We all go through life hoping and wishing for many things. Many of my wishes have mostly come true, with a successful career that has allowed me to take care of my family.
But there’s one wish of mine that will never be granted. That wish would be bringing you back to life so that you could see me play in the NBA.
You never got the chance to see me play basketball at any level. In fact, we never had a chance to play catch like fathers and sons do, and you were barely around when I took my first steps.
That’s what happens when a parent goes to prison. You went there when I was 2, charged with an armed robbery that I didn’t even know about until years later.
You were an inmate for most of my life. But that didn’t matter because you were my father, and to me as a young boy, prison was just a place where you happened to live.
We’d make the two-hour drive every weekend to see you, sometimes rolling two cars deep. Some of the things I got used to in my early years were getting patted down and thoroughly checked by prison guards and walking down long prison corridors with the sounds of those prison gates opening and closing.
Then I’d see you, and the trip was worth it. In the early visits, we’d be separated by a piece of thick glass, and I still remember the excitement I felt when the prison guards escorted you to the seat in front of us.
Later we were allowed to sit at an actual table with you. And I couldn’t wait for those guards to take those shackles off of you so I could jump into your arms and feel your tight embrace.
Those hugs you gave me were amazing.
When I become a father, I’m going to share your story. Not going to sugarcoat anything. I’ll let my kids know that every generation can be better and that I’m living proof.
Our discussions were never about where you came from, but the places you wanted me to go. Looking back, there you were, an inmate locked away with not much of a future. But that didn’t keep you from encouraging me, a young boy, to get an education and to go to college.
Most importantly, you instilled in me the importance of being a real man. You told me to put myself in a position to one day take care of my mother, something you were unable to do while being locked away.
Then one day you were released, and I could sense you were just as excited as I was when we packed up the car for a family getaway to White Lake, a popular North Carolina resort.
We got a cabin there for a few days, and got a chance to spend time with you for the first time with no restrictions. We went to the fair and we ate, had an artist draw a picture of us, and we played in the water.
That true family gathering was the best day of my young life.
And led to the worst day of my life.
The next day, Dad, you got sick, and I was beginning to learn that you were released because you were terminally ill with liver cancer. We had no clue that the time we spent playing in the water would lead to water getting into your wound, causing you to hemorrhage. That horrific smell from all that bleeding still sticks with me.
As you were rushed to the hospital, me and my siblings were rushed home.
It was at home days later when I overheard a phone conversation that my mother was having with her sister. I heard her say that you had died, and I went into shock. I ran right past her, out the door and down the street with no shirt and no socks. I cried so hard, because hearing you had died is more pain than any 9-year-old should experience.
At your funeral, my older brother was emotional, and promised everyone that he’d take care of the family.
But the next year he got locked up.
All those events sent my life into a downward spiral. I would talk back to my teachers, respond to taunts from kids by fighting, and I disappointed my mother each time I got kicked out of school.
Yes, the man in my life might have existed in prison. But now he was gone, and I was acting out.
Even as I got so good in basketball that people thought it could eventually be my ticket to a better life, I rebelled. When coaches tried to discipline me, I’d pout. I’d get furious my teammates wouldn’t pass to me, or the times when I was taken out of games.
How bad did it get? There were times at Garner High School, where I went in the ninth and 10th grades, when the coach wouldn’t play me. And I’d sit on the end of the bench with my legs crossed, eating a lollipop.
A lollipop. Sometimes I’d eat Skittles. Other times Starburst. I’d eat whatever candy my friends in the stands would give me. When my team called timeout, I wouldn’t even get up to go to the huddle. My attitude was if they weren’t going to play me, why bother.
I lived up to my nickname: Crazy J. And, honestly, I couldn’t have coached me.
When I got cut from my next high school — and it wasn’t because of my skills — I was hurt. My mother was devastated.
Yet at some point after that low moment for me in basketball, everything started to click.
I credit some of the men in my life. The coaches who stuck with me, even though I was a handful to deal with. The teachers and school administrators who believed in me. And my stepdad, a man I didn’t embrace at first but is someone who I would do anything for today because of what he did for my family.
With everyone rallying behind me, I became the best high school player in the nation and had a successful college career that led me to be the top pick of the NBA draft.
And, Dad, you were a part of that success and I want to thank you.
We never had the opportunity to really interact the way a father and son should. But we made the best of the time we spent in prison, forming a bond that is truly unforgettable.
I know you’re proud of the man I’ve become. I’m the first in our family to attend college, and although I have not yet completed my degree, it is a goal that I hope to accomplish. My sister followed behind to become the first in our family to graduate from college and went on to get her master’s.
I’ve taken care of my mom, and taken care of the family just like you told me.
It’s the Wall way.
When I become a father, I’m going to share your story. Not going to sugarcoat anything. I’ll let my kids know that every generation can be better and that I’m living proof. Just like you pushed me, I’ll push them to believe that they can become anything in life, like doctors, teachers, nurses or executives.
My wish of having you see me play will never come true. But just know, Dad, that there’s a reason why I have this tattoo over the left part of my chest of you holding me.
You will always be in my heart. Thank you for inspiring me.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!