Dear 12-year-old Q,
They’re gonna kill your brother. They’re gonna kill Bernard. Over nothing. Just a random robbery.
Your grandma is gonna pass away from old age.
Your mother is gonna die from breast cancer. You’ll have to watch her fade away. No more honey-tops and The Young and the Restless after school.
And I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s all going to happen this year. ’92.
Now, I got a question for you. Do you know what DNA is? You probably don’t. DNA goes deeper than blood, man. It’s your makeup. It’s what you’re built from. It’s the cut of your cloth, you know what I’m saying?
You are from the South Side of Chicago.
You are from the “Wild Hunneds.”
You are the son of Lee Richardson, driving that L train up and down the Green Line for 38 years.
So lucky for you, even though you’re about to go through some real s***, you got the DNA of some motherf***ing go-getters.
You are going to need every bit of it. After all that death, you’re going to be destroyed for eight months. There’s nothing you can do about it. The first time you ever see your pops cry will be at Bernard’s funeral. You’re not going to be able to do anything but sit around and be consumed by anger. Anger at your brother’s killers. Anger at God for taking your mother. Anger at life. But then you’re going to pick up a basketball. And I don’t even care if it’s a cliché — it’s going to help. No matter how bad a day you had, you’ll always be able to pick up a basketball and pretend to be MJ.
Never forget that.
Now, I’m not trying to sell you on some fairy tale here. You’re not gonna be shooting wholesome-ass jump hooks out on the farm all night like Larry Bird, O.K.? The thing about Chicago basketball is, it’s not even a sport. I mean, it is, but not like that. It’s more like a fight. These dudes at the park, they will f*** you up. Do you understand what I’m telling you? F***. You. Up.
Guys are either cut out for it or they’re not. You gotta be a dog to come out of Chicago. I mean, remember in the third grade when that kid stole your Hostess doughnut right off your lunch tray?
You could have just accepted it.
I mean, it was just a doughnut. The plain powder one.
But what did you do? You got up, snatched the doughnut right out of his hands and punched him with the damn doughnut. You gave that dude a doughnut-punch. Powder all up in his hair and everything.
It wasn’t about the doughnut, man. It was about the principle. In Chicago? Boy, you never back down. Don’t forget that, either. Because unfortunately, your whole life, people won’t ever stop trying to take your doughnut.
Now listen, it’s not just the parks that are wild. When you get to high school, you’re going to be coming up in the Red West conference. The infamous. Man, I’m telling you, years from now, you’re going to run into Kevin Garnett and you’re not even going to have to say anything other than two words.
You’re not gonna be shooting wholesome-ass jump hooks out on the farm all night like Larry Bird, O.K.?
You’ll just say, “Red. West.”
And he’ll give you this look, and then he’ll start laughing his ass off like, “Mannnnn, the Red West was some S***.”
And listen, you’re not even going to be at one of these big schools. You’re gonna be at Whitney Young. The magnet school, man! The nerd school, man! You gotta mentally prepare yourself for this. I’d honestly start now.
When you go on the road to some of these schools, the atmosphere in the gym is going to be like a heavyweight fight. These street dudes will be up in the stands, and they’ll be in your ear starting in the layup line. When you go to play Orr Academy, the crowd is gonna start throwing stuff down on the court during the game.
S*** is whizzing by your head. Like some heavy, metal s***.
Yo, are they throwing locks at us?
Like, literally, metal combination locks.
I told you. You have to be a dog.
Repeat after me: I have to be a dog.
It’s the only way. These dudes are too good, too strong, too physical. But if you stay a dog, and you keep working, you’re going to attract some attention — even coming from your little nerd school.
Kentucky will come calling. Kansas will come calling. The Jayhawks will fly you out and have Paul Pierce showing you around campus. Man, they’ll take you into Allen Fieldhouse on Midnight Madness and they’ll have a packed house in there screaming out the “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” chant. Only at the end, instead of “KU!” they’ll be screaming out, “Q Rich!”
You could be a Jayhawk. Easy.
But when you’re making your decision, all you gotta do is go into your room and grab all your recruiting letters. Look at the top left corner of the envelopes. Check out those zip codes.
What’s the zip on the one from DePaul University?
And where is that? That’s Chicago, boy. That’s not no suburban campus. That’s the city. That’s your DNA.
Now, going to DePaul is going to be a mixed blessing. You’re going to be at home, you’re definitely going to be balling out. But you know what? Your pops is not going give a damn about any of that. He doesn’t really care about basketball. This man cares about chores.
This is a true, certified story.
Your freshman year, your team is going to take down this dude Kenyon Martin and the Cincinnati Bearcats in a crazy double-overtime game. Home game. Day game. That’s key. Because that night, the campus is going to be crazy. You guys are heroes. You can’t wait to get back there and celebrate, but you’re gonna have to stop at home first.
See, it snowed that day.
And when it snows, your pops is not playing around about his driveway. You get in the house, and you’re talking about the game, and how crazy it was. You’re the man, right? You’re the man.
Literally the first thing your pops says after “great game,” is….
“That snow out there, boy … it’s not gonna shovel itself.”
You can’t even get a pass from a double-OT win.
So, I mean, what are you gonna do? You gotta grab the shovel and get to your business. But right as you’re about halfway through clearing the driveway, this dude from your neighborhood comes walking down the block.
He looks at you.
“I just seen you on TV like two hours ago.”
“Y’all just beat Cincy. On the TV.”
“What are you doing out here, n****?”
“I’m shoveling the damn snow.”
Then he starts laughing his ass off.
He says, “Mannnnnn, Mr. Richardson don’t play!”
Never forget that, either. Your pops does not play. He’s the type of dude who walks around with one of those industrial key chains with 100 keys on it. What the hell are all those keys for? You know a man don’t play when he walks around with 100 keys. He’d be building those elaborate model train sets in the basement, screaming up the stairs like Craig’s dad in Friday: “Hey! You damn kids can’t be crashing all these damn trains! These are expensive trains! These trains are not to be played with!”
You’re going to do some dumb stuff over the years. Spend some dumb money. Make some dumb decisions. But your family is going to hold you down. Especially your older brother Lee. He’s going to be in the Navy when you’re coming up through high school. But when he comes home and sees that his little brother is pretty cold at basketball, he’s going to be your protector. And you’re gonna need him. Because people will try to get at you. One time when you’re in the park, after your freshman year at DePaul, some dudes will come up to you with a bag of money. A literal bag of money. They want to attach themselves to you, for bad reasons.
But Lee is going to step in and cut that s*** out.
He’ll tell them straight up, “Where I’m from, nobody gives nothing for free.”
That might be the best lesson in this whole letter.
Because, boy … when the NBA comes calling … things are going to get crazy. You’re not just going to the league. You’re going to the league in Los Angeles. Nah, nah, nah — not the Lakers.
With your boy Darius Miles.
Your owner will be a man named Donald Sterling.
Yo … this is honestly the hardest part of this whole letter. How do I explain a dude like Donald Sterling to a 12-year-old kid from Chicago? Honestly, you have never come across a dude like Sterling in your life. This cat is … flamboyant.
The first time you and Darius are at some team event, you’ll be chilling, minding your own business, and Sterling will come over to you like, “Oh! There’s my beautiful players!”
Then he’ll turn to his friend and be like, “Look at them! Look at my players! Aren’t they b-e-a-utiful?”
You and Darius will be looking at one another like, Yo, what is happening right now?
Man, that team … listen … in the future, they got something called social media. Basically, people know what you’re getting up to all the damn time. All day, every day. If this thing had existed in 2001, when you and Darius were running around L.A. in your matching Escalades, and Sterling was bringing his random-ass friends into the locker room while the whole team was still showering, man….
It would have broken the Internet. Literally. People would have been losing their minds.
But for real, those early years in the league are what you’ll look back on and just shake your head, man. Unforgettable. The time you went down to Miami and stayed at Alonzo Mourning’s house during your rookie year? F***ing Zo! You and Darius riding around on Zo’s jet skis. A kid from Chicago and a kid from East St. Louis, who came from nothing, man. I mean, come on. Zo had a damn Sprite machine in his own house. That’s gonna blow your mind.
You and Darius were in his basement, wildin’ out like, “Yoooooo, you hit the button and a free Sprite comes out?!” Pure amazement.
Then Darius came down with the chicken pox right before Zo’s charity basketball tournament was about to start, and he missed the entire weekend. Iverson’s there. Marbury’s there. Vince Carter’s there. T-Mac! And this dude comes down with the chicken pox.
Adult chicken pox, man!
He’s still crying about it!
That weekend might be the most memorable time of your life, honestly. Because you’re still going to be a kid. And all these dudes know you. And they’re cool with you. You’ll be at some party that weekend, and A.I. will come up to you cold, and before you can even think, he’ll say, “What’s up, Q?”
“What’s up, Q?”
That night, you’re gonna call up everybody you know in Chicago and tell them you were out with A.I., and he called you Q.
I don’t know why that memory even comes to mind, or why it almost gets me emotional, but it does.
So, are you feeling yourself now? Are you liking your future?
O.K. Well, hang on.
The thing about the NBA is, it’s a weird business. A lot of it makes no sense. You and the Clippers are gonna be exciting, man. You, Darius, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette, Keyon Dooling. People will be watching the Clippers for the first time in a long time, but they’ll blow the team up anyway. Darius will get traded, and that will break your heart.
A couple of years later, you’ll sign with the Suns, and the problem is that … Well, you’re supposed to be terrible. Everybody’s predicting last place. The point guard is some skinny white dude from Canada.
Except, you won’t suck. In fact, you’ll be killing teams. Running them out of the building. And that skinny white dude will be a dog.
Number 13. Steve Nash. That is a baaaaaaaad boy.
When you get to Phoenix, there’s not going to be some genius plan out of the gate. But then from the first dribble of the first practice, Steve is going to take off.
Hair flying everywhere. This dude is going to be a blur. You’re going to spend the whole season trying to keep up with this dude. He’s a genius. There’s no other way to say it. The media is going to start calling your offense “Seven Seconds or Less.” But honestly, all you guys call it is, “We Gotta Keep Up With This Little Motherf***er.”
Steve’s a mastermind. He’s going to keep everybody’s egos in check for the first time in NBA history. He’ll know when to feed people the ball at the right moments. The ball will hardly touch the floor some nights, and you’ll be icing your knees in the fourth quarter looking up at the scoreboard like, “This is crazy.”
That season will be the most fun you’ll ever have playing basketball. And then you’ll lose to the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. And then the Suns will trade your ass over the summer.
I told you. The NBA makes no damn sense sometimes.
You were really feeling yourself, huh? You were loving the future. Look, I warned you. It’s not a fairy tale. In fact, it’s gonna get dark for you after Phoenix. They’ll trade you to the Knicks, which will seem great at first. But that team will be filled with the craziest cast of characters maybe in NBA history. That team will make the Young Clippers look like a Catholic school squad. Most of it is unprintable, honestly.
But that first season with the Knicks is going to be a blur for you for a different reason. You’ll be out in Seattle on a road trip, sitting on the bus, when you get a call from your sister.
You’ll know right away that something’s happened. That vibe is so familiar to you, when something bad is in the air. She’s gonna be stalling, acting weird, and then finally she’ll come out and say it.
“Lee got shot.”
He was back in Chicago. Him and your pops were moving some furniture at his place. Some guys followed him home. They wanted his truck. It used to be your truck. You gave it to him, for always holding things down for you when you were in Los Angeles as a rookie, for always taking care of everything and making sure you were straight.
You gave him the truck. And some random dudes wanted to steal it. They had guns. They pointed them right at your brother, and at your father. Your brother tried to grab one of the guns, and he got shot four times. They tried to shoot your dad, too, but the bullet went right through his jacket, and didn’t even graze him.
But Lee got hit bad.
Before you can get back to Chicago, he’ll be gone.
Over nothing. Over a truck. Another robbery. Another brother gone. Over nothing, man.
The anger will be beyond your comprehension. It’s different than the anger you’re gonna feel at 12. This time … Man, it’s Lee. Your dog. Your partner. Your protector. Why?
You won’t be able think about anything but the anger. After the funeral, when you get back to the Knicks, it’s going to be a mess. You’ll be trying to fight everybody, every day, at every practice. You’ll start drinking a lot.
Go home from practice, start drinking. Every day. Vodka. Cognac. Whatever. You think it’s shutting your brain off, but it’s really not. It’s just making you obsess over all that anger. It’s just making you gain weight. It’s a black hole, man.
One day at practice, you’re going to snap, and it’s going to be bad. You’ll be trying to fight the world. They’re going to have to call Isiah Thomas — the legend, the Isiah Thomas — to come try to calm you down. And that’s not even going to work. Isiah will be calling your sister, trying to get her to calm you down.
It’ll be a whole scene, man.
Malik Rose will save your career that day. He’ll say something to you that gets you to come to your senses and leave the building. The Knicks will make you take anger-management classes, and honestly, you need them. You need to really figure out where your anger is coming from, or it’s going to destroy you. At the end of the day, it’s all about your refusal to let go of what happened to your brother. All you can think about, all day long, is making those dudes that killed him pay for what they did.
And you know what’s so crazy? You’re actually going to have a chance. The police will catch the killers. They’ll send them to prison. And you’ll know some people who could deal with them. No problem. Easy.
The dudes who killed your brother? Over nothing? Over a truck? Just say the word.
You’ll have that chance.
And all these years later … honestly, you’ll still wonder how you had the strength to say no. It’s really going to take everything in your power to walk away from it, and accept what happened.
You’ll have that strength because of your sister. She’s the one who will step up and become a second mother to you when mom dies. She’s the one who will step up again when Lee is murdered and hold the whole family together.
And you know what she says at Lee’s funeral, when you’re crying so hard that you can barely lift your head up to look at her? You know what she says about the killers, in that moment?
“I forgive you.”
I’ve given you a lot of things to think about, but if I could really go back in time and make you remember one thing, it would be so simple:
It’s gonna be alright.
A lot of bad things are going to happen. A lot of good things, too. But sometimes the bad will seem like it’s all you can see.
But it’s gonna be alright.
Someday, you’re going to have a beautiful, awesome wife and four incredible kids.
You’re not gonna win an NBA title. You’re not gonna be an All-Star.
But you know what? When you play against Kobe, when you play against KG, when you play against Paul Pierce, they’re gonna know. They’re gonna know, boy. They’re gonna look at you during that first whistle, and they’re gonna give you that smirk, because they’re gonna know that they’re in for a fight.
Even when you’re Fat Q, they’re still gonna know you’re with it.
They’re gonna look at you like, “Yo, that boy’s from Chicago. It’s about to be a long night.”
And what do you got?
You got the DNA of a motherf***ing go-getter.