Father hasn't always known best
Hardaway Sr., namesake struggled mightily to communicate about game they love
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. sinks a shot and pounds his chest.
Immediately, the TV cameras cut to his grinning father in the crowd. The commentators note Tim Jr.'s NBA potential and his father's history in the league. Discussion flows from one to the other as if there were no difference between them. They talk about how the son plays like the father, how the father has passed on his legacy.
It's also inaccurate.
For much of Tim Jr.'s formative years, his relationship with his father was strained worse than the ankles of Tim Sr.'s opponents trying to keep up with his famed "UTEP Two-Step" crossover.
It's not because Tim Sr. was an absentee father, either. The fact is theirs was a close family under the same roof. Tim Sr. and his wife, Yolanda, had been high school sweethearts. Tim Jr. was their oldest child, and they had two daughters.
The rift between father and son developed because of basketball. The game people believed had drawn them together actually tore them apart.
"Those arguments will be something I never forget," Tim Hardaway Jr. said. "You want to forget them, but they happened so much that they're just stuck in the back of my head forever. I just have to live with them and learn from them. And when I become a father, I'll try not to do that."
Eleven-year-old Tim Jr. sat in the back seat crying, trying to figure out how he could give more.
"You're either going to play this game the right way or you're going to quit," his father yelled from the front seat. "You're not performing at a high enough level. You're going to get better, or we'll stop you from playing the game of basketball forever."
So he tried harder, but nothing seemed to be good enough. When his father was in the stands, he felt rigid. And if his father saw him as a failure, he saw himself as a failure.
Tim Sr.'s dad had put that kind of pressure on him. It had made him the player he was and every time he heard the word "can't," it motivated him to show that he could. That kind of pressure was a vital part of his game.
But the same wasn't working for Tim Jr. He buckled under the pressure and grew frustrated when his dad would criticize him. His frustration only drew more criticism -- why couldn't he appreciate the help?
In AAU his defenders would jest, "Your dad is Tim Hardaway. I thought you'd be better."
When he'd look up in the stands and see his father, his game would go cold. So he'd look for his mother. She would give him a thumb's up and suddenly his mind would be back in the game. Afterward, he'd tell his mom what kids were saying.
"Sticks and stone may break your bones," she'd say. "But names can't hurt you."
The name that was hurting him the most was his own. They had never assumed he'd grow up to be a basketball player and be put in that kind of predicament.
It continued in high school.
At one game, students from the opposing school brought 5-foot tall posters of Tim Sr.'s head and put them on sticks. They held them in the crowd screaming, "Who's your daddy?"
And as always, the next morning in the newspaper would be a photo of Tim Jr. with a caption that always included " ... son of former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway."
It got to be too much.
Animosity filled their house. The two would go days and weeks without talking to one another. Dinners were never comfortable. Vacations were never relaxing.
When Tim Sr. would be watching an NBA game on TV in the living room Tim Jr. would walk past without looking at him.
"You don't love the game enough," his dad would say. "If you loved the game you would sit here and watch it with me."
It was the same son he had praised for never drawing too much attention to himself, for never being too aggressive in life. He had said that Tim Jr. could walk into a room without anyone noticing. Now, that's what Tim Jr. wanted to do at his own house.
A third of the way into Tim Jr.'s junior season, the Miami (Fla.) Palmetto Senior High School basketball team faced off against crosstown rival Coral Reef. The Hardaways walked into the gym before tip-off and went to their normal seats by the bench, but Tim Sr. told his wife and two daughters to stay there. He would watch the game alone that day from the top of the bleachers.
He had made the decision on the drive to the school: For one game, he would try and watch objectively. He would sit away from the parents who praised Tim Jr., because his automatic response was always, "Yes, well, that was fine, but he's not doing enough." For one game he would try to relax and be a spectator.
The stands were full and when Tim Jr. looked to his family during the game, he didn't see his father. He assumed he didn't come. They hadn't spoken in weeks. Maybe this is how the rest of his season would go, he thought. Maybe that wouldn't be the worst thing if he didn't come to any more games.
But from the top of the stands, with clear eyes, Tim Sr. saw the child in the backyard of their California home who had fallen in love with the game. He saw the little boy with the glimmer in his eye who had imitated his crossover. And he saw a player with incredible potential.
"I wanted him to play like I had played, to take the game seriously like I took the game seriously, understand the game like I understood the game," Tim Sr. said. "I had to step back and really understand that I was tearing up my household, tearing him up.
"I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to be a dad."
When Tim Jr. came out of the locker room after the game, Tim Sr. asked him to ride home with him. Yolanda and Tim Jr.'s two sisters hugged him as they parted ways in the parking lot. By the time the two got in the car words were spilling out of Tim Sr.'s mouth.
He apologized for the pressure he had put on his son. He apologized for not seeing everything clearly. He apologized for highlighting his mistakes. He apologized for ruining their relationship. He wanted Tim Jr. to know that it was all his father's fault.
He told his son he was proud of him. It was the first time Tim Jr. really remembered his father saying those words.
Then Tim Sr. promised he wouldn't bring up stats or games, players or coaches. If Tim Jr. wanted to talk about basketball, he could bring it up when he was ready.
He promised to be a dad.
The two didn't talk about basketball the rest of the season. Palmetto's playoff hopes ended with a loss to Coral Reef that year. Two weeks after the season was over Tim Jr. went up to his dad in the living room.
"I want to get better," he said. "Let's go work out together. Throw everything you can at me."
Absent of his father's criticism Tim Jr. began to see how he was leading his team and how heavily Palmetto coach Chris Brown relied on him. Brown had seen Tim Jr.'s maturity from day one.
Before, with the steep criticism, he thought he couldn't do anything well. But eventually, Tim Jr. began to see how his growth in the game was a process. How he had taken baby steps in every aspect of his game and how that had allowed him to take larger steps as a whole.
"He needed to fail and succeed on his own, without that added pressure, to reach his own potential," Brown said.
Brown saw the change in Tim Jr. after the Coral Reef game. He saw a player who was more at ease, a player willing to take chances on the floor. In Brown's mind, it was Tim Jr.'s mindset that had always separated him from his peers. Between his junior and senior seasons, his body filled out and his game finally came together.
His freshman year, the Wolverines started the Big Ten season 1-6. After each game, Tim Jr. would walk out of the locker room, greet his teammates' parents and go back to his dorm. He would call home to his parents, who were in Miami with his sisters. They'd chat about the game and classes, but his father heard the loneliness in his voice.
After Michigan beat Michigan State in East Lansing, Tim Jr. called his dad.
"I want you to come to Ann Arbor the next time we play Michigan State," he told his dad.
The entire family flew up for the game. Tim Jr. was held scoreless in the first half, but in the second, he exploded for 20.
After the game his dad gave him a hug and told him how proud he was.
The next game was Michigan's first Big Ten Tournament game and Tim Sr. was scheduled to call the game for a radio station.
For 16 years, he opted to be critical, demanding and unbiased in the assessment of his son. Now he was forced to be critical, demanding and unbiased in his assessment.
But all he wanted to do now was be a dad. He wanted to watch, from the top of the stands, as his only son played in his first conference tournament. He wanted to high-five with Michigan fans and cheer as Tim Jr. made clutch shots.
"I never want to do that again," he told Tim Jr. after the Wolverines' win. "Never."
When Tim Jr. left to go back to Miami for vacation, Beilein told him to take a break, enjoy time with family.
He spent his days working out with dad, spending time with his mom and sisters, laughing over family dinners. It was a break.
And this season, Tim Sr. has already been to five games. He has watched as his son has become one of the top players in the country. And every day the two talk on the phone or at least trade texts. The conversation might include basketball, but it's never the focus.
But from time to time Tim Sr. reminds Tim Jr. that he will make mistakes, and that it's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Basketball is not a mistake-free game," he tells his son. "Go out there and play the best you can play. Nobody is perfect on that basketball court."
It's the kind of thing a father tells a son.
Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chanteljennings.
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