HOW DO YOU MOURN AN ABSENT FATHER?

A reporter uncovers many things, but he shouldn’t find a father before a son does.

That happened to me once, in a golf and tennis park in a suburb of Atlanta. A beige car pulled up and out stepped Jimmy Walker. In 1967, Walker was a standout at Providence and became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, chosen ahead of guys like Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. He went on to play pro ball in Detroit and elsewhere before disappearing into rumor, bad business deals and obscurity.

Now, here he was, in his late 40s, his glory days long since passed. He walked slightly pigeon-toed, wore a designer sweat suit and was elusive and cryptic, except when he asked me, several times, to provide “compensation” for our interview.

I had tracked down Jimmy Walker because he was the long-lost father of a talented Michigan college player named Jalen Rose. Jalen had never met the man. Didn’t even know where he lived. Suddenly, in that suburban Atlanta park, life was out of order. I knew the son, who didn’t know his father, and I’d met the father, who didn’t know his son.

“During the time that Jalen was born,” Walker told me, “I didn’t handle the situation well. I think, when Jeanne” Rose “told me she was pregnant, being the immature person that I was, I said, ‘Stop kidding.’ … We didn’t communicate right, and now Jalen has gone 20 years without meeting his father. …

“I don’t have any regrets. … That’s just the way things happen sometimes.”

Walker removed his sunglasses and spoke candidly about his troubled youth. He spoke about his career. He asked again for “compensation.” None was given.

Before he left, he handed me a piece of paper with his phone number. “Tell him to call me, if he wants,” he said.

A cycle that needs breaking

That was 14 years ago. Last week, Jimmy Walker died of lung cancer. He was 63. The obituary said he passed away in Kansas City. There were praise-filled quotes from Dave Bing, Bob Cousy and other notable teammates and coaches. Still, it took Walker’s death certificate to do what most of them hadn’t been able to do in life: find him.

For the record, I did offer that phone number to Jalen. At first he refused it. By that point, he had grown up a fatherless child, one of countless fatherless children in this country. He didn’t feel a sudden need to reconnect.

“I might ask him where he’s been all these years,” Jalen said.

Some icebreaker, huh?

Whenever people dismiss young men – particularly athletes – as being unruly, bad-mannered or irresponsible, I wish they would first find out if they’d had to grow up without a father in the house. As someone blessed to have both parents, still alive and married, it is incomprehensible to me how a father, willingly, could ignore his child. Or how a child could grow up knowing a man was out there who looked like him and moved like him – as Jalen did Jimmy – and have no contact whatsoever.

Is it any wonder that many of these kids never learn how to behave like men? Or that many repeat their fathers’ irresponsible ways?

Passing his father on the court

Jalen Rose, by the way, was an exception. He has enjoyed a long NBA career. He gives a good amount to charity – including college scholarships to deserving Detroit high school seniors, some of whom likely come from broken homes themselves.

I don’t know if he ever privately called his father. I know it was a happy night for him when he surpassed his dad’s point total as an NBA player. And I can’t imagine if his heart ached when he heard the news of Walker’s death. How badly can you miss something you never had? Does it only make it worse?

I do remember Walker, before he left that day, telling me about his own father, whom he also never knew. He said, when he was 20, he found out the old man had died.

“I think he got burned in a fire.”

How did you feel when you heard that?

“I felt that a person just died, that’s all. Just a person.”

Sadly, he was stating his epithet. When you ignore your child, that’s all you are. Just a person. Not a father. That word must be earned.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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