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Paternity Ward
Grant Wahl
May 04, 1998
Fathering out-of-wedlock kids has become commonplace among athletes, many of whom seem oblivious to the legal, financial and emotional consequences
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May 04, 1998

Paternity Ward

Fathering out-of-wedlock kids has become commonplace among athletes, many of whom seem oblivious to the legal, financial and emotional consequences

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Why is it that although there are no studies to confirm this and the NBA refuses to comment, pro basketball appears hardest hit by paternity problems? If the number of paternity suits reported in newspapers is an indication, more NBA players—even though there are fewer of them than players in other leagues—have been implicated than athletes in any other sport. Among the possible reasons:

Road trips. More free time on the road equals more potential for trouble. NBA players have five times as many road games as their NFL counterparts and far more free time on trips than do major league baseball players. Whereas baseball teams get in three games in three nights on the road, NBA teams will often arrive in town and cool their heels for 36 hours before a game.

Money. The NBA's average salary ($2.2 million) is higher than that of any other sport, a fact that is surely not lost on the women whom athletes say are setting them up.

Visibility. NBA teams carry only 12 players, and these players, most of whom are extremely tall, don't have their faces hidden by helmets, hats or sunglasses, all of which makes them easier to spot. "When you get in the big leagues, people see that you have money, you're famous, they read about you," says 14-year NBA veteran Michael Cage, now of the New Jersey Nets. "You become an important person, and the stakes get higher. It's human nature to be attracted to people who can do things you can't and have things that you don't."

A much thornier issue is race. It's no secret that the NBA has a higher proportion of black players (80%) than football (67%) or baseball (17%). Nor is it news that out-of-wedlock births are a persistent problem in the African-American community. According to the most recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics, 70% of black children nationwide are born to unmarried mothers, compared with 21% for whites and 41% for Hispanics. Yet it would be simplistic, at best, to end the discussion there. "A lot of people are ready to see it that way, but it's much more complicated than that," says sociology professor Anderson, who is black. "Class and socioeconomics play the big roles. In middle-class situations people engage in sex just as much, but there's a different sense of future. I think if people in the underclass felt like their future would be derailed by the pregnancy, they would be more circumspect."

Richard Lapchick of Northeastern's Center for the Study of Sport in Society doubts that sports are different from other high-paying professions. "My guess is that if FORTUNE looked at CEOs and another magazine looked at the entertainment industry, you'd see similar numbers," he says. "I think the common denominator is high-income earners." Also, Lapchick worries about viewing such an important issue in racial terms. "The public is wont to paint athletes with a broad brush every time an individual is involved," says Lapchick, "and especially when you talk about basketball and football, you're talking about black athletes. You have the effect of reinforcing stereotypes."

High-profile white athletes have certainly had their share of paternity cases. Larry Bird is an out-of-wedlock father who has not sought a close relationship with his child. In 1975, after enrolling at Indiana State, Bird married his high school sweetheart, Janet Condra. They divorced on Oct. 31, 1976, but on Aug. 14, 1977, Janet gave birth to a daughter, Corrie. Initially Bird denied he was the father and rejected Janet's request for $40 a week in support. But he admitted paternity after a blood test and, before his rookie season with the Celtics, in 1979, agreed to set up an account from which monthly support checks could be drawn until Come turned 18.

Now a 20-year-old junior at Indiana State majoring in elementary education, Corrie is unmistakably her father's daughter, from her aquiline nose to her penetrating eyes to her sandy blonde hair. With prodding, she even confesses to having a reliable outside shot. But what she doesn't have, and what she has wanted for two decades, she says, is a relationship with Bird that goes beyond physical resemblance and financial support. "When I was younger, I would send him letters, and my mom would send him my school pictures and report cards," she says. "We would send them certified mail to make sure he received them, but he just didn't respond."

When Bird took the Pacers' coaching job last spring and moved just an hour from his daughter's apartment, Corrie was optimistic that their relationship would improve. "I went to see the Pacers play earlier this season, and I went down to talk to Dinah [Bird's wife of eight years] and see their kids. [He] looked over and saw me holding [Bird's daughter, five-year-old] Mariah, but he just kind of smiled awkwardly. I didn't get to talk to him, though."

Corrie grew up with the ability to separate Larry Bird the basketball player from Larry Bird the absent father. Her bedroom was a shrine to Bird, its walls covered with clippings, posters and Celtics memorabilia. (Even now, Corrie's black Ford bears a newly attached Pacers license-plate bracket.) When Corrie made the basketball team at Northview High in Brazil, Ind., her choice of uniform number 33 was an easy one. "It sounds corny, but it kind of made me feel closer to him when I played," she says. "I put one of his old high school jerseys in my gym bag as a good-luck charm."

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