When we think of sports fathers whose children accomplished great things, we tend to think of the likes of Earl Woods, Richard Williams or LaVar Ball. They were men who found their way into the media spotlight due to the nature in which they drove their prodigious children to the pinnacle of their respective sports.
These men were and are controversial figures in their own right, either because of their extreme methodology or, in Ball’s case, their bombastic, headline-seeking behaviors.
But there are plenty of other sports dads out there who shun the spotlight and don’t need or seek out affirmation. They’re comfortable with playing the background, letting their dedication as fathers speak for themselves.
We tend to forget that elite athletes are indeed human beings, some of them with warm, substantive upbringings as opposed to the accepted narrative of kids from the hood for whom athletics was their lone escape mechanism from poverty.
I’m often drawn to the story of Kyrie Irving, not so much because of his spectacular and jaw-dropping abilities as one of the most electric point guards the game has ever seen, but rather due to some familiarity with his background and the man that guided him along his journey.
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Drederick Irving grew up in the Mitchell Housing Projects in The Bronx, where he formulated his own incredible basketball skill set alongside one of his best friends since the second grade, the incomparable Rod Strickland. At the age of 11, his biddie coach with the Bronx Gauchos program anointed him with the nickname that would follow him to every court in the city: “Ice”.
Dred blossomed into a 6-foot-4 scoring machine, one of most prolific players in Boston University history, where he was coached by Rick Pitino. He was the Terriers’ leading scorer as a sophomore, junior, and senior, and finished his college career with 1,931 points. He was BUs top scorer until his record was broken in the mid-1990’s.
I was at a nearby prep school at the time when he was lighting things up at BU from 1984 to 1988, where my buddies and I would hop on “The T”, the city’s subway system, to check his game live and direct, along with another incredible player close by at Northeastern University, Reggie Lewis.
Dred’s No. 11 was retired by the school in 1988, and hes a member of the BU Athletic Hall of Fame. He secured a free agent tryout with the Boston Celtics and made his mark overseas as an exceptional pro in the Australian League, where he was coached by current Sixers head man Brett Brown.
He averaged 38 points per game during his two-year stint with the Bulleen Bombers, and chose to return home to begin a career on Wall Street rather than pursue a globetrotting career as a pro baller chasing a shot at the NBA. By the mid-’90s, he was married to his college sweetheart and the father of two young children, daughter Asia and son Kyrie.
But his wife suddenly passed away in 1996 when Kyrie was just four years old.
He brought the boy everywhere, but then, what choice did he have? When Kyrie was 4 and his sister, Asia, was 5, their mother, Elizabeth, died suddenly, leaving Drederick to care for two confused, heartbroken children. His own grief needed to be tucked away during the hectic daylight hours of raising two active kids. Only when they were tucked in safely was Drederick free to sob himself quietly to sleep.
He wanted more for his children than he had. As one of six children growing up in the Mitchel housing projects in the Bronx, N.Y., Drederick saw too much too soon. He was a child on welfare whose father abandoned him when he was 6, whose mother, Lillian, worked two jobs to keep the family afloat. Drugs and crime and guns were everyday obstacles, and Drederick recognized education and basketball would be his escape.
“I consider myself a good man,” Drederick once told Kyrie, “but I want you to be a better one.”
Drederick moved his small children to New Jersey and enrolled them in private school, but he brought them back regularly to the Mitchel projects.
“I was there almost every weekend,” Kyrie said. “I got to be in the same environment my dad was in. I was basically a kid playing on a jungle gym in the projects.”
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Kyrie watched his father play ball in tournaments all over New York City. In addition to his long-held nickname, “Ice”, playground announcers took to calling him “First Step”at the Gun Hill tourney in The Bronx. In Rucker Park, he was also known as “The Go-To Guy”. Another one of his monikers was “The Professional.”
In 1997, he made an appearance at Rucker Park, and in the process informed the younger generation of just how ill his game was. With Kyrie and his sister on the sideline, Dred spontaneously erupted for 60 points.
As my colleague at Bounce Magazine, Sean Couch, wrote in the summer of 2009, “Irving on the attack that day was a sequence of pure skill. He went for 60 with all the new jacks who didn’t know the deal suddenly asking who they were playing against. What they didn’t understand was that playground royalty was right in front of them.”
He was also royalty in another form, that of a single father who made every sacrifice necessary to ensure that his children had the best upbringing possible. On September 11th, he was walking through the lobby of The World Trade Center when the first airplane hit the towers. As he ran out of the building, surrounded by suffocating smoke and collapsing walls, his only thought was, “I’ve got to get to my kids.”
Kyrie was ten years old on that tragic day. His sister was eleven.
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Throughout their lives, Dred’s support and involvement was unwavering. He encouraged them to chase their passions, but also stressed the transformative effects of education. Most importantly, he talked to them about simply being good people.
As we celebrate Father’s Day today around the sports sphere, it’s important to recognize some of the true heroes out here, the one’s who built a foundation upon which their children’s athletic accolades are merely one beam in their overall construction.
When I think of great sports fathers, Drederick Irving tops the list.