Coast 2 Coast
Smush Parker took his game from NY to LA.
At The Cage, Parker waited years to get on the court and claim it for his own. Making a name there was only the beginning. It was a seed to a larger legacy that had yet to grow. From his perspective, The Cage was a training ground that would lead to a scholarship and, one day, the L. First came a year of JuCo ball at Southern Idaho, then a return trip home, to Fordham. Convinced he could make the leap, Parker left Fordham after one season and declared his entry into the 2002 Draft. He worked out for 27 teams, and Draft mavens pegged him as a late first-rounder. But Parker’s phone never rang. He doesn’t talk about it much but implies there were forces working against him. Read the past news on him, and you’ll get the scoop. Coaches were in his way. A king wanted a pawn.
Without a backdoor cut back to college, Parker beat the pavement. The Cavs signed him as a free agent, but it didn’t last long.
Leaving New York wasn’t working out the way he’d planned. He signed with Aris Thessaloniki in Greece in ’03, then made it back to the L, but nothing stuck. Last year he suited up for the Suns, Pistons and the D-League’s Florida Flames. Here one day, anywhere the next.
As Parker states now, “This season has definitely been a blessing. Where I was last year, and where I am now…”
His voice trails off, and it’s evident he’s pinching himself. He’s only 25, but Parker’s woken up in some strange places. These days, he’s waking up in a comfortable apartment in L.A. with an Escalade parked outside. Yes, life is good, but Parker knows it can turn sour at any time. While earning respect at The Cage was difficult, it was Darwinian—in the end, the best ran game. The NBA has been a different kind of proving ground. There are more factors involved. It’s a business. It can be political. The commercialism can make it unfair for cats without a marketable name or rep. At any time, Parker could be an outsider looking in.
That’s why the ejection in Oakland didn’t help. Twenty-four hours later, he has another chance to prove himself. The Lakers are back home. The Pistons are in town. Jack is in his customary seat, Denzel is on the other side of the court. The scene is set. Making up for lost time from the night before, Parker grabs the opening tip and sets up the offense. He lures two Pistons into a double team at the top of the key, then drops a bounce pass to Chris Mihm on the block for an easy dunk. On the next series, he fires a jumper for another quick score. Smush has come to play tonight.
Predictably, as the first half develops, the Pistons dig in. Detroit harasses Kobe and exploits the Lakers’ young backcourt. Second quarter, Chauncey Billups rains threes on Sasha Vujacic. Rip Hamilton runs Parker through a maze of screens. Detroit leads 58-51 at the half, but midway through the third, Kobe gets hot, and L.A. claws back. Down eight, Parker gets a pass at the top of the key and sees a chance. As his teammates spread the floor, the Piston bigs vacate the paint to keep tabs on the wings. The only one in Parker’s way is Carlos Delfino.
Parker feints left, then explodes right and slices down the lane. Delfino doesn’t have a chance. Ben Wallace closes in to help, but he’s a step too late. Parker launches himself at the rim with a ferocity borne from his days at The Cage and unleashes a right-handed tomahawk. Staples erupts.
Parker’s dunk is the exclamation point that turns the game. Their defensive intensity picks up, Kobe drops 40 and the Lakers pull off their biggest win of the season, 105-94.
As Bryant talks in front of his locker, a small contingent of media breaks off to engage Parker. Most ask about the dunk on Delfino and how it changed the game’s momentum. “I knew right from the start what I was going to do,” Smush says. “I saw the lane open up on the right, so I baited him left a little bit and went for broke.”
Veteran backup Aaron McKie stands a couple lockers away commenting on how Parker’s experience playing on the East Coast has bred toughness, and how that fortitude helped him through tough times. “Everybody in here’s played enough basketball in their life to understand that everything is not always going to go your way, but you just continue to work at it and get better,” McKie says. “He’s made great strides. In my eyes, I think he’s an all-around point. He’s court-savvy. He brings something to the floor that a lot of guys don’t have, and that’s creativity.”
For Parker, this is what he’s waited for all along: The opportunity to seize the moment. Make every second count. Gain the respect of his peers. He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there, a fact his contributions to the Lakers’ 2006 playoff run made clear. It takes time, just like it did on West 4th Street.
“I took the long way around,” Parker says. “A lot of people ask me if I have any regrets, and I don’t. If I didn’t go through all that I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t be the man who sits before you or the player I am now. I don’t regret anything in my life. I’ve made some mistakes. Certain things that have happened to me were unfortunate. But I wouldn’t change it. Like Frederick Douglass said, ‘Without struggle, there is no progress.’”
Smush grabs his keys to leave the locker room. It’s been a good day. Progress has been made. From getting booted by the refs the night before to knocking out the former NBA champs tonight, the past 24 hours represent Parker’s career in a nutshell. Once again, he’s bounced back. How he ended up in L.A. by way of Idaho, Greece and Florida is a longer story than he would’ve liked, but it’s one that, in retrospect, has made this night, this season, and his legacy that much sweeter.
Optimists would say Parker took a scenic route to the NBA. Pessimists would say otherwise. Smush says it’s neither. It’s more simple than that. More basic. It’s life. A life that has been well worth the wait.