Summer Reading, Part 4: Etan Thomas’s Take on the Ultimate ChallengeJohn Flynn
If there is one book I’d recommend for every father to read this summer, it would be this one. From the very first time I read the title of Etan Thomas’ book, Fatherhood: Rising to The Ultimate Challenge (Penguin Group, 2012) it read like a mission statement to me. I don’t think men go into fatherhood looking at it that way—as a challenge. I identified so strongly with this book. Many of the things Thomas writes, I think I’ve said myself.
Thomas, a former NBA Center for the Washington Wizards and Oklahoma Thunder, offers profound insights about fatherhood. Having grown up mostly with a single mother, he shares stories from childhood, but also talks about how becoming a dad himself has made him grow as a person and as a man. The book also includes essays, poems and insights from some 50 other notable celebrities including Kareem Abdul Jabar, Tony Hawke, Isaiah Washington—guys from all walks of life. Some of their stories are joyful and some are very painful. Throughout, the author and the contributors present fatherhood as a great gift, an honor, a delight, and one of the most important things we’ll ever do as men.
I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Thomas some time ago about his book, his thoughts on fatherhood, and his beliefs about family.
So let me begin by asking, what made you decide to write this book?
My first motivation in wanting to do the book is basically encompassed in the chapter “Sky’s the Limit.” I talk with young people all the time. That’s a passion of mine. And in talking with them, so much of the time their feedback is all about negative statistics they’ve heard and how they’re probably not gonna make it in life if they come from a single parent household. I wanted to write this to encourage them, to let them know that they can make it. I wanted them to hear it straight from other men, guys who they might have already heard of and look up to. I wanted to express to them the beauty of fatherhood — it’s important for kids whose fathers aren’t in their lives to hear this and it’s also important for other men to realize it. If you’re not spending time with your kids, not only are your kids missing out, but you’re missing out.
You’re absolutely right. It’s interesting, when reading some of the more painful stories, like Isaiah Washington’s story, I want to tell him is that his story—as painful as it was in his life— will be such a blessing to the kids in this country.
Oh no question, no question, because the thing is with kids, especially boys, they don’t talk about this stuff. If they’re feeling all this inside, they keep it bottled up and act like everything is cool. But hearing somebody who they’ve seen, whether it’s on the field or on the court or on the movie screen or rappers actually talking about feeling that pain and how they had to get past it and different things they did to get past it, it’s inspirational. I feel like I learned as much as anybody else from reading this book.
When reading your book, Fatherhood, I felt a strong connection with you as an author. Especially when you talk about missing those “moments” with your kids. There are so many times, with my own children, that I miss those moments because I’m on the phone or on my computer, etc. Those moments when your kid wants your attention and you just brush them off. What you are saying to dads everywhere is: YOU. CAN’T. MISS. THOSE. MOMENTS. Nothing is as important.
No question! And it’s something that transcends to everybody’s lifestyle. No matter what job you’re in, you’re doing something and you’re busy and you’re trying to get this assignment done or you’re trying to get a report done, or whatever, and it’s like if you miss out on that precious moment, once you miss it, that moment is gone.
Absolutely. So for the audience who might not have read the book yet, can you describe your own upbringing and your relationship with your dad?
Well my parents were divorced when I was young. So I saw my father, you know “visitation,” once or twice a month and that kind of thing. I can relate to a lot of the young men that I talk with who have that anger from not having enough time with their father. I can relate to going to a basketball game, a big tournament or something like that, and everybody else has their father there, and my father isn’t there.
I’m really impressed with your focus as a dad. You talk about your grandfather having had quite a bit of influence on you. Who were your biggest influences in affecting how you parent now?
Well, I definitely was very blessed to have my grandfather. And I had my Syracuse University coach, and my pastor. I had these men that I could look to.
One of the things that really surprised me, and this may be my naiveté about pro sports, but I never thought about how difficult it would for an athlete to be on the road for six months of the year.
Oh my gosh, and you ask anybody who has kids — Chris Paul talks about it in his chapter — when you have kids it’s just different. When you’re young, and you’re playing and you’re going to different cities, and you’re kicking it, it’s all fun. But when you get older, and your kids can express that they miss you and they don’t want you to leave, that is like the worst. I think of my son — he was like, “Wait, you gotta leave again? You just got here!” I’d be like Malcolm, we’ve got a game. I’m about to get on a plane in Chicago.” And he’d say “No, I don’t want you to leave.” When your kids say that to you — it crushes you. Now with technology, yeah you can do the Skype thing and stuff like that, but kids are different talking on the phone or on Skype than they are in person. It’s not the same. Being a dad on the road, a lot of the time you’re like “Man, I’m sitting here in the middle of wherever, and my kids are doing all this stuff — and especially if you miss something, like if you miss a first step or the first thing they say, and you’re on the road, that’s a tough thing.
Again, my naiveté— it’s something I’ve never thought of before. Just because you’re a famous basketball player—it doesn’t mean you’re any less human or that it’s hard for you to be away from your kids.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the book?
The feedback has been great and the thing is is that it touches everyone differently. After the book came out, what I started doing was organizing panels, and the different writers in the book would all get together and have public talks. And people come to these and they want to listen and bounce off ideas, and what I see when we open up the floor for discussion is that there are a lot of problems that men would really like to discuss, but they don’t, because there’s just no space for it. It’s not something that we do. So these panels have been really great.
Just one more question, Etan, What advice would you give to new dads?
Know that you’re gonna make mistakes and be humble enough to learn from them.