Single Moms and Missed Layups


LeBron James’ real or imagined shortcomings have nothing to do with the fact that he was raised by a single mother, argues Jim Jividen. 

In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Championship, the San Antonio Spurs had a 5 point lead with 28 seconds left; according to the projection systems, that gave them nearly a 98% chance to win the NBA Title.

They lost.

In Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Championship, down two with a minute left, Tim Duncan missed consecutive short shots and the Spurs lost that game as well and the NBA Title.

I know why.

There are only two explanations.

  1. The Spurs had male role models growing up.
  2. The Spurs are foreigners.

I know how that sounds at first blush, but I’ve heard the opposite claims made, so by implication, one of these must be the correct reason why someone so talented as Tim Duncan failed to win the NBA Title.

Here was Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock in May 2012:

On a nightly basis, you know exactly what to expect and what you’re going to get from Gregg Popovich’s squad. The Spurs trust their system of unselfish ball and man movement. It’s as if they’re on autopilot and the only possible variable is individual effort within the system. Popovich’s in-your-face coaching style stabilizes the effort.

I am not dumping on James and Wade. I like and respect them. I’m rooting for them to win the championship this season. I think they are good people. In fact, they’re my two favorite athletes at the moment.

A new LeBron James, or probably still this one, will fail, fail in a big spot – and someone will write that it’s because he didn’t have a dad.

I just happen to believe their difficult upbringings make it hard for them to trust and submit to the will of authority figures. We know James was raised by a teenage mother who had some problems. We know Wade’s mom had problems with drugs and Wade credits an older sister for his upbringing.

It’s my belief Wade and James have childhood emotional scars that impact their ability to consistently operate in a team environment. Most of us have childhood emotional scars. Some scars — any kind of parental abandonment — are just deeper than others.

Here’s ESPN the Magazine from this very week, July 2013 (behind the firewall):

The way the Spurs see it, though, the biggest divide isn’t structural but cultural. Something has happened to basketball in the country that invented it, as well documented as it is irrevocable, driven by money and fame and a generation of players who’ve learned from watching sharks succeed by imposing their will upon the game rather than by allowing it to come to them…Most of the overseas players have not only more experience playing basketball but more experience playing an unselfish style.

I enjoy Whitlock, but his piece is a special kind of dopey; subsequent to it the Heat have won back to back titles, but even if that hadn’t happened – even if LeBron James missed every important shot both in the 2012 and 2013 finals and Skip Bayless danced on center court — Whitlock would still be nuts. James and Dwyane Wade are incredibly successful; they’re wealthy, they’re established, they’re proficient in careers that explicitly require the ability to work on a team managed by an authority figure. Maybe the guy who never leaves the playground has some emotional scar that hold him back; multi-millionaires who, even if they both sat on the bench, would be among the most talented men in an industry that requires the very skill which Whitlock questions aren’t revealing emotional scars when they miss a layup, even one that matters. Bill Clinton was raised by a single mother and Bill Clinton behaved inappropriately with an intern – is either the most pertinent element of an evaluation of his level of accomplishment or that he was a two-term US President? Of the billions of people on the planet, how many are as good at anything (while under second-by-second scrutiny) as LeBron James is at basketball? It just can’t be true that if he throws up a 6-22 one night that’s because he didn’t have a dad to teach him to drive.

It just can’t be true that if LeBron James throws up a 6-22 one night, it’s because he didn’t have a dad to teach him to drive.

One could also argue that we need less submission to the will of authority figures, but that’s a different discussion.

The ESPN piece just continued a popular line of thought that American basketball players are selfish, unlike the team players trained anywhere else; it doesn’t break any ground, and the racial implications in a post-Paula Deen world should make you a little squeamish (an aside, of course: Paula Deen gets fired,  her gig wasn’t based on knife skills, it was based on the public identifying her as a somewhat bawdy southern grandmother who wanted you to eat more butter – and now it’s that plus racial epithets; a career based entirely on likability is fragile and we have an institutional memory of Southern racism that should be hard to put aside, I mean, unless you’re the Supreme Court, then apparently we’re all good now, nothing to see here) but the timing – focusing on the cool, calm, collected Spurs right after one of the great collapses in NBA history was fun.

Play the counterfactual with me: if it was LeBron James missing that layup and not Tim Duncan, it wouldn’t just have been a referendum on how we should view him historically, it would have been a discussion about his character (and maybe that of all men raised by single mothers). If the Heat had totally fallen apart in Game 6 and not the Spurs, it wouldn’t have just impacted their legacy, it would have led to a discussion about the state of American basketball.  If LeBron James had failed in exactly the same way that Tim Duncan failed at the end of Game 7, you know we would have spent the next 11 months talking about James’s psychic shortcomings.  LeBron failure adds far more to our collective sports mythology than does LeBron success.

But that didn’t happen – so we move on.  Amanda Bynes has to be doing something crazy someplace.

It will happen though again, though – it will happen more than it won’t. Some new Lance Armstrong will be deified, a new Barry Bonds will be vilified, a new Tim Tebow will be proof of a higher (only Jesus, please) power.

And a new LeBron James, or probably still this one, will fail, fail in a big spot – and someone will write that it’s because he didn’t have a dad. Heck, that piece might even appear on this site.

 Photo–Flickr/David Shankbone

About Jim Jividen

Jim Jividen (@JimJividen) is a lawyer, a professionally produced playwright, a game show winner, and the owner of a 2009 Honda Accord on which he diligently makes payments. He can distinguish among dozens of different suplex variants and may be occasionally read at his two non-revenue producing blogs, Basically Gherkins and What if Steamboat Beat Hogan? Jim’s been a college instructor since the top of 2004 and is currently working in the mist as a Course Mentor for Western Governors University.


  1. These studies are all irrelevant because they apply to normal people. Lebron James is not normal. He is a god.

  2. John Anderson says:

    I was raised by a single mom (widowed) and know my life would have been a lot different (and happier) if my dad hadn’t died. Not only financially, but also in philosophy. My mother is afraid of her own shadow. My mother always taught me to never expect things to work out. She figured I could never be disappointed. It also caused me not to strive. She taught me to be humble, which research sows doesn’t help men in interviews (or apparently relationships).

    My father in the other hand always believed to strive for the top. He left for another country to earn his PH D because of that he was for a time one of the top linguists of his time. Some books based on or incorporating his work were donated to Philippine Normal College when he died. My oldest brother told me that he asked dad what bread and honey tasted like. My father took him to the store and brought bread and honey so my brother could experience what it tasted like.

    On the other hand, my mother taught me to be kind and helpful. She always fed people who came to her door when they were hungry. She told me the story of a man walking across a bridge with a friend and accidentally loses his shoe in the river. He then tosses his other shoe in the river. His companion asks why he did that. He said I can’t use one shoe and maybe the person who finds them can use them.

    I think when you have a single parent, mom or dad, there is a perspective lost. I think it could be mitigated by having positive role models not of the parents gender. I think sometimes people lose the fact that boys need mothers and girls need fathers.

  3. I don’t let too many things on the internet get to me, but this is a hot button topic for me. I’ve seen Bill Simmons allude to LeBron’s single mom upbringing as a reason for his occasional weakness of character (more in his personal life and in the media than on the court). It’s offensive to those of us who had a strong, single mom raise us. Yes, it’s a disadvantage in a lot of ways. Sure, there might be some data (as the last commenter mentions) to suggested that we “do much worse” (whatever that means) than those with a father figure in their lives. But LeBron is an adult, as are any number of men who were raised this way. At some point it stops mattering if you grew up without a dad. At some point it might even become an advantage, because most of the time the best lessons come from mistakes, even if they’re not your mistakes but someone else’s.

    • There isn’t just SOME data though, there is LOTS and LOTS of data from a lot of different sources that shows that it is an extreme disadvantage. And I think John is referring “do much worse’ as worse in just about every category i.e. educational attainment, prison time, drug use, teen pregnancy.

      • On LeBron specifically, it’s insane to suggest that any shortcomings he has–whether it’s having a bad game or announcing The Decision–are directly correlated to his being brought up by a single mom.

        On the “data,” no one’s doubting it exists. But it’s POSSIBLE to survive a tough childhood and be successful. Unless you’re in every single parent home to see what sort of life that kid had growing up, you can’t really point to data alone and say, “Oh…no wonder he’s so screwed up.”

        This reminds me a lot of Dave Chappelle’s comments on being called crazy. “It’s dismissive,” he said. The same goes for writing someone off because they’re from a single mother home.

  4. John Schtoll says:

    And while this guy might be nuts, there is a TON of data that shows that children who grow up without a father do much worse than those that don’t.

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