Imagine yourself as a typical NBA GM. Your biggest concerns day to day are probably about upcoming contracts. Or dealing with agents, or team personnel, or maybe the media.
But if you are John Paxson, GM of the Chicago Bulls, you spend at least part of your day marvelling at the sacrifice and dedication of your son Ryan, who last year traded comfort for service by joining the Marine Corps after his junior year in college.
Ryan Paxson was a starting guard on the basketball team at a small Christian school near Chicago, Olivet Nazarene University (also the site of Chicago Bears training camp every July and August). Suddenly, about halfway through his junior year, he announced to his mom that he felt he had been a child of privilege. He wanted to give something back. He wanted to join the Marines.
”Basically, I was a guy with pretty much everything, every advantage,” he says. ”The Marines are something that was my doing, something I got for myself, for the country I love.”
As for informing his dad, well, that would have to wait for the NBA trade deadline, because, as Ryan says, “he’s completely nuts around that time”.
Ryan wrote his dad a four page letter explaining all this to his dad. He wrote about how lucky he was for all the advantages he’d enjoyed. But unlike lots of other 20-year-olds, he saw a need to make his own mark in the world. To challenge himself.
Joining the Marines was something I started thinking about ever since high school. I would never have joined another branch of the military. I wanted to be in the toughest boot camp, the toughest our country has to offer.
He reported for basic training in Sumer 2008, and graduated, well, about 13 weeks later.
As we can well imagine, this was a hard time for the Paxson clan–13 long weeks, no contact whatsoever, knowing your kid is being screamed at, and broken down, and pushed to limits he didn’t know he could exceed. All with the goal of being built back up again, into a new man. A U.S. Marine.
The impact of all this on John, a member of the world champion Bulls teams of the 90s, has been notable and prominent. He doesn’t go around boasting about Ryan, but when the opportunity arises, he doesn’t hestitate to talk about how impressed he is either.
Impressed, and humbled. John Paxson, who played for years with Michael Jordan, and made the game winning jump-shot in game 5 of the NBA Finals in 1991, and now gets paid lots of money to argue with agents and babysit millionaires, speaks with obvious reverence and awe when speaking of Ryan and all who serve our country.
After Ryan’s graduation from basic training last November, John said:
“I guess, initially, it does cross your mind, the worst,” Paxson conceded. “But it is the same for any family with someone in the military. It takes kids like Ryan to protect our country. We’ve been in full support mode from the day he told us and we’ve never wavered at all, really.
“The thing about Ryan that Caroline and I are most proud of is we felt he could have taken an easier path,” said Paxson. “He told us when he decided to enlist that he felt he’d been given a lot of things in life and he felt he had to go out and earn some things on his own.
He seems to have flipped a switch in his brain that sorts a lot of the garbage in the news that passes for “important” these days into a new pile, re-labeled “stupid”. On this point, I’m in total agreement.
So, kudos and congrats to Ryan Paxson for being such a smart, well-adjusted, responsible young man. We would all do well to aim so high.
And kudos and congrats to his parents, John and Caroline, for doing lots of things right, and just maybe, being a little bit lucky.
Of course, we all know this could end badly. We all know how the Pat Tillman story went.
But we all have our lives to lead too, and what is the cost of not following your dreams? Do we ask that question enough?
We’re so used to asking ourselves about the risks of doing this or that, when in reality, sometimes, in the big picture, the real risk is in facing your biggest challenges, and blinking and turning away.