Overlooking the high school graduation that Bird did not attend and all the times he was playing golf in Terre Haute but never made the 20-minute drive to see her, Corrie holds out hope of an ongoing relationship with her dad. "I've never gotten so mad that I haven't wanted to see him," she says.
Bird declined comment for this story. But on April 17 he visited with Corrie for the first time since taking over the Pacers. Dinah left a pair of tickets for Corrie and a friend to attend the Pacers' last home game of the regular season, and after the game Bird talked with Corrie. "I was really happy to go to the game," says Corrie. "Dad seemed interested in what I had to say. He walked me to my car, and he hugged me. I hope I can see more of him now."
Another striking example of a detached father is Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. In 1986 Palmer's former live-in girlfriend, Paula Heath, gave birth in Los Angeles to a daughter; blood and DNA tests later established that Palmer was the father. Although Palmer has abided by a court-ordered support payment schedule—making monthly payments of $1,250—a lawyer familiar with the case says that Palmer has never seen or attempted to contact his daughter. Palmer declined to comment.
Although Larry Johnson's daughter Gabrielle has seen her dad on television and in the movie Space Jam, she has met him only three times, most recently on Jan. 2, 1997, when the Knicks were in Washington to play the Bullets and Johnson left tickets for her and Jeffress. After New York's 92-80 win, Jeffress and her daughter stood by an exit tunnel outside U.S. Air Arena, where fans had gathered to seek players' autographs. "He saw her for about 15 minutes," says Jeffress. "I felt really bad for Gabrielle. With all the people there, she didn't get much direct attention from him at all."
Jeffress says Johnson's indifference was confusing to the child, because Gabrielle's previous meeting with her dad—an overnight stay at his house in Dallas in June 1996—went so well. That visit, Jeffress says, had come at Johnson's request. He picked up Jeffress and Gabrielle at the airport in a customized sport utility vehicle equipped with a TV and VCR. He even cued up a tape of The Lion King. "She talked about that for the longest time, that she watched The Lion King in her daddy's car," says Jeffress. "He never attempted to see her after that."
Not all athletes with out-of-wedlock kids display such apparent indifference. Kimberly Sparks, for instance, says that although Payton was absent during her difficult pregnancy, he is now a "model father" to Gary Jr. The son attended Payton's wedding last summer and has spent considerable time with his half brother, Gary II. (Payton declined to be interviewed.) Similarly, Osuna asserts that Kemp, despite his manifold paternal obligations, is "an exceptional dad" to Dominique. "He loves her, he sees her, he takes care of her," Osuna says. "He makes a valiant effort to try to see his children."
Regardless of athletes' varying levels of emotional involvement with their out-of-wedlock children, they point out, rightly, that they are anything but deadbeat dads. Once paternity has been established, athletes are among the most reliable at paying support. They are easy for a court to locate, as are their employers. They are fearful of bad publicity. And, not least, they can afford the support orders. In some cases, however, even a player earning millions can fail to meet his obligations. In 1995 slugger Kevin Mitchell, now with the Oakland Athletics, was making $4.5 million a year. The next year he declared bankruptcy, in part because he was supporting four children by four women.
Athletes' out-of-wedlock kids can end up in poverty if their fathers are cut or retire before the children turn 18. "Often, you need to tell these women to bank as much money as they can because it's going to be a very short payday," says Schwartz, the California paternity lawyer. "I'm handling a case involving an NBA player who had been making more than $2 million a year and this year wasn't picked up. The mother was getting more than $5,000 a month, and suddenly we're talking about $1,000 to $1,500. That's only because, through good management, he still has some money. Some of these guys will be pumping gas, if they're lucky."
That may be unlikely for a star like Kemp. But for a player like Minor, who averaged five points a game this season, lifelong wealth is by no means guaranteed. "Our biggest fear is what happens when his contract runs out," says Maury Kommor, who represents Rowan. "We hope Greg Minor has a great career, because those payments are going to go way down once he starts playing in the CBA or Europe."
Of course, athletes wouldn't be fending off so many paternity suits if they practiced safe sex. They can't claim ignorance: "We get enough information from the league that it's crazy for guys to have unprotected sex," says McMillan. Before every season the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball conduct rookie-orientation programs designed to help players deal with the occupational hazards of being an athlete. Topics include making sound investments, working with the media and dealing with women. Seminars stress that athletes can easily protect themselves in sexual situations. At the NFL's rookie orientation last June, instructors gave each player a banana, with which to practice putting on a condom. Later, two HIV-positive former NFL groupies told how they seduced players. "That hit home big time," says 49ers backup quarterback Jim Druckenmiller. "[They] wanted to let everyone know that girls out there will take a chance to get pregnant. They'll do anything, sometimes, to get some money out of you."