CHICAGO—When Zach Norvell enrolled at Simeon Career Academy as a freshman in 2012, Jabari Parker was already in the process of building his own mythology. Parker had led Simeon to a state championship in each of his first three years in school and was the consensus top-ranked player in the country entering his senior season. That’s when Parker found himself with a new challenge: trying to figure out what to do when basketball was taken away from him.
Parker was sidelined for nearly six months after breaking his foot that July, and used his newfound downtime as a chance to mentor Simeon’s incoming students, including Norvell. Parker set up one-on-one meetings with freshmen basketball players and Norvell remembers the team captain telling him that his responsibility as an athlete extended beyond the court, that Chicago had to be known for something other than the rampant violence that had become national news.
"This guy’s only 17 years old talking to me like a grown man," Norvell recalls. "It always stood out to me that he had a strong character."
Norvell, now the top shooting guard recruit in Illinois, will play for Gonzaga next season. This past Friday, he was in Chicago seated in the stands at Quest Multiplex to watch Parker take responsibility once again, this time to reach a far wider spectrum of people than just Simeon students.
Parker had organized Pick Up for Peace, an event that brought together current and former Chicago-area NBA players like Patrick Beverley and Shawn Marion for a free game intended to unite the community. It was the culmination of a busy week for Parker that also included hosting a free basketball camp for local kids and an appearance on an ESPN panel focused on the city’s violence.
Parker is still only 21 years old, but he’s spent his summer broadcasting a consciousness that’s been growing inside him for years. He penned a plea for his hometown to put down the guns at The Players’ Tribune, and wrote an emotional Instagram post following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement.
"First and foremost, I'm black," Parker wrote. "Secondly, I stand up for my black people."
Now more than ever, Chicago needs Parker. The city has recorded 464 homicides already this year, far outpacing 2015. August — with 78 homicides — has been the deadliest month the city has seen since 1997. There’s an urgency to the situation, and Parker can feel it. That’s why he put together the basketball game.
"It’s important to me because I’m a product of Chicago," Parker told SB Nation. "We’re role models for the kids in this environment. We came to show that we do have some positivity here, we do have a collective group of guys who care about Chicago."
Just as Parker and his friends took the floor on Friday, harrowing news swept through the gym. Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of Dwyane Wade and a 32-year-old mother of four, had been shot dead as the unintended target of a drive by on the South Side. She was one of 67 shot and 11 killed in the city just that weekend.
Tension on Chicago’s south and west sides is nothing new, but it’s reached an apex over the last year. The city’s coverup of the murder of 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald by Chicago Police added fuel to the growing mistrust between police and citizens.
Were it not for a FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit by freelance journalist Brandon Smith, the video that showed the gruesome death of McDonald never would have seen the light of day. The initial police report stated McDonald "lunged" at officers but dash-cam footage revealed that he was shot 16 times in the back walking away from police. The public later learned that surveillance video from a nearby Burger King had been edited by law enforcement to exclude the shooting and that the state’s attorney waited over 400 days to charge officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting. As long-simmering frustrations in the city finally boiled over, Chicago found itself as an avatar of a country that was tearing itself apart with gun violence.
Parker watched it all from 90 minutes north as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. The unrest he saw and his platform pushed him to speak up. Friday’s game was one outlet he came up with.
"It starts today," Parker said. "The kids coming up are only going to have good role models to look after. They need to know that it’s cool to be a good person. It’s cool to be a good kid in class and have good grades. The prime objective is to make it out the right way."
Parker has taken note of Carmelo Anthony’s recent activism, but the only role model he ever needed was his father. Few men have done more to help Chicago’s south and west side communities than Sonny Parker has over the last three decades.
Parker played six NBA seasons with the Warriors from 1976-1982. He returned to Chicago when his career was over and started the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation in 1990. The non-profit has been providing tutoring and mentoring to Chicago’s youth through after-school and weekend programs ever since. The elder Parker also runs basketball camps and leagues throughout the city with a focus on providing positivity.
"Basketball brings people together," Sonny Parker said before the Pick Up for Peace. "Once you get everybody together, you can talk about what’s really going on."
Jabari grabbed the mic on Friday and spoke before the game about the need for good role models in the community. Then he did his best to put on a show. He threw down alley-oops all night and even pulled off an under-the-leg dunk. He looked slim and explosive.
After the game, Parker took a picture with every kid who asked for one. The older players who showed up to support the cause know the game will be good hands with young men like Parker.
"Everyone can hear Jabari’s voice," Marion told SB Nation after the game. "All the violence going on in the city speaks for itself. Anything to help stop it and be a part of something positive in the city is huge right now."
It’s easy to forget that Parker should only be a senior in college right now. Because he’s so close in age to the city’s youth, he projects as a particularly inspiring role model.
He’s still finding his place in the NBA as he enters his third season. He tore his ACL as a rookie and didn’t feel right until the second half of last year. He closed the season on fire, leading the Bucks in scoring after the All-Star break with 18.9 points per game on 49.8 percent shooting.
While his game remains a work in progress, Parker has always been a natural leader off the court. "It’s me. It’s very organic," Parker said of his activism in his hometown. "I’m not doing this out of popularity or publicity. I’m doing it from the heart."
Chicago needs it. There are no easy answers for the city’s violence, but Parker is committed to doing whatever he can. On Friday, the gym was as good a place to start as any.
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