There are some people that we are just meant to experience life with. When those people happen to be in your family, the world can seem a lot less scary. With these mentors in our corner, we are raised with the determination and confidence to realize the potential that they have seen in us from our very first moments. They lead us into our most fearsome battles and dust the dirt off our backs when we fall. For me, that mentor is my uncle Mike Parris. Uncle Mike is, without a doubt, the reason I have become the man I am today.
When I was a little kid (well, I may have been a kid, but I was never that little), Uncle Mike worked at a sporting goods store in Newark. I spent a lot of my time there, stocking shelves and doing anything I could to earn the money I needed to buy the most important, most treasured possession any kid from the 80s could have: Dr. J sneakers. Uncle Mike and I both knew that he had the ability to pull those Dr. Js out from the stock room and give them to me, but he wasn’t about that. My Uncle always stressed that the best things in life are earned and that there aren’t any shortcuts to feeling a sense of accomplishment.
One time when I was in elementary school, I was playing baseball on the playground with some friends. I got a hold of a pitch and cracked the ball far over the right field fence, causing a window to break at a nearby house. Of course, all of my friends sprinted away as fast as they could, terrified of the whooping they’d get if someone at home found out. Honestly, I wanted to join them, but I decided against it because of my Uncle Mike. Rather than running from the problem, he encouraged me to take a different path: one directly to the house I’d just busted. I was scared, but he walked up to the house with me and knocked on the door. When the homeowner answered, Uncle Mike had me apologize and explain that what I’d done was an accident. Then, he offered to pay to replace the window. The homeowner forgave me and then said that he was so impressed with my maturity that he would not accept any payment.
So as it turned out, that foul ball introduced me to the most important lesson I’ve ever learned: people respect when others take responsibility for their actions. Whenever I do something I know I shouldn’t have, I remember that homeowner, and am given the humility to apologize and admit responsibility.
Later on in my life, Uncle Mike put his desire to help his community to good use by becoming a police officer. He had a soft voice but the strongest moral code of any person I’ve ever met. Nobody messed with Uncle Mike because they wanted to make him proud, even if they weren’t related to him. He expected accountability and decency from everyone he encountered, and no one was brave (or stupid) enough to let him down.
Accountability and consequences were two very important themes in Uncle Mike’s mentorship of me. Once he became a police officer, he would sometimes drive me around in his squad car to show me what life would look like if I chose the wrong path. It made me realize that no action is independent of another — what we do shapes our habits, and those habits eventually become our character. The one lesson that he made sure was ingrained in me was that I would always be in control of my life if I was a leader and not a follower. He always told me that if I became a leader and lived a life of hard, honest work and determination, I could be or do anything that I wanted.
This was sometimes hard to keep in mind while I was playing college ball. I was constantly being double and triple-teamed, which led to complete exhaustion and a constant risk of injury. While I loved my life in college, the game that had defined my life up until that point was no longer fun. The frustration I felt over my treatment on the court began affecting my outlook on the game I’d always loved. Fortunately Uncle Mike, like he often did, gave me the advice I needed to hear at the time. He told me that I needed to be my own man, and make my own decisions. He reminded me not to get too wrapped up in what others do during a game because whenever I stepped onto the court to compete, the only feet in my sneakers would be my own. His guidance renewed my sense of ownership over my talent and gave me the confidence I needed to advance my career on my own terms and go pro.
Every day I am so grateful that I was lucky enough to be born in the same family as my Uncle. His unconditional support, his rigid moral code and his love for people influenced me in more ways than I could possibly articulate. I once asked him if his role as my uncle and mentor was that much different than his role as a police officer. He looked at me and said, “It’s all the same. I’m there when the need arises.”
In February of 2014, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper and issued a call to action for individuals, nonprofits, businesses and government to do their part to provide young people with resources and opportunities that will help them reach their full potential. To learn more about the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, check out www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper. Additionally, Shaquille O’Neal serves on the Advisory Council for My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonpartisan nonprofit with a vision to make the American Dream available to all boys and young men of color by eliminating gaps in their opportunities and outcomes. Visit www.mbkalliance.org for more information.