Coast 2 Coast
Smush Parker took his game from NY to LA.
Streetball legend and former Los Angeles Laker Smush Parker turns 30 years of age today, which gives us as good an excuse as any to run this feature from Streetball Vol. 4, which Parker covered five years ago. Happy bday, fam!—Ed.
by Neil Wu Becker | Photos by Atiba Jefferson
They say that life is about making every second count. About seizing the moment. About taking the bad with the good, learning from it, and becoming a better man. For Smush Parker, it’s always seemed more complicated than that. As the days, months and years passed, the moral of his life’s story hasn’t always been readily apparent.
Basketball has always been a waiting game for Smush. This night is no exception.
It’s early March, and the Los Angeles Lakers are in Oakland. The Golden State Warriors, scrapping for a fading shot at the playoffs, are venting after Brian Cook’s hard foul on Mike Dunleavy. In return, they deliver a shot to Chris Mihm’s sore shoulder. They tussle with Lamar Odom. Eventually, Parker falls prey to his emotions. He takes a hard bump from a defender in the fourth quarter, receives no empathy from the refs and lashes out for justice. There is no diplomacy in his actions, and it doesn’t take long for the verdict to come.
As soon as the whistle blows, Parker knows he’s gone. He can tell by the shrill pitch of the metal scream. He sees the defiance in the ref’s eyes as he jerks his right forearm like a catapult, thumb pointed toward the locker room. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been thrown out of a game in the NBA,” Parker says later.
Shaking his head, he trudges toward the locker room. He’s come too far to get ejected. Too far from the days battling cats at Manhattan’s famed West 4th Street court—aka The Cage—where every day he put in work, without refs getting in his way.
Ever since he left his native NYC, Parker’s legacy has been stuck in neutral. Undrafted out of college, he’s been to numerous basketball outposts more suited to retirees, tourists and potato farmers. It seems odd, but Parker’s success away from The Cage will depend on the hard lessons he learned on it. It took him 17 years to get into meaningful games there, and it took a few more years for him to establish himself as one of New York’s elite.
Tonight’s spat with the refs is a sobering reminder that street fame has a different exchange rate in the League. Earning respect—from teammates, coaches and officials—takes time. Like his days growing up, when he peered through the chain-link fence that gives The Cage its name and yearned for the day he could play, it’s a waiting game.
Three thousand miles from his old blacktop, Parker stews in the visitors’ locker room, waiting for the remaining 9:44 to tick away so he can move on. That’s 9:44 that he could be out there convincing the L that he’s no joke. That he’s no short-timer. That he can hit the NBA with the same tenacity that earned him his nickname, Grim Reaper.
“I’m still trying to earn my respect in the NBA,” Smush says. “Referees don’t respect me. I had a referee tell me a couple games ago, ‘You got to earn your respect here.’ Honestly, I feel like I haven’t even made the NBA yet. I got my foot in the door, but based on my history and my past, I’m playing one year and the next year I’m somewhere else.”
There’s the irony: Making every second count takes time. Lots of it.
The waiting game began at West 4th. Parker has the pictures to prove it. Visit his family’s home, and you’ll find photos of him in diapers, crawling on the hardtop of the park’s cramped court. The Cage is painfully small. There is no place to sit. No out of bounds. Just a chain link fence lining the court’s perimeter.
For ages, the old heads have battled there, running fives in tight quarters. In the ’80s, Parker’s father was one of them. Smush Sr. played there for years, treating it as a stress-relieving outlet to his night job as a mechanical engineer for Amtrak. Parker’s mother played, too, and she would’ve played longer had she not died tragically of AIDS—the victim of a tainted blood transfusion when he was 9. When his mom passed, West 4th Street became Parker’s new mother. “The Cage is my home away from home,” he says. “It always will be.”
The elder Parker introduced his son to basketball early. He would bring his son to The Cage and make him wait on the side while he played. When Smush Jr. was 5, he would dash onto the court during timeouts and heave the ball at the rim with all his might. When it went in, the crowd would roar its approval and encourage him to keep shooting. They were grooming the next generation.
Whether he realized it or not, Parker embraced the expectations. He learned the game like it was his primary language. He carried a ball everywhere. He watched his father play with his friends, studied their moves, developed his own. “The Cage helped make him stronger,” Smush Sr. says. “When he was young, I told him that the scorers take a beating. Scorers are the ones who take a hit.”
Eventually, old heads started calling out the kid to play one-on-one. His father did, too. In previous games, the elder Parker strayed from backing down his son, electing to shoot jumpers instead. He noticed his son’s tendency to go right, so he forced him left, trying to accelerate his development. But on one particular day, it wasn’t about education or encouragement. It was a measuring-stick moment that signaled the end of one era and the start of another.
“He beat me,” Smush Sr. recalls. “I said to myself, If I can’t hold a 14-year-old, I need to stop playing.” A decade later, Smush Jr. is unconvinced that he won that game.
“I think he let me win,” he says.
“No, he beat me,” the elder Parker laughs. “I wasn’t in my prime at the time, but I really tried to beat him.”
With that, Parker emerged as a torchbearer for the new generation at West 4th. By 17, he had graduated from pickup games to tourneys. He played against more experienced cats and broke them down regularly: cross them up, drive to the hole, dunk, return the next series and do it again. Before long, Parker’s rep grew. He became known as the Grim Reaper—for killing defenders over and over.
“You just don’t get a nickname because of a play. It kind of grows,” Parker says. “Your game grows, and they watch you continuously, doing the same things to abuse people.”
Every now and then, Parker gets lumped in the same sentence with legendary guards who dominated the New York scene. When he hears it, he checks himself. “You can’t mention Rod Strickland, Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Smush Parker in the same sentence,” he said. “Those guys have a legacy.”