Ronald Dodson walked into a courthouse last Sept. 22 in his native Detroit, and when he walked out he had become Ronald Hearns. That day the 20-year-old had, after years of thought, legally changed his last name to that of his father, six-time world champion boxer Thomas Hearns.
For Ronald Hearns, a junior guard on the American University men's basketball team, the move largely was about identity and was made despite the fact he was raised mostly by his mother.
"I just wanted to bear the name of my father," he said. "I used to get, 'Why don't you guys have the same last name?' when I was younger, and that would get to me sometimes. So I decided to change my name."
The younger Hearns has become a good athlete in his own right. The transfer from Vermillion Community College in Minnesota is the first guard off the bench for the Eagles, who are off to a 5-4 start. He is averaging 8.9 points and 2.2 rebounds, and leads the team with 14 three-pointers.
It is perhaps more remarkable that Hearns did not start playing basketball until the eighth grade, at a time when he was seriously considering following his father and becoming a boxer. But it was Thomas Hearns, concerned about his son's future, who urged him to quit boxing and concentrate on basketball.
The relationship between the former WBA and WBC champion and his son has not always been a close one. Thomas Hearns and Felicia Dodson, Ronald's mother, split up after a brief courtship in high school in Detroit. Soon after Dodson filed a paternity suit against the boxer when her son was 5 years old, Hearns agreed to make child-support payments. Dodson said the boxer saw little of his son until about three years ago, when he turned 18.
"It was very hard for [Ronald]," Dodson said. "He would see this person on TV, and he was never around, which I understood because he was in training a lot. [But Ronald] had a lot of problems having a celebrity as a father."
Ronald Hearns said he spent most of his youth at his mother's house, but visited his father as often as he could. But their time together was limited because of the boxer's training schedule. As Thomas Hearns's career waned, the pair started spending more time together.
"That's when we started communicating more, doing other things together," Ronald Hearns said. Before that, "We were close, but I would never be able to talk to him face-to-face about my problems. I could talk to him over the phone, but it's not the same."
These days Hearns, who has three other children, is a much bigger part of his oldest son's life. Still, Ronald's decision to change his name upset his mother.
"I broke down in tears," Dodson said. "He explained to me, 'Mom, maybe this could help me.' I said, 'You've already made yourself.' "
Thomas Hearns, who earned the nickname "Hit Man" early in his career, still fights. Hearns, who lives in Smithfield, Mich., a Detroit suburb, has been training for a January fight and has not seen any of his son's games at American, but said he hopes to soon.
"Me and Ronald are very special," Hearns said this week. "Ronald's my first child. We're very tight. I look out for Ronald, and I would even if he wasn't my first child. We have something special."
Even though he decided to take his father's name, Hearns doesn't advertise the fact that his father is a well-known athlete. In fact, American Coach Art Perry didn't find out until Thomas Hearns's wife told him just before Ronald made a recruiting visit to American last summer.
"He never came out in our conversations and said, 'Coach, my dad is Thomas Hearns,' " Perry said. "I think he handles it extremely well. He's very down to earth and a very pleasant person to be around. If you were around him and got to know him you would not know he was the son of a famous person."
"I kind of keep it to myself," Ronald said. "People find out regardless."
And he doesn't mind when people find out.
"I kind of figured that was going to happen," he said. "People find out who your dad is [and] they're going to want to know everything about him and certain things about you. It doesn't bother me. I don't have any problem with it."
In high school, Hearns was named all-city and honorable mention all-state after leading Denby High to the 1997 city championship. From there, Hearns went to Vermillion in Ely, Minn., where he was named a junior college all-American and was third in the nation in scoring as a sophomore.
When he was 14, Ronald took up boxing and participated in the sport for a year or two. He initially didn't tell his father, and when he finally did the elder Hearns had a strong opinion on the matter. Thomas Hearns had just won his fourth world title, but had started to grow disillusioned with the sport and urged his son to stop.
"I didn't want him to go through what I went through," he said. "I wanted things to be a little easier for him."
Still, Ronald admits he occasionally thinks about boxing. His father said he would support him now, but Ronald said his main focus is basketball. And he said he doesn't feel pressure to follow in his father's footsteps.
"Not right now," he said. "I want people to say, 'That's Ronald Hearns. And his father is also Thomas Hearns. He's not trying to follow in his father's footsteps. He does his own thing.' "