Sixteen years ago I was a cigar-chomping, horse-playing sportswriter approaching middle age with no prospects of having anyone call me Dad, and not much interest in it. When I wasn't at the track, the ballpark or the arena, I was likely to be found playing cards in a smoke-filled room.

Which makes it all the more odd that I will celebrate this Father's Day as the proud papa of two remarkable daughters -- one of them a newly minted lawyer, the other a Wall Street investment banker. How did I reach this exalted stage in just 16 years? Simple. I acquired an instant family. I did it against all advice from family and friends, and it was a very good thing to do.

Lizzie and Melanie had emigrated here from Lima, Peru, three years earlier, after their biological father walked out on them one Christmas Eve. They were 10 and 5 years old when they arrived in the United States with their mother, Elizabeth, to pursue a new life. They communicated only through Spanish and their beautiful, expressive dark eyes.

The first time I saw them I was taken by their poise and innate elegance. I was astonished to learn later that they had been living in a homeless shelter for 18 months. Somehow they had emerged from that experience stronger, wiser, more socially committed than any kids I've ever known and with a tremendous appetite for knowledge, which they saw early on (they were almost dogmatic about it) as the key to self-reliance, the essential element in having one's integrity and hard work recognized and rewarded.

It was this determination -- this toughness, if you will -- that made me fall in love with them. When Elizabeth and I were married in 1984, adoption was first on my list of priorities. Although it had more to do with my rehabilitating their trust in a father figure than in their using my name, I won't deny that today it makes me awfully proud to be called "Pap" and to see my name hyphenated with theirs. And of course, like all proud fathers, I brag about their accomplishments.

To be sure, as the pathfinder for my family in their new country, I've encountered a lot of rough terrain. It wasn't just a matter of healing and rebuilding after some very difficult emotional times in Peru. There were also the problems of our being from different ethnic backgrounds, different cultures, with different religions and languages. I found myself dealing with a realm of unfamiliar issues in addition to the other daily tasks of parenthood, none of which I was very well prepared for.

As a sportswriter used to assessing success and failure by the numbers (a characteristic of people in a good many other professions as well, unfortunately), I found myself in a long-running and much more complicated game. How does a father tell when he's doing a good job? Do you measure your children's academic success, or their personal relationships with friends, members of the community or authority figures? What is it that they already bring to the game for us to coach them well? Is it on them or us?

These are the questions that I have pondered throughout fatherhood. As the sportswriter I am, the best analogy I can draw relates to college basketball. Families and teams have lots in common. Parents strategize for the Championships of Life, the Finals, the Game of our Lives: Some of Mike Krzyzewski, some of John Thompson and at times, a little bit of Bob Knight. Benching, time-outs, preaching, structuring and setting goals. Only this game never ends.

Right now it's in a good place for us: Lizzie is graduating from Harvard Law this month, and Melanie, who has serious entrepreneurial ambitions, is about to celebrate her first anniversary on Wall Street learning the corporate and financial world the way you can't by studying it in textbooks.

More important than these accomplishments, though, is their feeling for others and their understanding of what is the right thing to do. As a father, I know I've done my part to help them on the way toward their goals, but I also know they've done a great deal more on their own -- and immeasurably more for me.

Mark Asher is a sportswriter for The Post.