The NBA, a league filled with young, wealthy black men, seems like the perfect place to celebrate black fatherhood. Instead, for decades NBA dads have been cultural punching bags, celebrity straw men for arguments about the pathology of black families. But this season, which concluded this week with the Golden State Warriors’ historic championship, a new story has emerged. Warriors star Steph Curry’s daughter, Riley, is winning the Internet. Derrick Rose’s son is a fan favorite. Chris Paul’s 6-year-old is appearing alongside his dad in TV commercials, and has more than 220,000 followers on Instagram.
Riley Curry’s cuteness, in particular, has become the object of public fascination. After Riley became the unexpected focus of a press conference earlier this month by singing, yawning, and crawling under a table, her dad was praised for his parenting skills. “Curry displayed his affection and patience for his daughter while fulfilling his professional responsibilities—the way a father should,” wrote Eric Rodriguez in the San Jose Mercury News.
This praise of NBA dads doesn’t appear to be fleeting, and has actually been building for a while. In 2013, USA Today put together a photo gallery celebrating NBA fatherhood featuring the league’s biggest stars—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony—showing affection to their kids.
But just 20 years ago, the tenor of the public conversation about NBA fathers was much different. They were the highest-profile examples of amoral, hypersexual black men, whose perpetual immaturity was ruining black women and children.
Take this 1998 cover story from Sports Illustrated—titled “Where’s Daddy?”—in which a team of reporters wondered aloud whether the competitive environment of professional basketball “encourages athletes to try to prove their masculinity through sexual conquests” and, as a result, father a staggering number of children out of wedlock.
The magazine even included what it called an “NBA All-Paternity team” that, like the league itself, was filled with mostly black players: Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Shawn Kemp, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen, and Isaiah Thomas. Larry Bird was the only non-black player on the fantasy team. And in case the point about irresponsible black masculinity was lost on anyone, there was this: