Curtis R. Austin, Black Books and Reviews.com
Basketball superstar Dwyane Wade’s autobiography “A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger than Basketball” is less a locker room peek at the inner world of professional basketball, as it is a touching glimpse at a poverty-stricken kid’s unshakeable faith in his drug addicted mother and how the kid-turned-dad wages an against-all-odds legal battle for the two sons he so adores. In his first literary outing, Wade delivers an emotionally thunderous slam dunk.
Wade, who was awarded 2006 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated and named the NBA Finals MVP after leading his Miami Heat to the first of their two NBA Championships that same year, uses basketball as a backdrop as he tells his story of growing up on the Southside of Chicago, arguably one of the toughest cities in America.
Wade, aka “D-Wade” or “Flash,” drafts veteran writer Mim Eichler Rivas help him tell his tale. Eichler was the ghost writer on the New York Times’ bestsellers “The Pursuit of Happyness ” with Chris Gardner that became a movie of the same name starring Will Smith; and “Finding Fish,” with Antwone Fisher, which was the basis of the Denzel Washington film “Antwone Fisher.”
Through Wade’s voice, Rivas is at the top of her game as the story begins to unfold as Wade, now an established NBA superstar, is at home resting in preparation for a playoff run after beating the Los Angeles Lakers the night before. At home, he receives a text message from his lawyer informing him that the judge has made a decision in “the very public, drawn-out custody battle for my sons, nine-year-old Zaire and almost four-year-old Zion. .. It’s over.”
The lawyer’s news that night in March 2011 triggers memories for Wade of his own hard scrabble youth: “I’m taken back to the memory of something that happened to another boy, age eight and a half, who – twenty years earlier – felt he also had been left on the doorstep of uncertainty. …. The year was 1990 … The place was the Southside of Chicago, on the corner of Fifty-Ninth and Prairie, not the projects but a place hard-hit by poverty and drugs, where the sound of gunfire was more or less constant and knowing someone who died young was a reality. The boy I’m remembering is me.”
Fifty-Ninth and Prairie, if memory serves me correct, is in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, less than 20 blocks from the Windy City’s Bronzeville neighborhood, Chicago’s answer to New York City’s fabled Harlem. Like Harlem, Bronzeville is steeped in historical and cultural landmarks, a breathing monument to the generations of Blacks who migrated there from the South. And just like Harlem, there is an undercurrent there: gangs, violence and drugs.
Before it was torn down along with many of Chicago’s public housing projects in the late 90’s through the early 2000’s, Robert Taylor Homes was located in Bronzeville. As a young reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times , I was sent with a photographer to interview residents in Robert Taylor Homes. “The police station is just five minutes away,” one of the residents told me. “But if you call the police, they never come.” Moments later, another tenant approached the Sun-Times photographer. “Is that your car there?” he asked pointing. “Somebody broke into your s##t!” We phoned the police three times in the space of an hour. They never came.
This is the stark world, Wades tells readers, where he grew up, where “Drugs were a major part of the culture, a way of life, and so were the gangs that controlled the corners… where we lived, you could get anything. Weed, crack, heroin …Everything was in plain sight: people snorting, smoking, shooting, getting busted, being handcuffed by the police and carted off right out in the open for using/and selling many going to jail and winding up dead .” At one point in his autobiography, he dispassionately reveals peering into a trash bin in his neighborhood and seeing the body of lifeless child.
In a poignant passage in the book, the basketball superstar recalls as a little boy kneeling at the foot of his bed praying for God to show him a way out.
Midway through the book, I simply stopped counting the number of times Wade recalls watching his mother taken away in handcuffs for using or selling drugs. I lost count, too, of the numerous stretches he went without seeing her. Yet what most amazed me was his unshakeable belief she would one day exorcise her demons and his sheer refusal to ever stop loving her.
Throughout the book is Wade’s recollection of the word game he and his mother, Jolinda Wade, would play. “Whose your favorite girl?” she would ask him. “You” he would always reply.
Wade fondly recalls his mother taking him to a park where children, often much bigger than he, were playing basketball. Perhaps, a little shy because he was younger, a little smaller, he needed his mom’s prodding: “Go get you a game,” she would tell him. It was all he needed.
But it is his slightly older sister Tragil who, in the end, rescues both Wade and their mother. Protective of her little brother Dwayne, she tricks Wade into going with her to the movies. Instead, however, before the bus ever takes them there, she suggests they get off so he can play with “Donny,” one of the sons of Bessie, their father’s girlfriend.
“I’ll come back, Dwayne,” Tragil tells Wade. : “I’ll come back tomorrow.” It was all part of her carefully thought out plan to have Wade live with his Dad “who lived in a somewhat better neighborhood … Dwayne Wade, Sr. had stability,”
It is Tragil, too, who in the ends saves their mother, too. Toward the end of the book, Tragil takes their mother Jolinda on what Wade refers to as “The Ride,” and basically tells mom she has to get her act together because Tragil simply doesn’t have the money to bury her.
After starting with Wade’s discovery that the judge has made a decision regarding custody (a landmark decision giving Wade sole custody) the story see saws from Wade’s youth to his days at Marquette, to he and his childhood sweetheart becoming parents while struggling to live off his modest college stipend, and then finally to his rise to basketball stardom and the slow disintegration of his marriage.
But as surely as Wade never gave up on his then drug-addicted mom, Wade fights in court for custody of his two sons strongly believing his world offers the two young boys far more emotional stability than staying with his wife is mounting her own legal battle for custody and dodging Wade’s repeated efforts to visit with his sons.
In the background, Wade narrates his success in the Olympics with the “Redeem Team,” and his first NBA championship year with the Miami Heat.
In the end Wade, wins his custody battle. He even takes another one of his sister’s sons under his wing, so his nephew can grow up alongside with his two sons.
This book is about faith truly being the substance of things wished for and the evidence of things not seen. In reading through it, I was convinced – despite his love and faith – Wade’s mother was destined to die a dope addict. I was wrong.
Today, Pastor Jolinda Wade is the minister of her own church, which Wade paid to have constructed for her. She has kicked the habit and has written a book about her own journey away from drugs.
As for Wade’s custody battle that was splashed across the pages of newspapers nationwide? I wasn’t betting on Flash in that struggle, either.
Ask any single father who has battled in court for custody of his children. Barring knife or bullet wounds, the courts – even today – nearly always side with the mother. And sole custody? Forget about it. But Wade won that battle, too.
Throughout the book Wade states his determination that his sons will have a better life, both materialistically and emotionally. And he confesses that through fatherhood – despite all the wealth and fame his career has brought him – he has discovered what really matters. He is, in his own words, “a father first.”
And while he does not overpower us with his faith, the book gently threads the message that, along with Tragil, Wade’s faith has been his source of strength, his guiding light. Ever wonder why both at Marquette University and with the Miami Heat, Wade wears the Number 3 on his jersey? It’s for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, he reveals to readers.
While some books offer wonderful inspiration, but leave readers pondering where to channel all that new found inspiration, “A Father First” is not among them.
In the book’s final chapter : “Final Thoughts: Next Steps for Getting Involved,” for the thousands of readers he will never see, Wade tosses a “no look pass.”
“When I was first approached by President Obama to become involved with the (Fatherhood & Mentoring) Initiative, I was humbled. More than that I was moved by the fact that one of the reasons he (President Obama) was so passionate about this issue is that he grew up without his dad. He, too, has recognized that being a father is his most important role. … The president is reaching out to dads across the nation to join him in taking a fatherhood pledge. You make your pledge official by signing up at www.fatherhood.gov/pledge with your name and e-mail address. The pledge is simply a commitment for people whose fathers aren’t around.
Hmm. I’ve never been much of a joiner. But I think I will. In fact, I would encourage all you Dad readers of “Black Books and Reviews” to do the same. As Pastor Jolinda Wade might say “Go get you a game.”
About the Book Review Author
Curtis Austin was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his columns on the family during his tenure at the Dallas Times Herald. For his work as a “family” columnist, he was named Columnist of the Year (for newspapers with a circulation of 150,000 or greater) by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He is the proud father of straight-A, eight-year-old son, Christopher Austin.