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Ready to Fly

Jun 22 2018
Photo by
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune
Wendell Carter Jr.
Chicago Bulls
Jun 22 2018
I

visited with 13 teams over the past month. Every single time the meeting started with almost the exact same questions. Nothing about basketball, either.

What’s your family like? Who do you hang around with?

I think they were trying to figure out whether I’d be able to handle everything on and off the court in the NBA.

I was straight up with them. And now I’ll tell you what I said. If you want to understand what I’m about, you gotta start at the airport.

The Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Most people, when they think of an airport, they think of a place where you leave for somewhere else. For me, it was a place I learned about the world without leaving. It was like a second home.

It’s where my mom and dad both worked.

Courtesy of Wendell Carter Jr.

If you’re from Atlanta like I am, you grow up hearing that Hartsfield-Jackson is the busiest airport in the world. In our house, we took a lot of pride in that fact. Ever since I can remember, my dad was an airplane mechanic at Hartsfield-Jackson — the guy out on the tarmac inspecting and tuning up the planes before they took off. My mother was a planner with the group that helped come up with the actual layout of the airport — the shops, the trains and that kind of thing. There were a lot of days when they’d both have to work late, and I’d stay with my great-grandma in the city where my grandparents, two of my aunties and my cousins all lived.

I was an only child, but I was born into a pretty full house with my grandparents, aunts, and cousins. My aunts always treated me like a son. They’d cook me food, take me to school and help me with my homework. Anything that parents do for their children, my aunts or grandparents did for me. And it had nothing to do with basketball. They didn’t have expectations of me going to the NBA, didn’t think about me having money one day. They helped me because I was part of the family. And our family was all about love.

Well, love and hard work.

My dad took me to work with him one day when I was maybe 10 years old so I could see the planes and learn how the engines worked and things like that. But the thing I remember most was the effort he put in to doing a good job every day. It wasn’t glamorous. In fact, it was the opposite. It was exhausting. But he wasn’t in it for the recognition. Hundreds of planes taking off and landing every day and he’d never even bat an eye. The knowledge and dedication he had for his craft was inspiring — and still is, even all these years later. But I think even more important than that, the biggest thing I learned from my father after going to work with him was that it was O.K. to ask for help. His philosophy was to always try to do it yourself the first time, then never be afraid to ask someone else to help you. Whether it’s a coworker, family member, whoever. Whether it’s fixing plane engines or learning something new on the basketball court, sometimes it takes more than one person.

Our house in Atlanta was on a street corner opposite a cul de sac, so everybody in the neighborhood had to walk by our driveway on their way to the park or the pool. That’s where they could see me and my dad practicing every morning in the summer, working nonstop on my left hand. Back then all my dad seemed to care about was my left hand, and I really didn’t know why. Our training was simple: I’d drive to the hoop and try to score, and my dad would try to stop me — by any means necessary. He’d swat away my shots, or bump me on the way up and knock me on my butt. Basically he’d be as physical as possible to keep me from scoring.

I was like nine years old when we started. He was a grown man and he knew that I’d be going left every single time, but he still never took it easy on me. Never gave me one free basket.

“Leave that poor boy alone!” People would say when they passed by. “You’re gonna hurt him!”

Sometimes even my mom would storm out of the house all angry after she’d gotten calls from the neighbors.

“What are you doing to my baby?” she’d holler at him.

“Dominating,” was all he’d say. And he’d say without even a hint that he was enjoying it.

That’s because he wasn’t doing it for fun. My dad had a plan. From the outside, it probably just looked like a grown man clowning a kid, but that’s not really what was happening. I was always one of the tallest kids on the court when I was younger, so I had an advantage against kids my own age. But my dad knew that things weren’t always going to be so easy for me. If I wanted to be serious about basketball, beating kids in my own age-group could only take me so far. When you really start competing, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or how big you are for your age. Nobody is ever going to take it easy on you — they just want to see you lose.

So from my dad’s point of view, if I wanted to succeed in basketball long-term, I had to be able to beat him. So that’s what I tried to do every single day. Days, even weeks would go by where I’d be lucky to score even one point.

Eventually, though, I got better. And I learned that you have to learn how take your losses — because there are going to be a lot of them before you’re able to win. You have to learn how to get up from a fall, over and over and over again. And then when that day comes when all your hard work pays off, when you’re finally able to beat your dad after years of getting crushed by him, it’s like … damn.

You start to believe that maybe anything really is possible.

Guillermo Hernandez Martinez/The Players' Tribune

Just a few weeks ago I was back in Atlanta, at the airport, when I ran into a guy who used to work on the tarmac with my dad. He’s a TSA agent now.

“I remember you when you were just a kid!” he said. “I can’t believe how far you’ve come.”

Just like my family growing up, this guy had absolutely zero expectations that I was going to make it to the NBA. He wasn’t just acting nice to me or my parents to get a big payoff in the future.

He was a friend. That’s all.

My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — they all go to work every day. And I can’t recall a single time that I ever heard one of them complain. Life is always about hard work and caring about the people close to you. Caring about your community. The real payoff isn’t money or anything material. The real payoff is that unbreakable bond you share with each other. A family forever. Prepared for anything.

So yeah, I think I’m ready for life in the NBA.

Because like everything in my life so far, I know that I won’t have to go through it alone.

I’m ready to fly.

Wendell Carter Jr.
Chicago Bulls