How having the last names Mullin, Strickland and Runyan makes Christmas a little different for three Big 5 athletes
Temple's Tai Strickland and Villanova's Bella Runyan and Brooke Mullin can all relate to what it's like growing up with a famous family member.
Temple University guard Tai Strickland grew up like any other young basketball player. He strived to compete at the Division 1 level, and he worked hard to make it happen.
But because he is the son of retired NBA star Rod Strickland, who played 17 seasons in the league and ranks 13th in NBA history in assists ( 7,987), some of his early sports experiences were a little bit different. Take for instance the time he babysat LeBron James’ kids at a Team USA summer camp in Las Vegas as a seventh-grader (Rod was helping assist as a coach).
Strickland is not alone among City 6 athletes in his star-studded sports upbringing, as a handful of others will also be spending the holidays with famous family members. It makes these athletes’ experiences both unconventional and special.
For Strickland and Villanova basketball players Brooke Mullin and Bella Runyan, the holidays are a chance to spend time with family members who excelled in the athletic arena. On the surface, they are like any other college athlete: talented and dedicated enough to be competing at a high level. However, their experiences and paths to Division I were a bit different, having grown up with immediate role models who competed at the professional level.
At the Mullin residence, Brooke is NBA Hall of Famer and two-time Olympic Gold medalist and Dream Team member Chris Mullin’s niece, and competition is everpresent. This means annual games of “Knockout” at Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Fights always break out,” Mullin added.
It also means basketball is the topic of conversation, as her uncle often pulls her aside to give her pointers on how to improve her game. For Mullin, this advice is welcomed, and she recognizes it as a privilege that she has, one that comes without any extra burden.
“I felt like I had to uphold the reputation, so it helped me push myself,” Mullin said. “But there’s no pressure like, ‘Oh you have to be good.’”
Bella Runyan, daughter of Eagles Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jon Runyan and sister to current Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jon Jr., has a different experience at home. Family time is used as a break from sports. Holidays for the Runyans consist of cooking, shopping, and being a “normal” family.
“I think that’s our time to not talk about sports,” Runyan said. “Although football may be on [the television] in the background, when I’m home from school, it’s my time away from basketball, and that’s something I really cherish about my dad.”
While sharing blood with prolific athletes has obvious advantages, it also creates added challenges for these student-athletes who are trying to establish their own identities, separate from the successes of their relatives.
“Having [Chris] as my uncle, I feel like it always made me want to be better because everyone’s like ‘Oh, your uncle,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m Brooke,’” Mullin said. “I just wanted to try and make a name for myself.”
The national awareness in the age of social media also gives these athletes’ opponents the added motivation that comes with competing against a famous athlete’s son or daughter. For Strickland, this was a shock he experienced early in his career.
“Having that last name on your back, people see that and they know who your father is, they’re coming at you harder than they may normally come at you,” Strickland said. “They may take that match-up a bit more personally because they can walk around and say, ‘Hey, I scored this many points on Rod Strickland’s son.’”
Runyan, who welcomes her break from sports talk, still appreciates what it means to her family even when it forces its way into the conversation. This Christmas, the Packers and her brother will be doing just that.
“Sports are just always going to be there, because he’s playing on Christmas Day,” Runyan said. “But that’s also something that is cool. That’s going to bring us together on Christmas Day, getting to watch my brother play.”
All three athletes are grateful that sports serve as a pillar of their families, and grateful to their relatives for supporting them without pressure. Even amid friendly competition with each other, their experiences as high-level athletes bring them together in a special way.
“[My dad] has meant the world,” Strickland said. “The only reason I play basketball is because he introduced it to us. I’ve always wanted to be like him, just following in his footsteps and chasing after his accomplishments; it’s big to me.”