Worth Giving: Lessons One NBA Great Learned from His Father—On and Off the Court

Allan Houston, an Olympic gold medal winner, finished his basketball career in 2005 as one of the NBA’s all-time greatest long-range shooters and one of the New York Knicks’ all-time leading scorers. Today he is assistant general manager of the New York Knicks and general manager of the Westchester Knicks, an NBA Development League team. Houston credits his father, Wade Houston, who coached him when he was younger and instilled in him a set of values he holds dear to this day, for his success.

In honor of that bond, in 2003 Houston organized retreats for fathers and sons called Father Knows Best. He was hoping to replicate a bit of the relationship he had with his dad for kids disconnected from their own fathers. Today, those occasional get-togethers have grown into full-blown seven-week father-son annual workshops done in partnership with local organizations like the YMCA and Big Brothers, Big Sisters under what is now known as the Allan Houston Mentoring Initiative, the New York–based signature program of his Legacy Foundation.

Over the years, Houston has reached more than 1,500 participants with the workshops, which have developed beyond strengthening father-son relationships to also building economic empowerment through teaching entrepreneurship and encouraging spiritual growth. Houston has kept the organization small, with just two employees and a modest fundraising effort: By 2014 he had raised $1.7 million through celebrity poker tournaments and other events as well as his own donations. Houston wants his philanthropic work to have a personal touch. He interacts with most of the participants in his events and uses a small number of consultants and alumni to spread the message that fathers can have deeper relationships with their sons if they work from a set of values. The centerpiece of Houston’s programs is his set of values: faith, integrity, sacrifice, leadership and legacy. All are based on lessons he learned from his own father—on and off the court.

Allan playing basketball as a child (far left). Photo courtesy of Allan Houston

Q: Please tell us a little bit about your background.

A: I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. My mother’s father, William Lee Kean, who passed away when she was young, won several Negro League championships as a basketball player in high school, and he was one of the all-time winningest black coaches before desegregation. My father was one of the first African American basketball players at the University of Louisville, in 1962. Starting when I was quite young, he was assistant basketball coach at Louisville for 13 years, and they went to the Final Four four times and won two national championships during that time. By the time I was 9 or 10 years old I was constantly in basketball camps. We were just around the game a lot. My dad was pretty busy traveling, but our family structure was loving. Of course, we weren’t his only children, because as a coach, you’re involved in other young men’s lives, from recruiting them to convincing them to come to school there. By the time I was in high school I started to look up to him and the players that he coached. They were like big brothers to me, mentors. I saw a lot of their habits and their lifestyle.

What did you take from that? What were the expectations of your family?

The whole culture of being a basketball family in Louisville was kind of big. I was like a little celebrity in a way. I saw who these players really were. I saw them get coached, get held accountable. I saw their work ethic. I saw them off the court—how they were just laughing, joking. I didn’t really want to be an NBA player when I was younger; I wanted to be like them.

But I also saw how hard it was. It wasn’t all glamorous. I saw the sweat. I saw their vulnerabilities. I saw them get in trouble. I saw that some of them didn’t have the same family structure that I had. So I had an appreciation for what they went through. As I got older, I got to hang out with them. I think one of the things I saw from my father was how he handled it all—like how he handled being a husband, how he handled being a father, how he handled and how he treated me.

Talk to me about your role model.

People respected him, his integrity. He was always trying to help people. He was mild-mannered yet he could be very stern. But it’s his sense of humor that really stuck out. He was always playing practical jokes, just making people laugh. The admiration he commanded was undeniable.

Is this what made you want to start your foundation—his mentoring, basically?

In 1988, I graduated from high school and decided to play for him at the University of Tennessee. It was our relationship that really triggered everything. He’s not just my father; he’s my coach. I learned a lot. We were in the Southeastern conference so I saw him getting booed as the first black coach. I saw how he handled the adversity. He had a very even-keeled demeanor. He treated everyone the same. I got to the NBA in 1993 and started to think about legacy, about passing on the lessons my dad had taught me that had gotten me to that point. I said, “You know, Dad, we have to do something.”

You could have gone in a lot of directions. What made you focus on that father-son relationship?

I felt like there were a lot of other African American men and families who were trying to be a healthy family unit, but there were environmental factors that didn’t allow for it. It has an impact: 71 percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes, 75 percent of adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers are from fatherless homes and 90 percent of all runaway and homeless children are from fatherless homes.

Have players and others in the NBA supported your efforts?

Yes, athletes, celebrities and influencers have supported and participated in our events because of their firm belief in restoring, maintaining and sustaining healthy relationships between fathers and their children and mentors and mentees. They’ve shared their personal struggles, testimonials and success stories, and their involvement has confirmed that the work we do with families is critical.

How did the foundation begin?

It started off as a retreat. Let’s just get a basketball court, a gym, an area where people can play and teach them the game of basketball, but also teach them about the messages and the principles and the fundamentals of life that I’ve learned through my parents and our family. Let’s marry those two things and see what the experience is like.

How did it go in those early days?

We found that the relationship between a father and his child, or even a father figure and child, is spiritual. It’s really a reflection of God, and that’s why we called it Father Knows Best at the beginning because we wanted to make sure that people saw the relationship not just with their father but hopefully the heavenly father.

People were also having fun. Playing games. Playing sports. Competitions. We had workshops. We had dynamic speakers come in. It started off as a two-day father-son retreat, and it quickly involved not just a father, but a father figure, a coach or a mentor, and meeting every Saturday or consistently over a period of time. And that has been the model that we’ve carried over the last seven to 10 years.

Houston and his family. Photo courtesy of Allan Houston

You have seven of your own children. Did things change when you had your kids? How old is your oldest?

She’s 17 and my youngest is 4. No, I don’t think anything changed. I just felt like there was a pattern that had been laid and I had to find myself, but stay within that pattern. So I may do something a little different in terms of bedtime or reading or whatever, but there’s still a pattern and a framework that remains consistent. And that’s where the FISLL (faith, integrity, sacrifice, leadership and legacy) messaging lies.

Can you walk me through those values of the foundation?

FISLL is what we call our framework. Faith is the core. When you think about faith, you just think about your identity and developing a confidence, not in yourself but with that authority figure. You talk about how to set goals and to develop a trust.

Integrity is key. If I had to describe my father, that would be the word. Sacrifice is the third one. Understanding that we’re created. We’re really selfish by nature. How can we surrender and be humble and think about a certain commitment and self-control and discipline?

Leadership is the fourth fundamental. Being responsible for the needs of others. If you’re in a group, you have a collective goal. How do you inspire people to join in? I learned that it’s about setting a good example, so that you can be trusted.

And the fifth fundamental?

The last one is legacy. What do you truly want to leave behind?

The goal really is the delivery and implementation of these core values. We can go out and raise millions of dollars, which would be great, to put on these programs, but I think to exponentially spread the message of these core values has even more impact.

What is your favorite part—fundraising or hanging out with young men and their mentors? I know you’re not going to say fundraising!

[Laughs.] It’s visiting with them and spending time with them. To me the power is not only being able to communicate and give back to the youth, but also to give back to the person who is with that youth, that mentor, that father. And being with them together, that’s what I get the most impact from. Because you’re basically speaking to them both at the same time, whether you’re teaching them how to shoot a basketball or you’re just talking to them about how one of these five principles plays out in their daily life.

How do you see the foundation five years from now?

I would love to have as many people being able to understand the value of the relationship, first, with yourself, and then with that person who is trying to pull you along. I think we’re all on a kind of divine journey. These values are already in us all—they just need to be brought out. When you can do that, not just for an individual but for a pair, a family, that is the greatest reward.

—With Rose Arce

For more information, contact the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation at 800.806.8647 or [email protected], or visit allanhouston.com.

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