Everything I Am

Beyond his basketball goals, 21-year-old Bucks forward Jabari Parker has become one of the most outspoken players in the League when it comes to social issues and giving back to the community, especially in his home city of Chicago.
by September 21, 2016

“Wow, this house is big!” After spending some time taking in the extensive outdoor space, a young boy, about 7 or 8, walks through sliding glass doors and stops in his tracks, causing a traffic jam as a few others behind him take their shoes off and wait outside.

This kid, though, is busy gasping as he looks up toward the balcony above the living room, eventually commenting on its impressive size. “Yeah, I want to live here!” responds another grinning youngster.

An older gentleman sitting on a couch smiles and nods softly. “Yeah, but you know what? It’s the people inside the house that matters—that’s what makes the home,” he tells them.

This house is big. About 5,000 square feet. And the outrageous ceiling height here in the living room makes it look even more spacious than it already is. We’re in Grafton, an affluent suburb north of Milwaukee. Bucks forward Jabari Parker bought this house for his parents after becoming the No. 2 pick in the 2014 Draft.

The kids? They’re just two of the eight campers who stopped by the house with their guardians after the culmination of Parker’s two-day summer basketball camp. They’re here for a family meal put together by the former Duke star’s parents. And the man offering those words of wisdom? That’s Parker’s father, Sonny, a fomer NBAer who played six years with the Warriors from 1976-1982.

The scene at the Parkers’ home on this Friday in August is just another reflection of what the camp aims to enforce. Dubbed the “Family Jabari Parker Camp” instead of the more grammatically correct “Jabari Parker Family Camp,” the emphasis was on the importance of placing family first—by doing so literally in the camp’s title.

Family, that is, beyond the blood definition. Old friends from back in Chicago and staffers from the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation are among those breaking bread with Jabari and company on this particular day.

At a time in American history when racial tension dominates the news, the camp decided to strategically choose its participants. Three buses brought kids up from the Boys & Girls Club in inner-city Milwaukee. Joining them were kids from the suburbs of Grafton. And a handful more came up from Chicago—just a two-hour drive up I-94.

“It’s really important that we integrate these kids, because without us trying to force it, they’re pretty much not going to ever get that whole experience,” says Jabari of his camp, which hosted 190 kids that week across two sessions. “It’s key that they get out of their neighborhoods and see a new environment because a lot of those kids, they just stay in their neighborhood for the summer.”

The camp actually took place less than a week after Milwaukee became the center of national news when riots broke out in the city following the fatal police shooting of an African-American man, 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

Gun violence, both from police shootings and within inner-city communities, was a topic Jabari openly discussed over the summer. A week after his camp, he appeared in an ESPN town hall discussion (and a First Take appearance) that focused on athlete activism, racial profiling and gun violence. The next day he hosted a “Pick Up for Peace” exhibition game in Chicago to advocate for peace in a city that’s riddled with violence, especially in the summer.

To a certain extent, Parker seems the voice most equipped for such matters. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago—often referred to as the murder capital of America, and sometimes as “Chiraq”—and now plays ball in Milwaukee, known as one of the most segregated cities in America. At 21, he’s already lived and experienced the cities that represent arguably the two biggest social issues in the country.

The free camp, which included lunches and some Jordan Brand/Bucks giveaways, was the second one Jabari hosted within a three-week period after holding one in Chicago earlier in the month. While hoops is what brought everyone together, it was the message of inclusion and understanding that he really hoped everyone would take away from it.

“What I told them is really to find these relationships and cherish them, because we have more similarities as humans that we don’t even think about,” says the third-year Buck. “But today they see the color of your skin and so they already portray each other as different. I wanted them to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from—you’re the same. It’s all about the enjoyment and excitement we bring together in life. To build these skills are important for kids this early.”

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 13: Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers on April 13, 2016 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Experiencing the dire social issues first-hand in cities like Chicago and Milwaukee is only a fraction of what has driven Jabari to engage in the community so actively. He watched his father run the aforementioned Sonny Parker Youth Foundation in Chicago, a program that utilizes basketball to also provide life skills development and educational resources for kids and which is now in its 26th year.

“I wanted to make sure my kids felt the things I felt growing up, so they can get a feel for how it is,” says Sonny, a Chi-Town native himself, of raising his family on the South Side after his NBA career ended. “I didn’t want to overprotect my kids. I wanted to give them the sense of where I’m from. That’s why we stayed.”

So the baton and family legacy of community outreach has now simply been passed to the next generation. And with Milwaukee and Chicago just a couple of hours away by car, the Parkers don’t foresee any changes in their devotion to the Windy City.

“We still have our home there, we still continue to do our programs in the city,” says Jabari’s mother, Lola. “We want the kids to see that we’re visible. You can’t just start something and then all of a sudden say, ‘I’m not doing it anymore,’ because then how will the kids believe what you’re trying to preach? It’s not, ‘Oh, they already got money. They already left us and moved.’ We’ll never leave or stop what we’re doing. We know the impact and we’ve seen kids’ lives changed for the better. But basketball was always the hook to get them in.”

Jabari’s basketball career has blossomed with that foundation and support. Following a decorated HS and collegiate career in which he claimed multiple national POY accolades, his first two seasons in the League have seen their ups and downs. After being selected as the October/November Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, Jabari suffered a season-ending torn ACL that cut his inaugural season short. A long rehab process lingered into last season, when his minutes were restricted during the first two months of the year. Slowly working his way back into the flow of things and looking to find his touch individually as well as his role within the team, he went into the All-Star break averaging just 11.3 ppg.

As a participant in the Rising Stars Game in Toronto, Jabari could have enjoyed all the fun All-Star Weekend brings. Except once Rising Stars was over, he was out.

“He left right after the game,” recalls Sonny. “We were all still there. But he ended up leaving early to Chicago to go back to our house. Wherever it started, he had to go back to that. I think he needed some me time, some personal time. He was able to refocus. That helped him reflect and set his goals. I think it made him get back to all the things that helped him along this journey and process.”

So when the Parkers say they’ll remain and always be a part of Chicago’s South Side, they literally mean pulling up mid-season, just ’cause.

The results? Jabari was the Bucks’ leading scorer after All-Star, averaging 18.9 points and 6.1 rebounds to close out the season. He looked like the prospect many expected him to be coming into the Draft. He carried that progress into the summer, too, showing some explosiveness at the Chi-League Classic Pro-Am.

“I feel like this is my year to really show what I can do and be a main guy on the team,” says Jabari of the coming season. “I want to be able to step up as a leader this year.

“I feel good. [This season] is really something I look forward to. I feel like the challenge itself is just the game-by-game process because it’s all about remaining consistent. That’s the challenge I want to take up—individually and for my team. Last year, we didn’t really get into a streak of winning games—so we have to take it game by game and just take advantage of the health I have now.”

With the pressure of living up to expectations in 2014 and having to battle back from injury all in the rearview, his third NBA season offers a lot to be excited about. He’s been here before, having fought his way back from a broken foot his final year of high school, as doubts emerged, quickly making them evaporate with a record-breaking season at Duke.

“Back then the game was so much more difficult for me because I made it that way,” says Jabari of his early play as a rookie in the League. “I was doing a lot that took a lot of energy out. Right now, by just taking the time to learn the game, it has slowed down so much for me. I think that’s going to help me this year.”

Photos via Getty Images