For as long as I can remember, I’ve ALWAYS looked up to my mother. When my dad couldn’t be there, my mom showed up with a presence so loving, it was as if she brought two strong parents in one body.
One of my fondest childhood memories is how my mom did Christmas.
If you’ve ever seen a Black woman around Christmas time, you know EXACTLY what I mean, LOL. When December hits…well, in my house, you’re gonna know it, hear it, smell it, and sing about it. To keep it real, our Christmas tree and decorations were already up by mid-November, surrounded by the aromas of homemade mac-n-cheese and peppermint candles. My mother called it her “Christmas Mood,” and if we behaved properly, the whole home was able to stay in Christmas Mood through January 2nd!
How she found the time and energy for all that is seriously impressive. She would sit in snowstorms to watch us play football and she’d cheer with everything she had, but she was also unafraid to sit me out of a big basketball game if my grades weren’t good enough. She showed us so much unconditional love, but she also made me walk home through the hood to teach me toughness. My mom had so much passion for my brother and I, and for her, it was all about turning us into strong leaders and men of faith. She took on most of this work by herself.
As I got older, I started to realize how much my mom really meant to my development as a human being.
I’m STILL learning just how strong she is. Black women can give you confidence out of this world, and believe me, they can also humble you in the nicest ways. But don’t you DARE cross that line with a Black woman, LOL. My mom is tough, and she knows how to love. It goes back to our ancestors, where love was all we had in the face of oppression and hatred. We had nothing, and we came from nothing. To so many people, we are still considered nothing, even to this day. That’s why the love in a strong Black home is so unique. It’s unforced, but it’s special. It’s never really talked about or praised, and sometimes it’s taken for granted considering what Black families go through together.
I truly admire a strong woman, and the numbers don’t lie: there are ZERO forces in this life that match the strength and beauty of a Black matriarch. That’s why most men want to give their moms the whole world. I was no different. As a kid, I would be playing basketball in the driveway, working on my jumper and all that. But when a NICE car would drive by us, I’d try to really show out. I would dunk as hard as I possibly could, totally extra stuff. Sometimes, I would blow the dunk completely, and in one of my less proud moments, I even dented her car when the ball went flying off the iron. But she knew what I was trying to say. She knew I was pushing myself to get her one of those nice cars. She knew I wanted to elevate myself so that I could elevate her, too.
I was about 13 years old when that happened. I was REAL naive. In my mind, I was only a few years away from getting my mom that nice car. In reality, it took seven more years, and 15 total years of practicing the game of basketball. But it most certainly did happen, and fittingly, it was a Christmas Eve morning. It was the year after my rookie season, and I was backing up Paul George under coach Frank Vogel with the Indiana Pacers. I had been cut from the Minnesota Timberwolves the year before, and had been saving money real carefully. To be honest, getting cut turned this project from a May birthday present to a December Christmas present. My grandmother and I planned the reveal out for months.
When the day came, I drove to my mom’s house back in northwest Indiana. We got a huge red bow across this all-white Mercedes Benz. All I could think about was how long this moment spanned…this was a goal of mine since I got in the NBA, but like I was saying, it was really a goal I’ve had my entire life. I told mom to come outside and help me with groceries. She ran out and couldn’t stop screaming. I’m serious: “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I still hear it now. Awe and amazement. The video went viral online, and the love kept spreading. A chain of gift-giving across the country, real Black holiday love.
I’ve always been a giver, and that Christmas happened to be the first Christmas with a lil bit of money in my pocket. Of course, I was going to share that with my immediate family. I was 21 years old and the way I saw it, my mom and my loved ones paid it forward by raising me all that time. We used to joke about “dry” holiday cards that arrived without any dollar bills tucked inside. This year, there was a lil cash in everyone’s hand-written card. The surprise was somehow even more fun for me than it was for them. Ironic how a bit of money made priceless reactions. I myself don’t get surprised on Christmas morning…my mom gets me the same type of practical and cozy gift every year, usually soap or pajamas or a robe. She hasn’t lost that matriarchal instinct. She’ll crack jokes while opening these presents, but she still can’t shake that motherly protection, that unconditional love.
Looking back almost seven years later, it seems that life has taken a complete 180.
Now I’m the one learning about parenting, with two-year-old Ariana by my side. She was born on the 22nd, the jersey number I was drafted into. When I was cut, my number was out the door with my roster spot. But then Ari arrived, and I got back into No. 22. It feels like this was meant to be, even if life has felt beyond my control at times. Now I’m on the opposite side of the country, West Coast living, and I have a real opportunity to reshape my NBA career. I feel like I can re-do the first six years I spent in the league, and make these next six much better, knowing everything I’ve learned along the way. Just like everyone, I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve made money and lost money, gained friends and cut some off. But I’ve learned from my mistakes, and my family holds me accountable. They’ve had my back well before my NBA career started, and they’ll have it way after it concludes. The Christmas presents haven’t been quite as extravagant in recent years, but that’s not what it’s about: money changes most people, and it’s those who DON’T change that are worth investing in.
I’ve been in Sacramento for a few days. I’ve run into a few of the rookies, and it reminds me of all these memories. It’s also reminding me what I didn’t know at their age. Maturing is a blessing and a curse…you become a better man, but you also realize all the ways you fell short before. In Minnesota, Zach Lavine and I would play PS4 all day after practice. We were rookies, and we thought the vets were strange old guys with families. LOL! I’m about to be 27 now, and I know they are already looking at me like that. But it’s cool.
These cycles come quicker than you expect. You go from buying a few unnecessary luxuries, even things you’ve convinced yourself you always wanted…to helping others find purpose and helping your children blossom. Hopefully, you’re saving up for that phase, because you never know when the run is over. Rookie deals turn to free agency in the blink of an eye, and no job is guaranteed. A wise man once told me that I’ll “never be able to make this type of money in any other field again.” The odds certainly aren’t in my favor. So, why not do right with what I have right now?
Do right with your opportunities, and do right with this life.
This year has been crazy, and I’m still settling into a new professional home. But the Foundation marches onward, and it’s especially important to provide communal resources for this Christmas season. On behalf of my daughter Ariana and the whole A.R.I. Foundation, we will be hosting our ARI’s Elves Christmas Event here in Sacramento with select families! Of course, Mom would NEVER let me forget where I came from, so like always, we’ll be putting on for Gary, IN and Indiana-area families as well. Without the dedication and commitment to family that I had on Christmas, I might not be in the position I am today. I certainly would be farther from and blind to the true meaning of the holiday. In a way, I’m still dunking as hard as I can, showing out to give my family the things they deserve. I’ve just grown up a lot, and learned that the things they deserve don’t always need a fancy red bow and a big price tag. Here’s to new Christmas traditions, a new start in Sacramento, and all the elves helping deliver love across our world. I’m still learning and maturing as I go. Thanks for your patience and thanks for rocking with me. Find your Christmas Mood and stay safe out there!