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A Slew of Second-Generation NBA Prospects Share an Ultra-Competitive Zeal

Ray Glier

Ronnie McAdoo’s AAU summer basketball experience was shirts vs. skins on the asphalt court at Efland Cheeks Elementary School in Mebane, North Carolina. This was in the 1970s, before jeans were designer and phones were mobile and sneakers were polished leather.

Ronnie “Mack” didn’t develop his rugged game against the best teenagers on the planet. He worked his game against 24-year-old men who came out of the eastern North Carolina mills and were not about to let some snot-nosed kid back them down in the lane.

There was no squeak of fresh new sneakers on polished hardwood, just the groan of canvas and rubber soles on blistering asphalt. Referees did not settle disputes; hard glares did. McAdoo walked to the playground, or to the high school gym four-and-a-half miles away.

His son, former North Carolina star James Michael McAdoo, on the other hand, didn't have just one pair of polished leather sneakers, but spare pairs for when he played summer ball in high school. The Boo Williams summer team he played on was a collection of exceptional teenagers who occasionally took jets to tournaments.

When James Michael made a USA Junior team, he flew to Germany, Argentina and Lithuania, and points in between. There were professionally trained referees to rule the game, not glares and shoves.

“Basketball is head and shoulders above today what it was when I came along in the '70s,” Ronnie McAdoo said. “There was no AAU, there were no summer leagues. If you wanted to get better, you went to the playground. You played with grown men.”

The McAdoos came up in different eras and made themselves good enough for the NBA draft in different ways. But one trait they shared was an insatiable desire to compete.

James Michael McAdoo and Janet Davis McAdoo Courtesy of the McAdoo family

“We were so competitive,” said Janet Davis McAdoo, Ronnie’s wife, herself a Parade High School All-American, “that we did not allow board games in the house. They were off the table. Ronnie cheated at Candy Land. We were going, ‘Dude, you can’t cheat in Candy Land’. It was too competitive in our house sometimes.

“We had to say, 'That’s it, no more board games.'”

As you look down the list of players in the 2014 draft and see familiar last names and match them up—a teenager or 20-something with a parent who was a star back in the day—do not ask how it happened that so many offspring of elite athletes are in this draft. Understand that it happened because of two common denominators: genes and a burning desire to compete. 

A Sampling of Second-Generation NBA Prospects
Player, School (Country) Family Connection
Dante Exum, Australia Father played at North Carolina
Aaron Gordon, Arizona Father played at San Diego State
Jerami Grant, Syracuse Father played for the Washington Bullets
Gary Harris, Michigan State Mother played for the Detroit Shock
Rodney Hood, Duke Both parents played at Mississippi State
Zach LaVine, UCLA Father played in the NFL
James Michael McAdoo, UNC Father and mother played at Old Dominion
Jabari Parker, Duke Father played for the Golden State Warriors
Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette Father played football in the CFL
Glenn Robinson III, Michigan Father played for the Milwaukee Bucks
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas Father played in NBA; Mother an Olympian

“I refused to play James Michael one-on-one,” said Janet, who played center at Old Dominion. “He dunked on his dad when he was 14. He had heard Mack talk about how Mack dunked when he was 15. James Michael said he was going to dunk at 14.

“That was Mack’s big comeuppance. His son was competitive, too.”

Joy Holmes Harris was an All-American at Purdue and played in the WNBA. She knew when her son, former Michigan State guard Gary Harris, reached the eighth grade that she was not going to beat him and that he was not going to let Mom win. Those days were over. So she wouldn’t play him.

“Yes, I did beat him up on the court when he was younger, yes I did,” said Joy Harris, who was voted Purdue’s Female Athlete of the Decade when she left school. “Let the record be known, the last time we played, I won.”

She laughed because Mom had gotten the last word over the soon-to-be millionaire son. She admitted, of course, that Gary was about 13 years old when that occurred.

"We were out in the backyard and it was truly a battle,'' she said. "When I beat him, I knew it wasn't going to happen again. He was beyond all I could do. He would say 'C'mon Mom, c'mon,' and I would say 'No, no, it’s OK.'"

Competitiveness is the attribute many kids do not have in athletics, these second-generation athletes and their parents say. Many other athletes relent, or give in, because it is not important enough, or they don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Walk away. Be nice.

But the children of college or professional athletes—if they choose the same path as mom or dad—do not easily surrender, and that, along with athletic genes, is how they leave other kids behind. It is not just doing one more rep of a pet move, or hustling for another loose ball. It is doing that rep or mad dash with guile, passion and a specific outcome in mind, which is to "just win, baby.''

"With my brother it was the first to get done with their food, who could win the board game, and who could get up earliest to work out," said former Michigan star Glenn Robinson III, 20, whose brother, Gelen, will play football for Purdue. "I was getting up at 5:30 a.m. just to be the first out of the house to work out."

Aaron Gordon competes in the shuttle run at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. AP Photo

Ed Gordon, whose son Aaron was a freshman standout at Arizona, once told Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star that there were days when Aaron's games on the family's backyard court would have to be stopped because they were becoming borderline brawls.

"It was always extremely competitive," Gordon told Pascoe. "Maybe sometimes more competitive than it should have been. We always kept it under control, and once the game was over, we'd go inside and be a family again. But sometimes I had to end the game because it was too competitive."

Elfrid Payton Sr. was nicknamed “SWAC” and “Alley Cat” when he played in the Canadian Football League (1991-2004). He hit blockers with a vengeance and played with a sour attitude because he was from a Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) school, Grambling State.

He was supposed to be nothing but turned out to be something because of a ridiculously quick get-off move from the line of scrimmage…and over-the-top competitiveness. Payton was 37 when he retired from the CFL with 154 sacks, which is second all time in the CFL.

The competitiveness rubbed off on his son, Elfrid, a 6'3" guard at Louisiana-Lafayette. He was also supposed to be nothing, a mid-major afterthought as a skinny, too short, can’t-shoot point guard. Now look: He could be a lottery pick or at least a first-round pick depending on which mock draft you look at today.

Elfrid Payton after NCAA loss to Creighton. AP Photo

“Our big thing was racing,” the younger Payton said. “We would go five miles. I still don’t think he got over it when I first beat him.”

It was the competitiveness that carried Payton to the USA U19 team and allowed him to snatch a roster spot from more well-known players. He had been a 6'0" guard in high school, so he had to play harder. When he grew to 6'3" in college, the competitiveness he learned as a shorter guard made him a defensive demon.

Ricky Hood Jr. is the older brother of former Duke guard Rodney Hood. He said the family still carries the “wounds” from tussles on the family court. There were five of them, and his father, Ricky, would team up with mom, Vicky, and take on the three children, which included sister Whitney.

Dad, who played basketball at Mississippi State and Murray State, did not play nice. He was 6'7", 300 pounds, and Ricky Jr. remembers Dad clearing space for Mom to score. She also played at Mississippi State.

“There were no grins and smiles in these games,” Ricky Jr. said. “You laced ‘em up and played.”

It was not until Rodney grew and could move away from the rim to score that Dad’s brawn was neutralized. When you watched Rodney Hood slash for Duke this past season and not get bumped off his dribble, understand his dad the brawler made it so the kid could take a hard forearm check.

Ricky Jr. and brother Rodney at Mississippi State. Photo courtesy of the Rodney family

“We’re still going at it about who was the best ballplayer in the family,” said Ricky Jr., a guard at UT-Chattanooga from 2002 to 2006 who lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and is a vice president for a company specializing in home decor.

Before she became Janet Davis McAdoo, when she was in high school, Janet Davis drove a little red Toyota Corolla into downtown Los Angeles three days a week to practice and to play against city kids. She was good enough to make a USA national team and get invited to try out for the 1980 Olympic team, where she made it to the final cuts.

Instead of staying in California, near surf and sand, for college, Janet revealed her competitiveness by jetting across the country to play for Old Dominion, which was the original powerhouse in women’s college basketball along with Immaculata in nearby San Diego. James Michael’s competitiveness flowed down from both sides of the family tree.  His father Ronnie is a second cousin to former North Carolina All-American and NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo.

Janet drew a line for herself, though. While Ronnie McAdoo was a hoops junkie in the summer time, she could find other interesting things to do growing up in California. She said James Michael is the same way.

“Basketball does not define him,” Janet said. Her son proved it in April when he married his college sweetheart while he was preparing for the all-important individual workouts for NBA clubs. His attention span went outside the 94'-by-50' hardwood.

Lauren Adkins McAdoo, James Michael McAdoo, Janet Davis McAdoo and Ronnie McAdoo. Photo courtesy of the McAdoo family

There are other benefits besides competitiveness that come from a family of elite dads and moms.

Ricky Hood Jr. said his parents never permitted bad games or defeats to fester and erode confidence. “After a bad game, we went right to the couch when we got home because the lecture was coming about bouncing back,” he said. “We were expected to show something the next day. It was all about what you had inside you…heart.”

Joy Harris said Gary called her after going 3-of-20 from the floor vs. Wisconsin in February and she counseled him against the advice of hundreds of snarky critics on Twitter “to keep shooting.” There is nothing like advice from a former professional athlete.

Elfrid Payton said his dad stayed in professional football longer than expected because of strict workouts. “Hard work pays off. What he did didn’t go unnoticed,” the younger Payton said.

Ronnie and Janet McAdoo also passed along work ethic off the court. They both work in urban ministry, and Ronnie said his son saw him go to work every day. Even something that seems so benign as an average work day rubs off.

There is also something to the lifestyle of a former pro athlete being a catalyst for Generation Next. When a young athlete is surrounded by older, terrific athletes, it can rub off.

“Being around other great athletes was helpful, but it did not necessarily have to be basketball, because I was playing football,” said the elder Payton. “My son was around good athletes. He saw what it took to get there.”

Gary Harris watches his mother play in WNBA. Photo courtesy of the Harris family

Joy Harris said she took her son with her to Seattle one season for professional basketball. Her “baby” would wail in the stands during games or practice. When he was old enough to sit up, he was on the bench, or just behind it. When she played in the WNBA, he would play full-court games as a five-year-old on a practice court against the son of star Nancy Lieberman.

Some children of elite athletes think they have a birthright. But they are not in this draft. They didn’t put enough sweat behind the name, or they just wanted to do something else with their lives. There is no entitlement evident with these 11.

“I never took it for granted that I was Glenn Robinson and that I was going to be the first player taken, or go to college to play ball, or play in the NBA, like my father,” Glenn III said. “Nothing was given to me. I never thought I was going to make it to this point without anything but hard work. Never.”

Ray Glier is a journalist based in Atlanta. His work has appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America.


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