During the summer before I went to high school, my father, Pappy — by this time an older man with bad knees, a thick salt-and-pepper beard, and a powerful-looking bald head — took off from work, packed up our sedan and drove me down Interstate 95 to Fredericksburg, Md., same as he did every year. There he dropped me off at Morgan Wootten's sleep-away basketball camp. Two weeks later, he was back early in the morning to catch the last day of league games and the awards ceremony that followed. My team had advanced to the championship game, and as the starting point guard, I was up for the Most Outstanding Player trophy in my age group.
As we formed layup lines and began to warm-up for the game, he made his way across the gym, limping slightly, a book tucked under his arm. He quietly took a seat in the bleachers close by and began to read, underlining as he went along, looking up over his bifocals at the court every now and again. Unlike some of the other dads at these games, Pappy was no yeller, he didn't cheer or even applaud. He also wasn't distracted, constantly checking a pager or stepping out of the gym to make phone calls. His focus was his son and his thoughtful stoic presence had the dual-edged effect of motivating and terrifying me. I had grown up understanding that my father—who hadn't met his own father and was the only son of an unwed, uneducated teenage mother who never really recovered from her fall from grace—had triumphed against daunting odds. At his ''colored'' high school in Galveston, he boxed, debated, played pitcher on the baseball team, played point guard on the basketball team and played quarterback on the football team. He was his class' homecoming king and valedictorian. To him, life itself was competitive and there was no consolation in placing second. Life was also incredibly fragile, and it only took one misstep to lose it all — that is what his mother's example taught him — so from childhood on, he took everything seriously and made it his mission to always be on point.
My parents told me a story that encapsulates Pappy's paternal psychology completely. As a baby, I was with my mother in our old home in Newark, crawling freely while she was trying to clean and watch after my very active 5-year-old brother. We were upstairs, on the second floor of the house. At one end of the room, there was a door, which led out into the hallway and down a long flight of carpeted stairs onto the parlor level, where my father had his study and received visitors. I was a quiet baby, and it wouldn't have been odd for me not to be making much noise as I crawled. Somehow, my mother had gotten distracted with my brother, and I made my way over to the door, which wasn't properly closed. I got out into the hallway and soon began tumbling down the staircase in a bright blue bundle of diapers and pajamas, rushing toward the hardwood floor below. As my mother gaped from the landing above, the door to my father's study flew open and out dove Pappy to catch me like a fly ball before I reached the ground. He had been in the middle of a meeting when, suddenly, he hopped up, told his guests to wait, and bolted to the door. He almost certainly saved my life that morning.
''How in the world did you even hear that?'' one of the stunned guests asked him afterward.
''I've been listening for that sound from the moment we brought the baby home from the hospital,'' Pappy said.
I grew up knowing that no matter where I was or what I was doing, Pappy never stopped listening for the sound of me falling.
As I glanced over at him from the court, I shifted back and forth in my fresh-out-the-box Air Jordans, adjusting my sagged-just-so mesh shorts for the 20th time. I alternated between fussing with my headband and feigning an insouciant pose. When my turn came and I caught the ball on the right side of the key, I took two hard, deliberate dribbles and slashed to the basket, finger rolling the ball and slapping the glass with the same hand for affect. The ball hung on the rim and spun out. Pappy, looking over his book, shook his head and beckoned me over to the sideline.
''Son, just play your game,'' he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. ''Leave all that foolishness and showmanship behind and don't let me or anyone else get you nervous. Stay cool, and listen to the sound of your own drummer. Tick, tick, tick, tick, count it out in your head, make your own rhythm.'' He gave me nuggets of counsel like this whenever I had to compete, whether I was running track, playing basketball or taking a test. This time, though, he added something else, something I did not understand: ''If you're going to compete,'' he said locking onto my eyes for emphasis, ''then do your best, son, always do your best, but remember that I really don't care if we ever have another black athlete or entertainer.''
I won that Most Outstanding Player trophy that year, and Pappy was pleased despite what he had said to me on the bleachers. On the ride home, he gave me a choice: I could either go to Delbarton, a lily-white and regionally prestigious boys' school far from our house and even farther from our price range, where he believed he could secure me a scholarship, or I could go down the street to Union Catholic, a not-prestigious-at-all parochial school, but one with a voluptuous, brown student body. The decision was mine Pappy said because, truth be told, he couldn't bring himself to force a boy to go to school without girls, simple as that. Besides, it wasn't as if he trusted either institution to educate me as he saw fit. Wherever I went, in the evenings after school, on weekends, and in the summers, I would still have to study one-on-one with him — same as I always had.
I knew that I could make the team at either school, so I leaped at the opportunity, finally, to surround myself with other black kids — specifically black girls — and chose to go to Union Catholic. Pappy, for his part, didn't say whether he found my decision foolish or not. He kept his eyes focused on the road ahead and said that'd be fine.
This is an excerpt from Thomas Chatterton Williams' Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, published last month by Penguin.