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(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Awakening

Throughout his life, Jabari Parker strove for perfection: as a player, as a son, as a student, as a Mormon. Now, after releasing the weight of those expectations in his third NBA season, the Milwaukee Bucks’ outspoken rising star is finding his way.

This piece was updated after publication with additional information about the knee injury Jabari Parker suffered Wednesday night.

Jabari Parker answered the questions at night, tucked into his twin bed in his small room in his family’s modest home on the South Side of Chicago. He was 7 years old, but already he wore men’s clothes and shoes, and his mother, Lola, had to bring his birth certificate to basketball games to prove his age to other parents. As Lola sat with him on the edge of his bed, next to his Beanie Babies and his favorite stuffed elephant, she peppered him with questions. This was their routine. Instead of bedtime stories, they conducted interviews.

Allen Iverson, Lola told her son, had questioned the importance of practice. What did Jabari think about that? "I think," he said, "practice is an important part of being a leader on a team." Nike, Lola believed, would avoid giving sponsorships to players who lacked character. What did Jabari think about that? Could Nike trust him? "Yes," he said. "I know the difference between right and wrong."

They went back and forth like this for several minutes, periodically throughout his childhood, Lola playing the reporter, Jabari the NBA veteran. This felt like important preparation. Sonny Parker, Jabari’s father and Lola’s husband, had played six years for the Golden State Warriors in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Jabari was already stronger and quicker than kids twice his age. He stayed up late watching classic games on NBA TV, breaking down the skill sets of players like George Gervin and Larry Bird. Even as a child, he already seemed bound for the NBA.

Yet Jabari also carried the expectations of his mother’s Mormon faith and his father’s commitment to activism and social justice. Sitting with Jabari in his room, Lola explained the stakes. "You represent our family," she remembers saying. "With your character, and the choices you make, you can represent us the right way. But if you clown and make certain mistakes, it will not end well. You can do 100 great things, but if you make one mistake, all anyone is going to remember is the mistake."

Jabari Parker in his bedroom in 2012 (AP Images/Ringer illustration)
Jabari Parker in his bedroom in 2012 (AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Jabari built his life around avoiding those mistakes. He strove for perfection — as a son and as a teammate, as a student and as a member of his church. Now a 21-year-old man, the Milwaukee Bucks’ third-year power forward is continuing to confront challenges as he finds both his game and his voice, and realizes that the two are intertwined.

To reach this point, though, Parker had to do something that likely would have seemed unthinkable to that child sitting with his mother on his bed. He assessed the expectations of others and of himself, the pressures that followed him through adolescence and into early adulthood.

And then he let them go.

Parker doesn’t so much relax as unfold limb by limb, slowly spreading each inch of his 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame across a couch in the Bucks’ practice facility one afternoon in late January. For nearly half an hour he has sat here and delivered his words slowly, seemingly deliberating over every one. Now he lifts his left foot up to the couch and leans back against its arm until he is almost lying there, staring at the ceiling as he talks.

"Sometimes," he admits, "I have to muster up the will to speak."

Still just 21, Parker has already seen highs and lows and shifted through multiple levels of fame. Wednesday night, Parker might have hit another low, hurting his left knee in a loss to the Miami Heat. If the injury, which the Bucks initially called a sprain and which will be further diagnosed after an MRI on Thursday, proves serious, it won’t be the first time that Parker has needed to overcome a setback — nor even the first time he’s needed to overcome a setback to that knee. [The Bucks announced Thursday afternoon that Parker tore the ACL in his left knee and will be out for 12 months.]

Almost five years ago, he hit one of those highs when he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which labeled him the best high school basketball player since LeBron James. At 17, Parker shouldered the burden of expected stardom and of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Scouts dissected his game. ("Incredibly polished and mature," wrote DraftExpress’s Jonathan Givony a few months before Parker’s 17th birthday.) Mormon bloggers debated whether Parker should go straight to college and the NBA or pause his basketball career to serve a mission. ("Whatever decision Jabari makes," wrote K. Eric Adair, "what is beyond question is that he is an extraordinary young man, and not just because he’s a 6'9" budding superstar.") His future seemed predetermined: He would dominate the league, and by living with character, his example would spread the message of his faith.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

That’s taken some time. Even as a first-team All-American in his lone season at Duke, Parker never seemed to ascend to the fullness of his promise. The Bucks drafted him no. 2 overall in 2014, but his first season in Milwaukee was cut short by a knee injury, his second played in the shadow of his own teammate (Giannis Antetokounmpo) and of young breakout players (Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns) across the league. Only now, as a third-year pro scoring 20 points per night, has Parker found his place as the Bucks’ second star and one of the most promising offensive talents in the NBA.

So now he reflects on his past as a phenom and his future as a still-developing pro, about the beliefs that made him something of an NBA novelty and the impulse, both before and after the election, to speak out on political issues. He pauses for a moment when I ask a simple question: What did you do last summer to work on your game?

Parker smiles. His eyes detach from the ceiling and scan the room. He sits up.

"You want to know what I did over the summer?" Yes, I nod. "I haven’t told anybody this," he says. "You owe me for this." He looks around the room, thinking. "Maybe a Twix bar or something. Just one."

And now he leans forward, smile still fixed on his face, as if he’s about to explain the key to everything we’ve been discussing — his game and his voice, his childhood and his faith, his sense that now, finally, he understands how to be the person and player he was long prophesied to be.

"My special training regimen this summer," he says, and his voice drops, quiet, "was nothing."

A pause.

"Absolutely nothing."

He leans back, satisfied, as if this answer has unlocked the key to understanding the space Parker occupies in his sport and its larger culture. He is talking about basketball, yes, but also about his entire sense of himself — the ways in which he’s been programmed to succeed from the time he was a young boy, the pressure to perform and to lead that has mounted as he’s grown. He’s spent the past couple of years running from that pressure while running into its attending work. Now, he shrugs. "I just hooped."

He continues: "I didn’t train at all. I just played basketball. All day. Every day." Some days, he joined overseas pros and high-level college players at Thrive3 in West Milwaukee. Others, he found games at Marquette. One afternoon, he got a text from Austin Stueck, a former Division III star at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, whom Parker had met through a mutual friend. Would Parker be interested, Stueck asked, in a pickup game with some D-III players? Right away, Parker met him at the gym. "He never turned down a game," Stueck says. "It didn’t matter what day it was or what time it was. It didn’t matter who was playing. If he was in town, he wanted in."

When back home in Chicago, Parker hit the gym at Attack Athletics, owned by Michael Jordan’s former trainer Tim Grover, or got the keys to his old high school, Simeon, and played with childhood friends.

"Sometimes," he says, "I’ll sneak and play outside." There’s a blacktop court near his house in Milwaukee, a park near his childhood home in Chicago. "The game is somehow more pure out there. That’s what I needed."

On January 20, the Bucks suffered a blowout loss in Orlando, 112–96. Afterward, the doors to the locker room remained closed longer than usual, and when reporters entered, Parker explained that the team had just finished a players-only meeting. "I spoke up for the first time, and it didn’t go my way," Parker said. "I was getting thrashed, but hey, as long as I give them another perspective, I did my job."

The next night in Miami, Parker came off the bench. ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported that Parker’s benching was punishment for violating a team rule that bars players from discussing "locker room discourse" with reporters. Now, two nights later back in Milwaukee, everyone seems eager to move on and focus on that night’s game against the Rockets. "I trust my teammates," Parker tells me. "I know they have my back." Center Greg Monroe, whose game Parker has admired since Monroe was at Georgetown, says: "Jabari’s a young player. He can show some frustration sometimes. You just remind him it’s only one play, or it’s only one game."

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

When the Bucks take the floor against Houston, which holds the third-best record in the league, Parker emerges in full bloom, showing the range of his potential. He powers his way from the high post to the basket, and he dunks in transition and shoots from outside and floats a lob to the since-traded Miles Plumlee on the pick-and-roll. He looks, for the night, exactly like the player of whom so much was expected.

Even on less complete nights, he is an effortless scorer, equally at home on the block, the elbow, or at the 3-point line. He can resemble Carmelo Anthony, with his thick frame and small-ball power forward skill set, but that comparison may be limiting. "He’s a unique player," says Bucks teammate and 18-year veteran Jason Terry. "But if I had to compare him to someone, I would say he has the midrange scoring ability of Glenn Robinson matched with the freakish athletic ability of Jason Richardson."

That athleticism has long been the most overlooked part of Parker’s game. "He doesn’t look athletic," says an Eastern Conference scout. "He looks like he carries a little bit of extra weight, but he can be really explosive." Adds Terry: "Until you see him up close, you don’t understand how athletic he is. Baseline to baseline, he’s probably one of the best I’ve seen. When he rebounds the ball on the defensive end and then takes off and initiates our fast break, he gets there — I call it zero-to-60 — almost just as fast as Russell Westbrook does. And then once he hits the paint, you better put your seat belt on and hold on for dear life, because he’s gonna take you on a ride."

The 22–29 Bucks have been inconsistent all season, blowing out Cleveland and winning in San Antonio but losing to enough bad teams to land themselves on the fringes of the playoff picture. On this night against the Rockets, though, they look like a team with the potential to upend the power structure in the East. Parker finishes with 28 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and three steals. The Bucks control the game throughout, ending a five-game losing streak with one of their most impressive wins of the season, 127–114. Standing by his locker after the game, Antetokounmpo peers down at reporters and nods in Parker’s direction. "I see my teammate, my brother on the court, my guy, be in attack mode, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, this is the night, I’ve got to be in attack mode, too. We’ve got to get this one.’"

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Parker and Antetokounmpo can seem like an odd match. One is thick and explosive, the other rail-thin with limbs never-ending; one a classic small-ball 4, the other a freak whose game defies position. When either is off the floor, the other one takes full command of the offense. When both are playing, though, they can sometimes seem to awkwardly take turns, watching each other create rather than playing off one another in rhythm. "This team is so big on versatility," says the scout, "but sometimes it seems like guys don’t know what they’re doing. Everyone can do a little bit of everything, but there are possessions where it doesn’t seem like anyone knows what their role is."

When the Bucks drafted Parker second overall, he was cast as a potential superstar before he ever played a game as a pro. But Antetokounmpo — the once-mysterious marvel who entered the NBA directly from Greece’s second division — has become one of the league’s biggest stars. "He gets the attention," says Parker. "I’m fine with that."

The youngest of five children, Parker awoke each day at 5 a.m. to take seminary classes for LDS youth. Then he went to school, and then Lola drove him to basketball practice. He played several years with a club team based in Indiana. Sonny believed Jabari would be well served learning fundamentals out in the country. So each day, Jabari sat in the car with his mom, doing homework as she drove.

From childhood, Parker felt different, set apart. He scheduled his basketball life around his church obligations. Some friends couldn’t fathom his Mormon faith. Others mocked him for having a father. Says Jabari: "I would hear things about how because I had a dad, I must be soft." When he reached high school, Parker stayed home on weekend nights while friends drank or smoked. He’d been given a mission. Any lapse in focus could jeopardize his life’s work.

He became the first freshman to start for the varsity team at Simeon. At any school, this would have represented a milestone. At Simeon, alma mater of Derrick Rose and Bobby Simmons, it represented an anointing. By his sophomore season, Parker was considered among the best high school players in the country. As a junior he landed the SI cover and became Gatorade’s National Player of the Year.

Parker loved the joy that came from success, the affirmation of his talent and his work. Yet he still struggled with the sense that he could never melt into the group alongside his teammates. And even as he embraced success, part of him feared what it might bring. "I always had this fear that the attention was going to fill my head up," he says. "It’s not even that other people were always telling me to worry about it. It was internal. I didn’t want to disappoint my family. I didn’t want to lose my friends."

After giving him the National Player of the Year Award, Gatorade treated Parker and his Simeon teammates to dinner at Michael Jordan’s steakhouse. They were mere miles away from their South Side homes, but downtown felt like a fantasy land. "That was crazy," Parker says. "Here we were — all these ghetto kids — and we could never go downtown. It was out of the question. Just too expensive." His father’s NBA earnings had never made him rich, and the Parkers lived a working-class life. "But now we’re sitting in this fancy restaurant. We’re eating shrimp. Lobster. Other kinds of food we had never even heard of. That’s one of my favorite moments ever. It just made me so happy and fulfilled."

Yet Parker’s fear of the perils of fame sometimes shackled his potential. After Parker arrived at Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s conversation with Sports Illustrated led the magazine to conclude that Parker was "concerned about being too good." Parker was projected as the next LeBron, yet he had moments when he seemed uncomfortable even being the best player on his own team. Said Krzyzewski to SI: "He didn’t want his teammates to be jealous of him."

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Duke felt, at times, like the pathway to another planet. Parker arrived on campus as ESPN’s second-ranked prospect and the most-hyped recruit in the Blue Devils’ recent history, someone destined to be one-and-done at a school that had long tried to recruit only players who expected to stay for multiple years. Far from the South Side, he wandered around campus at one of the most expensive universities in the country. "Honestly," he says, "I had never been in school with white people before."

It felt foreign and thrilling. For the first time, he went with friends to parties. In high school, this would have been unthinkable. Parties meant alcohol, and alcohol impaired judgment. Impaired judgment led to mistakes. Parker had built much of his life around avoiding mistakes, because mistakes brought shame. But now he tagged along with teammates, and though he says he didn’t drink, he learned to be comfortable around those who did. "I realized that the people at those parties were people just like me," he says. "They’re just having fun. We’re all just having fun. You’re only in this world for a little bit, and experiencing things like that is one way to see the beauty of it."

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Parker’s faith had long been a comfort and a cocoon, but now, he says, "I started to question certain things." He learned about the LDS church’s racist history. Black men were long barred from entering the priesthood, until the church reversed its stance in 1978. As a famous black man with a Tongan mother and an African American father, Parker represented something of a rarity within the church. He’d never learned about this aspect of LDS history until arriving at Duke, and he struggled to reconcile the rhetoric of former church leaders with the kindness he’d experienced as a child.

"My church was in Hyde Park," Parker says, referring to the culturally diverse neighborhood that was home to Barack Obama and the University of Chicago. "It’s a unique place. It’s different than maybe a lot of other churches. We had a lot of black people. A lot of Asian people. A lot of really liberal white people. I never once saw any discrimination. I never once felt anything like that. I grew up being in young men’s groups, and a lot of us kids were black, and a lot of the counselors were white. They never frowned on our culture. They embraced it." He pauses for a moment. "The way I view it," he says. "Those policies and views — they didn’t really represent God or the church. They represented those individual people who were in leadership, and people are always going to be flawed."

As he reaffirmed his faith, Parker became intoxicated by the process of asking big questions and engaging with new ideas. He took a class in the African American studies department about the films of Spike Lee. The class rooted Lee’s work in the long history of the black struggle for civil rights. Each day, Parker sat near the front of the large lecture hall, transfixed. "I try to be mindful of athletes’ experiences," says the professor who taught that class, Maurice Wallace. "I want athletes who may not see themselves as intellectuals to recognize the intellectual content of American sports and athletic performance."

Parker said little in class discussion, but years later, he still talks about the impact the class made. "It helped me to love myself a little bit more," he says. "I think when you grow up as an African American male, you’re used to seeing yourself portrayed in a negative way. Black is bad. Black is evil. But when you see black people portrayed in a different way, and you learn about all of this incredible history and these great contributions black people have made, you just get so much more love and appreciation for your people."

Parker would sit in the dorms and argue with white classmates who said that black people were no longer hindered by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. He would escape the privilege of Duke’s campus and ride around Durham alone, just to feel, for a moment, like he was back home in Chicago. As he led Duke through its ACC schedule, he sharpened his thinking and reflected on the ideas of his youth. He grew fascinated by the politics of race. But in larger settings he remained quiet, still a little unsure of himself. "Jabari was never among the most vocal students," says Wallace, "but that does not mean that he wasn’t among the most engaged. It was clear that he was deeply attuned to the ideas being presented."

Back when Parker’s father, Sonny, played for the Warriors, he befriended Harry Edwards, the Berkeley professor and one of the country’s leading intellectuals regarding the connection between sports and social justice. In Oakland, Sonny encountered members of the Black Panther Party and became fascinated by the energy that surrounded their movement. After retirement, he returned to his hometown of Chicago to run a nonprofit that works with underprivileged children. He’d given Jabari the middle name Ali, in homage to Sonny’s idol, Muhammad Ali. Sonny insists that he never meant to push athletics on his son, but he did want Jabari to develop a strong sense of moral conviction. As Jabari searched for his own ideological footing at Duke, Sonny could tell that he was working toward honing his voice.

"Some players don’t want to engage with all of that," says Sonny. "If it ain’t in ’em, it ain’t in ’em. I think Jabari has always had this sense that he should be different."

So now here he is. Twenty-one years old, finding his game and his voice. Both have taken — and will continue to take — time. The ACL tear that ended his rookie season crushed him, but some say Parker may have benefited from slowing down. "In a lot of ways," says Bucks coach Jason Kidd, "the injury was good for him. It gave him some time to work on his body and really prepare himself in the right way." Yet when Parker returned in the fall of 2015, Kidd told reporters that the team still considered him a rookie. Kidd certainly seemed to coach him as if that were true.

"I had restrictions," Parker says. "Certain things I just wasn’t allowed to do." The biggest: no 3-pointers. Kidd said he wanted Parker to develop his game in the post and the midrange. Parker struggled, at times, to fit his game within that structure. "I was playing with fear," he says. "I was thinking all the time: ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ That’s one of my weaknesses. I’ve always been a people-pleaser. I just had to let go."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Parker felt something change one night last February, when he scored 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting against Charlotte. "That night, I was like, ‘Man, I can do this,’" he says. "I can really, really do this." He felt himself loosening up. He scored 28 the next night in a win over Atlanta, then 36 a few games later against Houston. He found a connection. "The less I worried about making people happy and following certain rules, the better I played." That’s why he decided not to undergo a formal training regimen in the offseason. "I know I need to train," he says. "I know how important that is. But I ended the season finally feeling like the game was pure again."

Parker has a "love of the game" clause in his contract that allows him to play basketball in any setting. So he roamed around Milwaukee and Chicago, playing pickup day and night. He joined local Pro-Am leagues, going viral by dunking on the same defender twice in a row in the Chi-League Classic. "When you’re in a gym like that, or you’re outside on a court, that’s where you can be creative. That’s what I needed." He turned flashes of potential into sustained production. "I took that into this season, saying, ‘I’m just going to play the game the way that got me to this point.’ And that’s just to roam free and have fun."

He points to a play from the Rockets game the night before. On one possession, Parker spun near the top of the key and, without looking, hit Tony Snell with a scoop pass that led to a 3. It did not end up on any highlight shows, did not feel like one of Parker’s biggest moments of the game. But, he says, "That was one of my favorite plays of the year. Just because it wasn’t traditional. It felt like instinct. It felt like I really got to create."

Just as he rediscovered his creativity on the court this summer, Parker began speaking out through social media on political issues. "I think there’s some connection," he says, "between elevating my game and speaking out. Because right when I started to play better is when I started to become more openly liberal. I started just forgetting about what people might think. I decided it’s more important to express who I am. I had to let go of trying to make people happy all the time."

In July he tweeted at former Illinois U.S. representative Joe Walsh, who had threatened President Obama. Parker said Walsh wouldn’t lay "a single finger" on Obama. "Chicago and myself," he wrote, "going to make sure of that."

Later came an Instagram post showing nothing but a black square, captioned with a short essay. "I don’t care what anybody tells me what I should and should not say," he wrote. "At the end of the day, I speak from my heart and I could care less trying to impress someone." He went on to voice his support for the Black Lives Matter movement: "BLM does not mean black lives are superior, just means we ‘matter’ too. … We have created an unhealthy way of living through many false stereotypes from the way someone looks. … Don’t we all bleed the same color?" He followed that with another post supporting Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest.

And Parker wrote an essay for The Players’ Tribune about violence and decay in Chicago and the efforts he believed needed to be made. The more time he’s spent away from Chicago, he wrote, the more he’s felt a responsibility to his city. Parker grew up working at his dad’s basketball camps every summer. These days, he runs his own. He dreams of finishing his degree at Duke, then returning to the South Side after retirement to teach middle school history.

For now, though, he searches for opportunities to speak up. After November’s presidential election, the Bucks announced that they would no longer stay at Trump hotels. In an interview with the Sporting News days later, Parker drew on the tapestry of his own identity as a statement of opposition to the newly elected president. "I’m proud to not stay in Trump hotels," he said. "He’s attacked everything that I am and believe. I was named by a Muslim man. My mother didn’t get her citizenship until much later in life. She is basically an immigrant because she came from Tonga. She was paid less because she was a woman. I’m black, and he’s said some controversial stuff about black people. … All the things he said in his campaign are things I can’t associate myself with."

Months after those comments, Parker is still refining his game and his voice. Two nights after the win over the Rockets, Parker struggled in a loss to Philadelphia. After the game, as reporters crowded around his locker, Parker avoided eye contact and slipped out of the locker room and the arena, silently into the night. Often, in difficult moments, his mother says, Jabari likes to come to the family’s home. Lola and Sonny moved to Milwaukee after he was drafted, and they kept a room for him, decorated just like his home in Chicago. She recently asked if she could throw away all of his old stuffed animals, but Jabari protested. "Every one of those," she remembers him saying, "is attached to a memory for me."

So he goes to his parents’ house, and he cooks dinner or plays video games and ignores politics and basketball and all that’s in between. Those things remain, outside the walls of his family home, as vital as ever. At 21, he has a contract with Nike’s Jordan Brand, just as he and his mother discussed when he was a child. He is a franchise cornerstone and political lightning rod, someone whose every action demands a level of attention he’s still learning to comprehend.

But here at home, he lets that go. He takes the breaths that make the work possible. He rests. He laughs. He travels back to a time before he’d ever been on the cover of Sports Illustrated or spent a minute in the NBA, before he carried the expectations of his talent and his fame, to when he was just a child sitting on a bed full of Beanie Babies, wondering with his mother about the kind of man he would grow up to be.

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