KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For years, it came and it went, silent as a sunset. It was Any Given Sunday, a line through the calendar on the wall. It was one of those far-away holidays in small type and parentheticals, observed in another country, another continent.
And Travis Releford admits: He still struggles to get his arms completely around this whole “Father’s Day” thing. This weekend will be his second, more or less.
“It means a lot, because growing up, I really didn’t have my dad around, physically there, to celebrate that with him,” the former Kansas guard explains. “So for me to be able to do that with my son, it’s kind of fun.”
Fun is good. Fun is new. Releford’s father, Tracy, is serving a life sentence for second-degree murder; he’s been in prison since Travis was a baby. His mother, Vanita, didn’t really have a dad around when she was growing up, either.
“I was only a few months like that when he was taken out of my life,” Releford says. “So growing up, Father’s Day, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t know anything but not having him in my life.”
But Travis also knew this: He was tired of history repeating itself, time and again. He wanted to change the family narrative.
He wanted to be there.
Trouble is easy to get into, but it’s hard to get out of.
Travis must have heard that a dozen times growing up, usually before the prison doors slammed shut and his father descended back into the darkness again.
Releford often would visit his father, who would remind him: Look at me. Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t do this to your kids.
On the night of Jan. 2, 2011, those words cycled back, the way the words of a father often do. Travis’ girlfriend, Jennifer Covell, had gone into labor while Releford and his Jayhawks were putting the hammer down on Miami of Ohio at Allen Fieldhouse.
Travis changed after the game and made like A.J. Foyt, arriving at Overland Park Medical Center at roughly 9:30 p.m. Travis Jr. — T.J. for short — was born at 9:47.
“It changed my life for the better,” says Releford, who has been on the road much of the spring, preparing for this month’s NBA Draft. “I mean, I now have somebody else to care for, more than myself. Now when I do things, I have to think about my decisions and who it would affect. Which would be my son.”
The kid’s a pistol, the apple of his father’s eye, soaking up words like a sponge, noodling with the PlayStation 3 console, running at the park with friends, swinging a tiny baseball bat.
“I want him to have everything I didn’t have growing up,” Travis says.
A buffer. A confidante. A beacon.
“That I was always there for him,” Releford says, “when he needed me.”
“To see (Travis) take a lot of pride in being a father when he really doesn’t have one, it says a lot about who he is,” says Rick Zych, Releford’s coach at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kan., who wound up mentoring both Travis and his little brother Trevor, now a point guard at Alabama.
“Oh, he’s going to be a great one. I think he’s going to take a lot of pride. You know, every time I talk to Coach (Bill) Self, he says, ‘He’s going to be just a great dad.’ And he and those coaches on that staff have been great role models for him. They all say it’s forced him to grow up a little bit, and he’s taken the responsibility. I think it’s very important to him right now. If you would have said that four or five years ago, you probably never would’ve heard that come out of his mouth based on where he comes from.”
There’s a scar on his heart. It’s tiny now, smaller than ever. Travis Releford does not deny it, nor does he particularly dwell on it much. He was born with it, basically, the way you’re born with a mole. It’s just there.
“There are times,” Travis says of Tracy, “where, of course, I wish he was there.”
They talked on the phone all the time. They still do. They talked face to face as often as they could.
And yet, a phone call is not a shoulder to cry on, a stern voice to steer you straight, or a lap in which to share a book. A phone call is not going to show you how to drive a stick shift or shoot a free throw. A phone call is not going to make the monsters under the bed go away.
The greatest gift a father can give a little boy is his time. Time and presence.
“But, of course, I didn’t know what it is to have him (around),” Travis says. “I’ve heard of guys who grew up with their fathers, and then all of a sudden he’s out of their lives. And because of that, they’re angry. But I’ve never been angry with my dad.”
You can’t miss what you’ve never known. There were uncles and brothers for counsel, when needed. The father of his best friend, Michael Gholston, was an absolute rock through good times and bad. So was L.J. Goolsby, his AAU coach, and Zych.
“I can remember times that they showered at school because they didn’t have any hot water on,” the former Miege coach says of Travis and his brother. “They’d turned off the hot water. “They have a lot of reasons to give up on life. But they haven’t.”
And they won’t. Nobody wants to let T.J. down. Dad, least of all.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.