Navigating Racial Issues As A Parent

My parents were as good as they come, giving their three children all the love and trust we needed to build confidence and self-esteem. My father, Joe Lapchick, was a famous player for the Original Celtics, was head coach for St. John’s and later for the Knicks. I was proud of my father’s work and the way he fought racism in sport. He was the first white player to take a center jump against a black man. He signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton as the first black player in the NBA.

baskI shared his passion for equality. I chose a profession that let me travel across the country talking to parents and young people about conflict resolution and race relations. The rewards were great, as were the dangers. While teaching at a college in Virginia, I was physically assaulted by two white men, causing liver and kidney damage, a hernia and a concussion. They carved the word “nigger” into my stomach with a pair of scissors.

Our family moved to New York shortly after, where I worked for the United Nations. Over the the next six years, there were months when I was overseas more than I was home. Little did I know that while I delivered the fight message to my audiences, my two children felt cheated because I was not there enough for them. My father traveled constantly, but I never once thought his absence was a sign of less love for me. I never dreamed my being gone could be interpreted that way by Joe or his sister, Chamy.

Joe was growing inwardly, wondering where I was. When he was very young, Joe used to pick fights with friends or classmates. A child psychiatrist explained Joe felt guilty he hadn’t been able to protect his father from attack, and more important, Joe assumed he would be attacked when he grew up. When I was home, I didn’t encourage him to play sports because I thought one of my father’s greatest gifts to me was to let me choose what I wanted to do and not face the pressures of being from a famous sports family. Although I did lots of other things with Joe and Chamy, Joe interpreted the simple action of not playing ball with him as a form of rejection because sports had been such a big part of my life.

I left the UN and moved to Boston to found Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society in 1984. Although I traveled less, my marriage was disintegrating and Joe, now in middle school, was angry and confused. The drinking started then and built up quickly over the next two years. Before long, the alcohol was co-mingled with drugs. Still, I didn’t see the danger signs, nor did his mother, Sandy.

Our marriage ended, and only when I met and fell in love with my current wife, Ann Pasnak, did I begin to understand the depth of Joe’s problems. It was Ann who saw the distress that was in Joe’s heart and reflected in his eyes. Through a determined family effort, which included Chamy, Sandy and her new fiance, we pushed Joe to seek help. He resisted, and we pushed back. Today he acknowledges the addictive personality that could have killed him. I know we must keep watch and we accept every day as a gift. I have received many awards for my achievements, but I would trade every one of them if it would erase the pain that my work caused Joe and Chamy.

I am pleased to note Joe graduated from college in May, a whole person finally secure from what my work had once brought into his life. He is ready to start his professional life. Chamy graduated in 1998 and is happy as a professional decorator.

Ann and I had a child, Emily, who is almost 10. I have tried to learn from what I missed with Joe and Chamy. We encourage her to play sports. I do not travel nearly as much, and when I do, Emily and Ann frequently come with me. Life now seems so good, but I will always keep a close eye on Emily, looking for any of the signals I may have missed with Joe. Ann is even more vigilant and protective.

My mother and father are gone. All of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren spent a week together recently at a family reunion. We talked so much about how lucky we have been that our family is so infused with love and caring. We also talked about how hard it is to be a parent. Life’s lesson for me is to enjoy the innocence of childhood yet be there, fully conscious, to show our children how to grow up. Their lives are literally at stake. Just ask Joe or me.

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