You would have thought it was a prom date, the way Larry Johnson choreographed his arrival at the Long Beach (Calif.) Genetics clinic last Nov. 7. At 9:20 a.m., hours before he was to take the floor for the New York Knicks against the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson pulled up to the curb in a black stretch limousine. Dressed in his blue Knicks practice shorts, he stepped out of the car and slowly walked to the building, where six people were waiting for him: Laura Tate, a 28-year-old aspiring model from Los Angeles who had conducted a 15-month affair with Johnson; Tate's father, Dennis; her lawyer; two lab workers; and a three-month-old girl named Taylor Tate Johnson, who was resting quietly in Laura's lap, oblivious to the awkward situation around her.
In an examination room, one of the lab technicians prepared to draw the blood that would prove whether Johnson was Taylor's father. The burly forward appeared at ease. "Come on in here," he said sarcastically, motioning to everyone out in the hallway. "We need a crowd."
Johnson laughed, but months earlier he had gone to great pains to avoid precisely this situation. According to Tate, after Johnson learned of her pregnancy in December 1996, he called her as many as four times a day, pleading for her to have an abortion. Tate says that she also received a phone call on Dec. 19 of that year from Portland Trail Blazers guard Stacey Augmon, a buddy and former UNLV teammate of Johnson's, who knew Tate through another mutual friend. In an affidavit filed as part of a civil suit against Johnson and Augmon, Tate alleged that Augmon said, "My boy Larry called and told me to take care of this." According to Tate's affidavit, Augmon went on to say that if she kept the baby, "I put this on my two sons' lives, I will get you." (Through his lawyer, Augmon denied that he had threatened Tate; he is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Aug. 31 to respond to her charges of intentional infliction of emotional distress.) Tate, who says she feared for her safety, began taping all her phone conversations and moved three times. "I've done my very best so no one can find me," she says. "I just kind of dropped off the face of the earth."
In the paternity case, the legal endgame moved uncommonly fast. Tate had given birth to her daughter last Aug. 2. The blood test that Johnson took in Long Beach showed that he was the child's father, and on Nov. 17, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered Johnson to pay $8,850 per month in child support in addition to $30,000 a year for a nanny.
For Johnson, who has had two children with his wife of three years, Celeste, the California episode was only the latest of his expensive sexual misadventures. On Oct. 4, 1993, Angela Jeffress, a former flight attendant living in Baltimore, gave birth to a daughter, Gabrielle Tyler Johnson. DNA testing determined that the child was Johnson's. The day after Gabrielle was born, Johnson signed what was then the richest contract in NBA history, a 12-year, $84 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Jeffress says that didn't keep her and Gabrielle from living on welfare for nine months, though during that time Johnson made various support offers, including one of $4,000 per month that Jeffress rejected. Finally in August 1995, a Baltimore County circuit court judge awarded Jeffress a monthly support order of $4,000.
According to documents obtained by SI, Johnson is supporting five children by four women, including the two children he has with his wife. But his penchant for unplanned fatherhood hardly makes him unique. Consider this NBA All-Paternity team of players who have had children out of wedlock and have subsequently been the subject of paternity-related lawsuits: Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Shawn Kemp, Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Hakeem Olajuwon, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen and Isiah Thomas. Many other NBA players who have never been the subject of litigation are also supporting out-of-wedlock children, including Kenny Anderson, Allen Iverson and Latrell Sprewell, who had three children by three women before he turned 21.
Although there have been no studies on athletes and their out-of-wedlock kids, those who are familiar with the issue say the numbers are staggering. "I'd say that there might be more kids out of wedlock than there are players in the NBA," estimates one of the league's top agents, who says he spends more time dealing with paternity claims than he does negotiating contracts.
Len Elmore, an ESPN broadcaster and former NBA player, worked as an agent but says he quit in part because of a "lack of responsibility" among his clients. "For numbers, I would guess that one [out-of-wedlock child] for every player is a good ballpark figure," says Elmore. "For every player with none, there's a guy with two or three."
Paternity suits are by no means the exclusive preserve of the NBA, nor are they unique to this generation. Athletes from Gary Sheffield to Andre Rison, Juan Gonzalez to Alonzo Spellman, Mark Messier to Oscar De La Hoya, Roscoe Tanner to Pete Rose, Steve Garvey to Jim Palmer were all subjected to paternity suits and paid support for children born out of wedlock. Furthermore, the reports that make the sports pages with increasing frequency these days represent only "the tip of the iceberg," according to Gloria Allred, a prominent Los Angeles family-law attorney who has represented dozens of mothers in paternity suits against athletes. Allred estimates that 90% of athlete-related paternity cases are settled quietly, before they become a matter of public record. That assertion was echoed to SI by at least 10 other lawyers who have worked on paternity cases involving athletes.
It could be argued that the spate of out-of-wedlock births among athletes simply reflects a societal epidemic. According to a 1995 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, 32% of U.S. children are born to unmarried mothers, compared with 18% in 1980. "The issue of family structure in our society goes far beyond sports, and it is unfair and inaccurate to discuss it in a way that stereotypes, stigmatizes or singles out athletes," says Lem Burnham, the NFL's vice president of player programs. But the many cases involving athletes raise a number of substantive questions. Does the distraction of unplanned fatherhood and paternity suits affect an athlete's performance? Do the temptations of a professional athlete's lifestyle encourage irresponsible behavior? Do some women target athletes in the hope of bearing their children and then enjoying lucrative child support? How should courts determine the level of child support when a father earns millions and a mother subsists on welfare? How does a child deal with having a father whom he hardly knows and rarely sees except on television? Given the well-known dangers of unprotected sex, why are athletes so reckless in their behavior?