Mother's Play

Some NBA stars got their moves from their moms.

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One spring afternoon about 15 years ago, I was walking along a Manhattan street and spied an unusual scene. It was a woman and her teenage son, walking about half a block ahead of me. He was dribbling a basketball. She was coaching.

She was critiquing the form on his shot, stressing that he needs to keep his forearm steady during the release. She then quickly deflected the ball away from her son, held it up and illustrated the form she was talking about.

They turned a corner and headed in a different direction, away from me, so I stopped and watched them for a block. (Yes, New Yorkers watch each other like this all the time.) The mother-son tutorial shifted from shooting to post moves. The kid tended to bounce on his toes when handling the ball with his back to the basket. Mom corrected him to a more solid standing position so that he could spin on either foot to drive to the hoop. I was running late, so I filed the scene away in my head and hurried to my appointment.

I had forgotten about that mother-son scene until a friend brought something to my attention: A small handful of NBA players probably learned a lot about the game from their mothers. Charlotte Bobcats forward Boris Diaw, Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee, Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard all had mothers who played basketball at high levels. That probably puts a different spin on Mother’s Day (especially since two of these players will be in action on Sunday), and it points out how, bit-by-bit, the world of sports is becoming a thoroughly co-ed domain.

Diaw’s mother is Elisabeth Riffiod, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest French women basketball players ever. McGee is the son of Pamela McGee, who played on one of the greatest women’s NCAA teams ever, the University of Southern California Trojans in the early ‘80s. Her teammates included hoops legends Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Miller and McGee’s twin sister, Paula. Ming has dual basketball parentage; his mom, Fang Fengdi and his dad, Yao Zhiyuan, were professional basketball players in China, and he has cited his mom’s influence on some aspects of his game. Howard is the son of Sheryl Howard, who was a standout basketball player at Morris Brown College.

JaVale McGee, who throughout his high school and college career was known as “Pam McGee’s son,” has had the most prominent involvement from his mother in his career. (On draft day last year, Pam McGee declared that the situation should now be reversed, and she should be known as Javale’s mom.) Javale is a 7-foot-tall center who went to the University of Nevada for two years, and as a 20-year-old center, he faced a stiffer learning curve than most NBA rookies. Most young guards and forwards have played against opponents their size all their lives. Centers rarely do, until they reach the NBA when suddenly they are often not the biggest player on the court, and they find that their opponents are the same size. And typically, young centers find that their counterparts are much more athletically savvy. Ming and Howard struggled at times during the rookie seasons.

For McGee, his first season in the NBA was made more tumultuous by his team suffering through a disastrous 19-63 season that included the firing of coach Eddie Jordan, whom JaVale met in Sacramento when his mother played for the Sacramento Monarchs. Jordan was then an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings. However, McGee played quite well for a rookie and especially well for one with a steep learning curve. Yet, he averaged only 15 minutes a game, which led his mother to publicly criticize the Wizards’ management. And this was clearly not a case of an overaggressive little league mother; McGee had a valid point that a team not in contention should be preparing for the future by playing its younger players more, and many leading statisticians like ESPN’s John Hollinger chimed in to point out that McGee’s performance was exceptional for a rookie.

McGee’s situation will likely improve next season when coach Flip Saunders takes over. He is known for giving younger players substantial playing time in his previous stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Detroit Pistons. Meanwhile, it’s quite likely that McGee, Howard, Ming and Diaw are only the beginning of trend toward NBA players whose mothers know the game as well as their coaches.

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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