Cheyenne Parker knows how close she was to losing it all.
It might not have been the first time she found herself in this predicament. But it was the most eye-opening mistake she had made in her career.
In February of her senior season at Middle Tennessee State, just two months before the 2015 WNBA draft, Parker failed her drug test and was kicked off the team.
She felt isolated and hopeless. Anxiety kept her up at night.
“I really thought I just shot myself in both my feet,” Parker said.
Then-Sky general manager Pokey Chatman was torn. She liked Parker’s game but was worried she would be too much of a liability. The Sky flew Parker in for a visit, a rarity in the WNBA since there’s such a short amount of time between the NCAA season and the draft. Owner Michael Alter also met with Parker.
“What really impressed me or convinced me about Cheyenne was the fact she was very open about it,” Alter said. “She made it clear this wasn’t going to be an ongoing problem.”
Parker watched her name get called fifth overall in the comforts of her college campus. She called her mother and the two cried for an hour.
“My path to the league was unimaginable, some would say impossible, amazing, inspiring,” Parker said. “. . . That’s why I want to share my story.”
Parker’s battery is running on empty. She had just completed a two-month stint playing ball in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association, one of the most grueling professional leagues for Americans to play in, and is back in the U.S. enjoying a much-needed two week break.
Parker still feels jet-lagged, she said, as she got into her rental car. After punching her destination into the car’s GPS, Parker let out a sigh and slight chuckle.
“I’m always late,” she said.
Parker doesn’t have to be here, but she wants to be. In fact, it was her idea, though she recruited the Sky’s public-relations manager to help her coordinate her tour.
Parker, who finished her fifth season with the Sky last fall, visited at least two Chicago Public Schools each day this week in hopes to share her story.
“I do have quite a story,” Parker said. “The teens are tough and I just always wanted to [share] my experience . . . to encourage them to not give up. I want to show them that there’s always a chance in life no matter what is thrown at you at whatever age it may be, you always have a chance to do something with yourself.”
When she walked into the classroom at Burnham Math and Science Academy, 14 girls, ages 12 to 14, looked in awe at Parker’s brawny 6-4 frame. They couldn’t help but ask how tall she was.
The meeting started with each girl saying their names and how they felt that day.
Most of the girls giggled and said “good” or “great.” One shy girl softly said she felt “OK,” while another one said “goofy.”
Parker nodded and said hi to each one. She asked them about basketball and things they’re interested in. They also talked about their daily struggles.
“It’s OK to feel hurt,” Parker told them. “It’s OK to have those feelings. But what’s important is how you control those emotions.”
Parker learned that the hard way.
Parker was raised by her mother. Her family moved from Queens, New York, to Atlanta before she started high school.
Parker didn’t like living in the south. She struggled in and out of the classroom. The only thing that came easy to her was basketball.
Parker was bullied by the other girls partially because of her size.
“Them Atlanta girls, they didn’t like me,” Parker said. “And I had a little bit of anger- management problems.”
Parker was expelled midway through her freshman year for fighting. She never got to play a full season of high school basketball because of her off-court issues.
“That was my first big lesson in life that it was just not worth it,” Parker said. “Don’t let people get you out of character to that point because . . . I wanted to play basketball, basketball was everything to me, so to lose it right away in high school, it sucked.”
Later in the day at Fenger High School, Parker was met with the same awe as the previous school.
“I can’t wait to be where you are one day,” a teenage girl said to Parker. “I’m trying to be just like you.”
“I wanna know how you get buckets,” another said.
Parker took her time answering each of their questions and encouraged them to not let distractions get in the way of their goals.
“Ball can get you a lot of places,” Parker said. “You just gotta stay focused . . . and get good grades.”
She opened up about her missteps and talked about how she almost didn’t make it to the WNBA because she got caught smoking weed.
“You have to avoid people who provoke you to do wrong,” she said.
After the boys team left for practice, Parker told some of the girls that they, too, could play in the WNBA someday.
“It means a lot to have the opportunity to do what I’m doing right now,” she said, “the opportunity to even matter to these kids, to be important enough to tell them my story and possibly uplift them or encourage them.”
Parker’s stuck in rush-hour traffic on the I-90 expressway.
“Just like New York,” she said. “I hate traffic.”
But Chicago has become her home. It’s where she matured and became a self-proclaimed “Queen.” She’s planting roots in the city, looking for a condo to share with her boyfriend.
“I’m ready to take on Chicago for life,” she said.
Parker reminisced about the day, though it’s long from over. After a quick stop at her Hyde Park hotel room, Parker plans to drive to Sachs Recreation Center in Deerfield to work out.
“I play basketball because I love it and it’s fun,” she said. “If it becomes like a job or occupation, I’m done.”
But she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.