Features

Show me the paternity

National | NBA has enough players, but not enough men

Issue: "Against all odds," May 30, 1998

As the National Basketball Association playoffs head toward a conclusion, here are a few stats from the regulars: Michael Jordan led the league in scoring during the 1997-98 regular season with 28.7 points per game; Dennis Rodman and amazing technicolor dreamhair took top honors in the rebound department as he cleaned the glass 1,201 times; Rod Strickland of the Washington Wizards dished off 801 times to snag the award for most assists.

Then there is Shawn Kemp of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mr. Kemp also is an NBA league leader-in number of children fathered out of wedlock. He has seven.

Tragically, Mr. Kemp's situation is not an isolated case among NBA players. Larry Johnson of the New York Knicks has sired five children by four women. Latrell Sprewell, the coach-choker, had three children by three women before he turned 21. Other NBA stars past and present such as Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, and Larry Bird also have had children out of wedlock and have been the subject of paternity-related lawsuits.

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In a Sports Illustrated report on the problem, ESPN broadcaster and former NBA player and agent Len Elmore said, "I would guess that one [out-of-wedlock child] for every player [in the NBA] is a good ballpark figure. For every player with none, there's a guy with two or three." Another top agent said he spends more time dealing with paternity claims than he does negotiating contracts.

In the same report, Mr. Elmore also stated that he left agentry in part because of a "lack of responsibility" among his clients. Given the paternity problem, which sometimes surfaces only after girlfriends refuse to have abortions, that would appear to be a bit of an understatement. "Today's athletes just don't care," Mr. Elmore added. "They're hung up on instant gratification. There's no view of the impact that present-day decisions have on the future."

Sadly, Len Elmore is right on target. But when you come right down to it, the instant gratification mindset Mr. Elmore talks about is not just an NBA problem, but a societal one that reaches from basketball arenas all the way up to the White House. If the economy is good, then Bill Clinton can turn the Oval Office into the Mustang Ranch. If the Cavaliers win the NBA title next season, then Cleveland fans won't care if Shawn Kemp's kids fill up an entire section at the Gund Arena.

A.C. Green of the Dallas Mavericks recently told WORLD, "As professional athletes, we are role models, whether we like it not. The question is whether we're going to be good ones or bad ones."

"Save sex for when you get married," Steve Israel of football's New England Patriots recently told a group of 400 young people at an urban youth rally in inner-city Boston sponsored by Athletes in Action and the Boston TenPoint Coalition: "Hold each other accountable. Draw each other in. Support each other in the Word. Keep each other strong. That's what will help you get through these sort of temptations."

Mr. Israel went on to discuss the consequences of sex before marriage: "For girls, you may have a baby to raise by yourself, maybe even while you're still in high school. The guy might leave you and go on to college and continue his life. He might be less affected by it than the girl is. But when the guy goes away, then the baby grows up without a father there."

The Boston urban youth were captivated by Mr. Israel's words, which are so completely at odds with the messages they receive from Jerry Springer and similar television shows. Athletes with the character and testimony of a Steve Israel or an A.C. Green are hard to find, though, and sometimes it appears that they are voices crying in a stadium wilderness.

That the National Basketball Association has so many players fathering so many out-of-wedlock kids and being named in so many paternity-related lawsuits leads to a pair of conclusions: (1) There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents. (2) The NBA has many basketball players. It has few men.

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