Sunday, January 12, 2014

On Inspiring Him To Read

I want to say "thank you" to LeBron James.

Now I’m no fan of the NBA or the Miami Heat. As a sportswriter, I once spent two years covering the expansion Charlotte Hornets for the Associated Press and the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. I couldn’t take the loud, blaring music and the wait-22-seconds-for-an-isolation-play offensive schemes then, and I don’t much care for them now.

My background is in writing about college athletics, which I did for North Carolina newspapers and while working at NC State. I'd never even seen an NBA game until I (very briefly) covered the league.

As for the present day, I can’t tell you much about King James other than he didn’t go to college, he turned his back on this hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to sign with the Miami Heat, which he announced on several dozen of the ESPN networks. I’ve also heard he may be the best professional basketball player in the world.

[Checks YouTube, admits it’s probably true.]

But LeBron has had a huge impact on my youngest son: The One Who Wouldn’t Read. Through the third grade, he was far behind his classmates. Reading wasn’t easy for him, and finding the right motivation to learn to make sense of words on a page was even harder.

It was foundationally difficult for his parents, both of whom majored in English and met each other while working for an antiquated medium called “a newspaper.” We have enough inventory for our own used book store in the bonus room, and that doesn’t include all the yellowed clips and collected magazines in the storage unit. For us, reading was not fundamental; it was second nature.

To say his older brother is a voracious reader undersells the situation. When went on a family vacation to Washington, D.C.,  a couple of years back, he was desperate to go to the Library of Congress because he thought he could spent the entire week reading – everything. He won an award in elementary school for checking out more books (about 170, or one for every day he went to school) than anyone else in his class. During the year, he probably checked out just as many from the public library.

The Hunt Library.
The first time we visited NC State’s new Hunt Library, the most technologically advanced collection of books and new media on the planet, he disappeared within minutes and sent the bookbot on a quest for something about Greek mythology. We found him a few hours later, hidden in one of the super comfy egg chairs.

He took a book with him last Halloween for all the downtime he had while trick-or-treating.

But our younger son just never caught the reading bug. We had his eyes checked, because we thought he might have inherited his parents’ 20/triple-digit eyesight. There were a few diagnoses about pairing abnormalities and some such, but they all turned out to be ophthalmic hokum. Reading glasses helped, but it really just came down to us not being able to inspire him.

My wife is a diligent mentor. She would read aloud with him night after night, alternating pages. She always made sure to read the full pages, while he took the ones that had chapter breaks or pictures. 
They slogged through a few books, but the level of frustration was a strain for all of us.

He is a sweet soul who loves anything to do with athletics. Every day for five straight years, he wore an NC State football or basketball jersey to daycare. Sometimes, a helmet, shoulder pads, catcher’s mask and chest protector too. He once told me that lacrosse – something he’s never played, nor seen on television or in person – was his seventh favorite sport. Outside baseball, football and basketball, I have no idea what other three sports are ranked ahead of it.

Meeting Lemony Snicket.
He met and saw some good collegiate role models: NFL quarterbacks Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, who all have college degrees from NC State. He liked Julius Hodge, Scott Wood and Lorenzo Brown from NC State men’s basketball, all of whom were kind to him. Two-time Academic All-America Marissa Kastanek, perhaps the kindest and most patient college athlete I have ever met, was always encouraging.

Having written a couple of basketball books, I thought I could get him to read about sports. I bought him some books by Mike Lupica, a New York sportswriter I knew a little bit when he was friends with NC State basketball coach Jim Valvano and when I covered Duke and North Carolina basketball during the 1990s. We read Carl Hiaasen’s young adult books. He loved learning the stories about the players in Dan Gutman’s baseball card series books. He had a long list of books on tape he wanted to hear on family car trips. We followed those damned Baudelaire kids all over creation. The stories he loved; the reading he didn’t.

His teachers, his tutor and his parents literally tried everything. Taking things away from him for not reading didn’t work, and hardly seemed right. We gave him multiple challenges and incentives to read more, rewarding him with Pokemon cards, amusement park trips, camping excursions, extra one-on-one time with parents or grandparents if he would just put daily time in with a book, or a newspaper, or a comic book.

We never actually reached the end of our rope, but we were clutching tightly with our legs wrapped around the knot.

One day, while I was building a retaining wall in the back yard, I heard the next door neighbor kid ask my youngest: “You want to come in and watch the NBA playoffs with me?”

“Sure. Who’s playing?”

You can’t protect your kids from all the negative influences that wash over them, but as a college basketball writer, I never thought I would have to shield my own progeny from the likes of singular-nicknamed teams like the Jazz and the Magic and the Thunder and the Heat. It was unseemly.
For whatever reason, he loved it. He made me watch it with him, or record playoff games on the DVR. He was immediately attracted to the Heat, because of James and Dwyane Wade. I told him I had covered some of the other players – Shane Battier, Chris Bosh and Roger Mason Jr. – when they played in the ACC, and he finally got an idea of what I did every day when I left home.

He thought it was really cool that I had met Ray Allen when he was in high school, long before he played college basketball in Connecticut or in the pros. Allen happened to be working as a waiter in the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters, and several writers talked to him about his future in hoops.

Anyway, I noticed back in October that the NBA Charlotte Bobcats had a pair of games against the Heat on their home schedule. Maybe a trip to see his favorite team would give him some motivation. Here is the deal we offered him: If he read 30 minutes a day, without missing, for six straight weeks, I would take him to see the Heat play. If he postponed his reading one day, he had to read a full hour the next day to make up for it. If he didn’t make it up, he had to start all over.

I didn’t know about the love of reading LeBron discovered during the 2012 NBA playoffs. Frankly, I didn’t remember the NBA had playoffs that year. But I read the attached Michael Wilbon story, and it impressed me.

Wilbon wrote: “…if LeBron is reading, then reading must be fairly cool. Is there a better message the world’s best basketball player could send?”

The reports at the time included the tidbit that LeBron’s completed books were being passed around the Heat locker room. What a great story, and a perfect refutation of Charles Barkley’s famous claim that professional athletes aren’t real role models.

Waiting in line for Santa at the Cary Town Mall.
My youngest son didn’t read The Hunger Games triology, as LeBron did. Or Jay-Z’s book Decoded. Or Jerry West’s autobiography or any of the other books that James had on his list.

But he did read. And read. And read. He checked out the thickest book in the library, the Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 533-page monstrosity that was filled as much with Brian Selznick’s 284 illustrations as his words. But he tackled it, and even though it took him months, he finished it. He’s two-thirds of the way through the first Harry Potter book at school and halfway through the second Percy Jackson at home. Like his older brother, fictional fantasy seems to be his favorite genre.

Section: Extra high.
He put in his 30 minutes on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He had a couple of make-up days, but he never went more than 48 hours without some kind of book in his hand. Ultimately, he didn’t want to jeopardize his opportunity to see the Heat play.

Saturday, he’s missing his own youth league basketball game so we can go on a little vacation to Charlotte. We'll see the Saturday game against the Heat and the Monday MLK matinee against the Raptors. He’ll be wearing the LeBron jersey he got for Christmas. We’ll be high up in the rafters of Time-Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, but you know what? It doesn’t really matter.

I’m going to buy him a game program, and let him read up on everyone.

Thanks again, LeBron.