Jabari Parker ‘glad’ for injuries, says they helped him see ‘purpose in life’
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MILWAUKEE — Jabari Parker peeled off his Milwaukee Bucks practice jersey, kicked off his Jordans and took a load off in a sumptuous, oversized leather chair in the players’ lounge of the team’s sparkling new downtown practice facility. A full beard belied his age. A famously battered left knee did, too.
Only 22. Still with, one would hope, the world at his fingertips. Yet Parker, a 6-8 forward, has packed a career’s worth of injury time — and then some — into the years since he left the South Side as one of Chicago’s greatest high school basketball players ever.
Five years ago, Parker, the state’s only two-time Mr. Basketball, was ramping up to do the unthinkable: lead Simeon to a fourth state championship in his four years as a starter. Now he’s two games into a comeback from the second torn left anterior cruciate ligament of his NBA career.
And Parker once thought losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in his only season at Duke was hard? Missing parts of his first four pro seasons — 142 games in all — because of those ACL injuries has challenged him more than any opposing player or team ever could.
“When it happened again … ” he said, sinking back into the chair and looking out a window as his voice trailed off.
This is where Parker has every right to feel unlucky, maybe even cursed. He could cry “why me?” and we all would understand. Once happens. Twice is a twist of fate beyond cruel. It could’ve been a career death sentence, but Parker didn’t just fight to get back under the bright lights for Act 3 of his NBA life. He embraced the pain.
“It happened again, and I’m glad it did,” he said. “I’ve been able to learn so much from it about endurance, about faith, and also it’s a good experience for me to be able to help other people who are going through the same problems.
“I look at myself as an average person. To not get hurt, to have a plain, easy-slate career, is not the norm. That’s almost, like, lucky. But normal people are going to have hurdles in their lives. I looked within and just had to look at my purpose in life. You have to try to look back and find positives in each and every thing that you do.”
That attitude explains how Parker can look at former Simeon star Derrick Rose, who’s still swimming against a tide of injuries that began with a torn left ACL when he was 23 and coming off an MVP season with the Bulls, and see a positive story.
“To see the climb is more fulfilling,” he said. “Derrick has endured. The injuries are just a part of who he is, but the successes he has had from climbing up that mountain are underappreciated.”
Can Parker, unlike Rose, get back to his best? Or even raise the bar? He averaged 20.1 points through 51 games last season.
“I feel like I can be better,” he said, “because the mentality is a lot better. It’s stronger. I’m a stronger person. I just know that I’m mortal.”
Perspiring and inspiring
“Do your [expletive] job!”
Fifteen-time All-Star Kevin Garnett roared the words at the Bucks’ frontcourt players during a January practice. Recently retired and with the team as a consultant, Garnett was spitting fire about defense. Parker, still a few weeks away from the return he would make last Friday, offered a blank expression in return.
Do his job? If only Parker could have these last four seasons. But he looked like himself again on his first shot attempt in his first game in 358 days — a smooth step-back 18-footer from the right baseline that found nothing but net. It was vintage Parker (if such a thing can be said of a 22-year-old), who began working religiously on his step-back jumper as a seventh-grader, ahead of his time.
Parker was always about the work. When he opened the scoring for Simeon with a turnaround jumper over his right shoulder in the state-title victory over Stevenson in 2013, it wasn’t by accident. He’d studied his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, who’d stolen the same move from Michael Jordan, and taken thousands of the shots at Jesse Owens Park, which sits one mile south of Parker’s childhood home at 79th and Jeffery.
The routine could be brutal: After a Simeon practice, Parker and brother Darryl, who’d played at Oregon, would hit Owens Park for at least two hours to work on Parker’s shot. The understanding was that Parker was to make 10 shots in a row before he could move on to the next drill. One of the drills involved sprinting from one baseline to the top of the opposite key, catching and firing.
“I tried his workout one time, and I couldn’t get through it,” recalled Simeon teammate Myles Harrison. “I almost passed out. I was like, ‘You got this.’
“He always says, ‘Get lost in the work.’ He inspires me, man. He inspires everyone around him, to tell you the truth. He’s a workaholic, and he doesn’t grieve about the work at all. There’s no negativity. He always embraces and attacks it.”
Parker reportedly had a rift with recently fired Bucks coach Jason Kidd, but Kidd spoke admiringly of the player who was the Bucks’ franchise centerpiece before the sudden, spectacular rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“The second injury was devastating to me,” Kidd said, “but he’s such a good kid — an old soul — and he understands a lot more than just a 22-year-old. He has this understanding of how to make it all a positive. It’s why he’s going to be OK.”
‘Just keep going’
It’s well-known that Parker’s father, Sonny, played in the NBA, but it’s mom Lola Parker who just might be the key to the whole operation. Her importance to her son comes through in two words that light up the screen of his phone every time she calls: “My Heart.”
“I love my mom,” he said. “She’s my backbone.”
Lola’s heart didn’t break when her baby boy got hurt — and then again. Her own resolve kicked in.
“We don’t see adversity or tragedy,” she said. “Whatever comes, that’s part of life — period. I’ve tried to prepare my children for whatever comes, that we have to deal with it in a manner that we show gratitude. Sometimes if you don’t, you don’t see the blessing.”
But what if — it’s unpleasant merely to type the words — Parker were to suffer a third devastating injury? It will be difficult for some to watch him play without fearing the worst.
“Fear’s a good thing,” he said. “I let that fear drive me, because that helps me grow every day. It says that I don’t have much time, so I need to use the full 24 hours to get better each day.”
Harrison and other friends in their group were crushed last February when Parker tore his ACL for the second time. It was next to impossible to know what to say to him.
“I still sometimes get down because of it,” Harrison said, “and he tells me, ‘Everybody’s journey is different.’ He actually took it better than everybody around him. He was encouraging us rather than us encouraging him.”
As he moves forward into Act 3, Parker thinks often of advice he received from a friend after he wasn’t selected for the All-Star Game in 2017. She told him he couldn’t let an accolade or a title such as “All-Star” define who he was, that it was up to him to define himself.
“From then and there, I just started living my life and trying to tell myself what success is,” he said. “Success is not giving up. It’s taking what you’re dealt and making the best of it. It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is successful if they try their best.
“I can quit now and be well off; my family would be set. But what’s more important to me at this point of my life is just to keep on going. If things don’t work out, who cares? Just keep going.”
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.