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  • Writer's pictureScott Behson

Book Review: “A Father First” by NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade

A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball” is NBA superstar Dwyane Wade’s memoir about his upbringing, life in basketball, the battle he fought for custody of his sons, and fatherhood.

"A Father First" by Dwayne Wade is an inspiring story about overcoming adversity, fatherhood, and, o yeah, a little basketball

“A Father First” by Dwayne Wade is an inspiring story about fatherhood, overcoming adversity and, o yeah, a little basketball

I never liked Dwyane Wade. He always seemed to me a borderline dirty player who intimidated referees and constantly drew attention to himself. No one can deny his skill and work ethic, however, and some of my negative perceptions, I must admit, are based on his beating down my beloved Knicks (55 points at MSG in March 2009) and the self-aggrandizing persona of the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” (and don’t get me started about The Miami Heat- my enmity for them goes back to the Pat Riley betrayal of 1995 and the Jeff-Van-Gundy-attached-to-the-leg-of-Alonzo-Mourning fight of 1998).

After reading “A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball”, Wade’s memoir about his upbringing, life in basketball, and the battle he fought for custody of his sons, I have come to admire Dwyane Wade as a man and role model.

Wade’s story of faith, persistence and triumph over a lifetime of adversity is compelling and inspirational. I couldn’t imagine living through what he has- poverty, gangs, his mother’s drug addiction, and a protracted 3-year battle for custody of his sons. Wade’s faith and persistence meant he not only survived these trials, he emerged as a strong, caring man who relishes his primary role of being a father above his celebrity and fame.

I’m already an involved dad, but Wade’s story inspires me to be a better, more persistent and more appreciative person. If Wade could overcome what he did, maintain faith through hard times, and appreciate what he has (even when he had very little), maybe I can more cheerfully work through my more everyday hassles. Maybe we all can.

“A Father First” weaves several stories from Wade’s life together into a single narrative. The story begins as Wade receives word that, after a bitter 3+ year divorce and custody battle, he has been awarded sole custody of his two sons, Zaire and Zion. Wade’s ex-wife, Siohvaughn, spent the past three years filing complaints and suits, emotionally abusing her boys, violating visitation mandates, making false accusations of abuse, and using their young sons as pawns in her legal battles against Wade. In all, she ran through 13 lawyers, including those who left because they couldn’t ethically comply with their client’s wishes, and the judge in the matter called it the worst case of parental alienation she had ever seen.

Wade with his sons Zaire and Zion

Wade with his sons Zaire and Zion

Through it all, Wade relied on his unshakable faith in God, and, at every turn, took the high road.* Even today, Wade makes sure his boys frequently visit their mother and never says anything bad about her to them. Like a dad should, he is committed to putting his kids’ needs first. Easy to say, but considering what she put him through, difficult to do.

Wade then transitions to the story of his childhood in the gang- and drug-infested South Side of Chicago, where kids as young as 9 were employed in the drug trade and the 8-year old Wade fell asleep to the sound of not-so-distant gunfire. His mother, Jolinda, was a drug addict who brought abusive men, dealers and other dangerous people into their apartment, often leaving Dwayne to stand guard for the police. Dwyane had guns held to his head on multiple occasions during raids. Jolinda served several stretches in prison and, at one point, was a fugitive from the law for almost 4 years.

Wade’s sister, Tragil, emerges as the first hero of Wade’s story, as she convinced Wade’s father and step-mother to take Dwyane in and raise him along with Dwayne’s step-brothers. The 13 year old Tragil stays behind to try to keep her mom safe and the rest of her family together.

Dwyane Sr., who had been shut out of his son’s life by Jolinda, is not an ideal father- he’s a stern disciplinarian who drinks and swears too much, but he is a man who takes care of his family and is involved in his son’s lives. Eventually, Dwayne Sr. taught his sons basketball and was Dwayne’s first coach (one who would make Bobby Knight blush at his language, but still). After they all move to a safer suburb and better schools, Dwayne Jr. begins to thrive.

Wade then tells the story of his life in basketball, highlighted by his emergence in high school, his leading Marquette to the NCAA final four, his selection as the #5 overall pick by the Miami Heat, and his two NBA championships. The behind-the-scenes basketball stories are interesting, but not nearly as compelling as his personal saga.

Wade intersperses vignettes from his first 8 months as a full-time single dad to of three (by this time he is also raising his nephew) throughout the book. These are the emotional core of his story. He tells simply, relatable, everyday stories of how he is working with his sons to build up the relationship they lost during the bitter divorce- including such everyday stories as setting up a family schedule, building in “man time” for hanging out and conversation, providing discipline (not allowing his son to join the basketball team until his grades improve) and being called “Mr. Mom” because he’s the only dad picking his kids up from school.

Wade clearly loves his sons and is a committed father. His advice is aimed at dads who have not yet spent the needed time with their kids, or have been separated through divorce or other circumstances, so his advice and examples may not be quite as relevant to dads who always have been in their kids’ lives. Nonetheless, they are affecting and serve as reminders of how to be a good dad.  Wade’s purpose for “A Father First” is to inspire absentee fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives (his foundation and charitable work is aimed at this as well, and he has been tapped by the White House as a spokesperson for a federal initiative on fatherhood).

Yes, many things are easier for Wade because of his money and resources, but his work/travel schedule is demanding, requiring creativity, the help of a nanny, his girlfriend (the actress Gabrielle Union), aunt Tragil, and lots of Skype. But Wade is not just a fun “daddy”, he is a true father, doing all the day-to-day work of running his household, being a role model, creating structure, supporting his kids, and heaping on quantities of quality time.

Finally, the most riveting story in the book is that of Wade’s mother. After a wasted youth (two children by different men by 16), 25 years of hard-core drug addition, years as a fugitive and even more years behind bars, Jolinda Wade gets clean, writes a book, becomes a pastor, and dedicates her life to helping others in need. Her faith in God, and the faith shown by Tragil (who escaped the inner city, earned a college degree and now runs Wade’s charities), Dwayne and others in her life is extraordinary.

Wade with the two stars of his book- sister Tragil and mother Jolinda

Wade with the two stars of his book- sister Tragil and mother Jolinda

Overall, Wade’s story is fantastic. The writing in this book, credited to Dwayne Wade and co-author Mim Eichler Rivas (of The Pursuit of Happyness fame), however, is not. At times, the abrupt shifts between the various stories made the book more difficult to follow and occasionally took me out of the compelling narrative. Further, the book contains lots of convoluted overly-long sentences: “Unforgiveness is not a known source for bringing blessings”, “Timing. A huge concept, so necessary as a secret of success”; odd non-sequiturs: “Fatherhood, to me, isn’t something you do for awards”, “I can’t promise you you’ll win an NBA championship…”; and maddening expressions:“literally resting on their laurels.”

Overall, “A Father First” is a gripping read. If you can look past some awkward writing, Wade’s life story is remarkable. I’d recommend it to anyone, but especially to dads, and especially to divorced or single dads. Put it on your Father’s Day list.

* I recognize that the book has been criticized for not showing Siohvaughn’s side of the story and for coming off as an overly complementary PR treatment of Wade. I do not share these criticisms

Have you read the book? Any book recommendations? Want to share anything about your own fatherhood story? or even custody battles? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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A prior version of this article appeared at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine

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