Allan Houston: Getting Playing Time With God
Two shining moments from Allan Houston’s career have cemented his place in NBA history: his buzzer-beating shot in Miami that sent his New York Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999, and his 53-point game against the Los Angeles Lakers four years later. But Houston is no showboating superstar. Hardworking on the court, he was a softspoken leader off it, In retirement, Houston has quietly staked his post-NBA legacy on helping fathers and sons come together in a series of basketball retreats called Father Knows Best, held since 2004 in Harlem and soon to expand to New Orleans. We chatted with Houston about how the program got started, why it’s needed, and why athletics and faith go together.
We’ve gotten used to athletes offering up a win to God or a good game. But with these retreats, you’ve gone beyond that. Where did your dedication to your spirituality come from?
My parents were instrumental introducing me to God through my faith in Christ when I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. But I didn’t really take it to heart until I got to New York. The Bible talks about having a form of godliness, but denying His power—I use the analogy of being on the team, but not getting any playing time. But in New York, a cousin of mine, George Hughes, and [teammate] Charlie Ward sat me down and set down some principles of the Bible. So it started to soak in when I was about 25, 26 or so. God just kind of showed me a lot from that point on.
I wonder if many athletes reach for God when they go pro. You’re suddenly making a huge amount of money, traveling a lot, and you’re only 24 or 25.
Oh, it’s tough, extremely tough. The athlete-celebrity life is people telling you everything you want to hear. Life becomes about you. You have to have perspective. Deion Sanders once said, “Man, my bed is as expensive as some people’s house, but I can’t sleep in it. I can’t enjoy it. My soul is not satisfied.” Everybody has that desire to have a spiritual connection with God. They just don’t know how.
And as an athlete you have this unique platform to talk about your beliefs.
Well, if I pique a person’s interest just because I can shoot a basketball, I think I owe it to them to say, “You know what? Your soul can be satisfied just like mine, just like other people, and this is how.” It’s not about trying to push something onto you. It’s about sharing something. If you have a party, you don’t invite people because you’re trying to push something on them. It’s just—I’ve received something I want to share.
And that’s what you’re doing with your retreats.
Right, I wanted to share my experience. I’ve had great father, great parents. My father was also a father figure to a lot of the players he coached and mentored. Even before I was thinking about playing in the NBA, I saw his example, his work ethic. My father has had so many pioneering experiences—the first black player at the University of Louisville, first black head coach in the SEC Conference, owning one of the largest minority businesses in the country—and it’s all come about because of these principles. Then you see the stats. Fewer than 50 percent of African-American males have a father. This is our way of addressing the issue, but not just in that demographic, any demographic.
How do you address that?
We talk about communication. We talk about finding a connection. We talk about the blessings of a father’s example and the blessings of a son’s obedience. We talk about how the relationship between a man and a woman. But we do it all in a fun way where they can enjoy the game of basketball. After a fun game night, we start with workshops with guest speakers like A.R. Bernard, one of the most dynamic teachers out of Brooklyn. He talks about communication, how key it is in a father-son relationship. We have a workshop on the issues of sex and dealing with women. We make it age-appropriate: our average age is about 12, but we range from 8 to 15 or 16.
And there’s basketball skills as well, but even that is not just basketball.
Right. My dad and I host a shooting demonstration where we teach fathers how to teach their sons to shoot. Fathers compete against and shoot against each other, and they compete against other fathers and son pairs. So the fathers cheer for their son or shoot against their son or their mentee. And they walk away not caring who wins and loses, because it’s just the experience.
The retreats also have a spiritual dimension, right?
The core of your relationship with your father or son comes from your point of reference. How am I going to learn how to be a good dad, other than by example? To me, that is dictated by my relationship with God. So, we don’t take anyone to church. But we talk about principles of love. The Christian message is one of love and sacrifice, and so we take those principles and say, “How do we apply that to our relationships?” We want them to have fun playing basketball, but we’ve prayed with fathers and sons, and we’ve had some emotional moments.
The phrase that stuck with me from one of the speakers at the last retreat is “God’s blueprint for a father-son relationship.” Can you explain what that means?
Jesus said, “I do nothing without my Father.” We’re all representations of our fathers. So we try to understand who we really are, in God’s image as a man. Once we understand who we are, then we know how to act accordingly. Once we act accordingly, we know how to be an example to our son, to love him the right way and understand his gifts, his strengths, his weaknesses and understand how to nurture those.
But what if your own father is a bad deal? How do you deal with that?
We don’t have to attach ourselves only to our biological father. We were created in God’s image. My father’s a great father, but there are things I’d like to do differently. Even though biologically we know we’re just like our fathers in a lot of ways, we’re still made in God’s image—the image of a strong, powerful man who has a destiny and a purpose. We can point not just to an imperfect man, but one who we were created in His perfect image. That’s why we call it Father Knows Best, the heavenly father.
How many children do you have?
We have four. The second one is a boy. He’ll be seven in April.
Obviously, your career took you away a lot, and swept you up in the thing bigger than just you. How did that work for you as a father?
Well, when I was at home, people knew not to call me in my house. When I was home, that was their time. One of the hardest things I dealt with as a player was balancing time, telling people no. People want you to speak out at this group, their church. How do you say no? How do you say no to someone who wants an autograph when you got two kids on your arm? My kids don’t care about me being on ESPN. All they care about is, “Are you going to play with me today on this puzzle? Are you going to read to me tonight?” You have to find a balance. And unless we’re connected to our heavenly Father, we’re going to say, “I’ll read to you tomorrow.” We’re not going to be able to make that sacrifice and do it the right way.