic?

The better question is: How did the other three teams manage this, to get so much from the sons of highly accomplished fathers? Thompson, son of the Hall of Fame coach at the same school, coaches Patrick Ewing Jr. and Jeremiah Rivers, son of Doc. The Hoyas face, in tonight's first national semifinal at the Georgia Dome, Mike Conley Jr. of Ohio State.

In the second game, UCLA takes on defending champ Florida, led by last year's Most Outstanding Player Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green, sons of, respectively, Yannick, Tito and Sidney.

(In all fairness, UCLA point guard Darren Collison's parents both ran track in the Pan American Games for Guyana, and his mother, June, was in the 1984 Olympics. Don't be hard on yourself if you didn't know their names.)

Yes, they all won the gene lottery, which didn't hurt their chances of getting here, and if there ever has been a bigger gathering of legacies at a major sports championship, it's hard to imagine it.

But history is full of stories of parents' fame working as a barrier to the child's success, not always intentionally, sometimes very much so. Plenty of stories also revolve around that father's absence, physical or otherwise, in the kid's upbringing. The ups and downs of such lives are not unfamiliar, as Maryland fans know after four years of watching D.J. Strawberry.

Aside from that, the absent-father angle is a sad cliche this time of year, bordering on stereotype, but too rooted in truth to brush off. Stories of players' fathers being deeply influential in their development are far too rare.

There's a hint of the above scenarios among the six players and one head coach. Yet the kids turned out more than all right - at least if you judge by their presence in Atlanta this weekend. A lot of long odds were beaten to make this tale come true. Children of privilege? Sure, but the meritocracy of sports negates that. So does the presence of all the paths that could have led to far worse destinations than the Final Four.

Somebody must have done something right.

It was Dad, Noah said of the former Grand Slam tennis champ. "Something my father taught me was my work ethic. Watching him get up at 6 o'clock in the morning and go running every day, the sacrifices he made in order to be a top athlete, those are things I learned from him. Everybody's situation is different, but I'm really proud of what my father stands for, and I'm sure he's proud of me and what I've accomplished. I really feel like he's my best friend."

Yes, Dad, Conley said of his father, an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper. "He understood pressure a lot, because he performed under pressure all the time. He taught me to keep my head, to remain focused and to concentrate, to only worry about what I could control."

Yup, Dad, Rivers said of the longtime NBA star and current Celtics coach. One of Doc's favorite stories is of a time in elementary school in Chicago when he answered the standard "what do you want to be when you grow up" question with "be an NBA player." His teacher castigated him for it, saying that he needed to come up with something reasonable, and he never forgot how that motivated him even more to accomplish it.

"Yeah, I know that story," Jeremiah, a freshman guard, said with a laugh. "That's how my father is; he does what he wants to do, and you can't take away from him the drive to do the things he wants to do. As a kid, I always wanted to hear a teacher say, `You can't do something,' so I could tell her that and have that experience like my dad did."

Definitely Dad, Ewing said, in a manner very reminiscent of his reticent father. "[He helped by] just growing up and him being my dad and being there, and doing the things he did. I watched him do the things he did to be a great player and I tried to do the same things."

Of course, Dad - and his father's father, Thompson said. "My grandfather is the reason I'm sitting here. It's the work ethic. That's the thing I remember, him coming in the house, being exhausted, tired - just the work he put in to put my pops in the position to have the opportunities that he did and on down the line."

As similar as the players' backgrounds are, they also differ in critical areas. Tennis and basketball were among many sports Noah played, and as late as his freshman year at Florida, it wasn't obvious he had picked the right one, just his favorite. Conley admitted that he liked basketball better than track all along and that he didn't want "the pressure" of entering his father's field.

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