I feel like I wanted to be a Chicago Bull as soon as they showed interest because it’s always been a dream to me, especially to come back home. – Jabari Parker
There’s a quote from Dickens about home, that every traveler has a home of his own and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.
No, not Kaniel Dickens, the Idaho State forward drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2000. The other Dickens, who obsessed over two cities, sort of like Jabari Parker did with Durham and Milwaukee. It was the best of times when the Chicago basketball prodigy was in North Carolina and some of his worst when he was in Wisconsin with a pair of anterior cruciate ligament surgeries and a bypass on his expected road to success.
So Parker decided to return him, to family, to love and to where he—and the Bulls—hope to see his play return to the heights that made him a four-time state champion and one of the most celebrated and successful prep stars to come out of Illinois and the Chicago Public League.
“A few other teams made a pitch,” Parker told reporters Wednesday morning in the Atrium of the United Center. “But as soon as I heard Chicago, I had to jump on it because I knew their eagerness and my eagerness and it just matched. I feel like I wanted to be a Chicago Bull as soon as they showed interest because it’s always been a dream to me, especially to come back home. No better way to dream as a kid, playing down the street from where I grew up at the James Jordan Boys & Girls Club. So very fortunate to have that blessing. Thank you to the Bulls organization for taking a chance on me, and I’m going to do my best to fulfill their wishes. It’s a dream come true.’
It’s also a surprise and perhaps more wish fulfillment, that being Parker’s chance to resurrect a stalled career from when he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and for the Bulls perhaps an opportunity to escalate their rebuilding with a rare talent whom many had begun to discard because of the injuries.
“This is an exciting day for the Bulls organization and we view this as a very important signing for our franchise,” said Executive Vice-president of Basketball Operations John Paxson. “We talked a lot about direction in the last year and how we had a little bit of a rebuild situation, and we feel this signing fits perfectly into the direction we chose. We’re adding another young talented player to our roster, someone with great versatility, someone who is very skilled as far as passing, handling, can play in a team system offense. So it is exciting to add to the current young guys that we have. The contract is what it is, good for Jabari and us. We’re looking for a great opportunity for our basketball team to improve and Jabari to be a part of this.”
That contract is a risk, of sorts, for both, one year reported to be about $20 million with a similar second year team option. Without those injuries, Parker, who became an unrestricted free agent when set loose by the Bucks earlier this month, would have been in conversation to a contract approaching $200 million. But with those multiple injuries, unprecedented for a young player, he also could have little left.
Both sides believe Parker has plenty to show and to prove, and is prepared to do both.
The Bulls have the 6-8 250-pound forward who averaged 20 points as recently as the 2016-17 season slated to start at small forward. Does he have the mobility? Can he defend the quickest, most athletic players in the NBA. Can he regain the explosive play he demonstrated after even his first ACL injury, which occurred in his rookie season?
Parker has no doubt, and he even expressed some defiance and a trace of annoyance as questions about his health kept coming at him like a Showtime fast break.
“If you didn’t see (my) games this year, I won’t be able to answer that question (about his stage of play) for you,” Parker said late in his 20-minute session at another concern about his career. “Because I pretty much showed that.”
That’s up for debate and conjecture, which is why Parker had to reportedly settle for one guaranteed season. It could prove a coup for the Bulls, and if it does, a windfall for Parker as well in being able to return to play at home and be in line for that huge payday.
Parker is from the South Side and the son of former NBA player Sonny Parker. He attended Simeon Career Academy and led them to four state titles. He went one year to celebrated Duke, where he became the highest scoring freshman ever and first freshman to lead the team in scoring and rebounding. He was selected ahead of Joel Embiid in the NBA draft, but was flattened by the two major knee surgeries.
He finally returned earlier this year, coming off the bench for likely the first time in his basketball life and even being a little used reserve in several playoff games. Though he began to excel late in the regular season, averaging 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in six April games. Relations between Parker and the Bucks appeared to be at an impasse. A Chicago resurrection seemed possible and propitious.
“I had a couple of hurdles in my career that filled up a lot of my time,” Parker offered somewhat casually about more time spent in rehabilitation than many need to qualify for a pension. “Right now is just trying to distance those memories and create new, enlightening ones. I am no exception to the norm. I have to treat myself as any individual would and stay on top of things. It was out of my control where my career took itself, but I can do the best I can to maintain it.
“The first time I did hurt myself I did ask why,” a somewhat unemotional Parker offered. “But after that it was more about bouncing back. I wanted to have the mentality of just move forward. I just want to be a trailblazer for a lot of people who are going through struggles because, obviously, to not have difficulty in your life is unrealistic. So hopefully I have a magnifying glass to help other people going through the same thing, if not similar situations. I always want to remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far and just use that as a sense of motivation.”
The Bulls aim to have Parker become their starting small forward, a position loosely populated with the current roster. The view is his addition once rookie Wendell Carter Jr. endures will put the Bulls in position to move forward with five former lottery picks in a starting unit, their anticipated springboard into the deep water of the NBA playoffs.
“I feel like when you struggle more you only succeed more,” Parker said. “It gives me a lot more reason to do better and to go against the odds and go against the grain. So whenever I do something that sets me back, I always look at it as an opportunity to get better. Being a part of this team and this new unit is something I admire because we are the same age. We are going to build friendships on and off the court. That’s what it’s about.
“It was just the stars aligned and the opportunity presented itself perfectly,” Parker said about his return to the Bulls, which symbolized home. “The contract took care of itself; it was more the stars aligned. There was no better way to start out than with a team you can grow with, especially being so young, guys my age and we can build memories and that is what I am looking forward to. It’s like starting over again and I am willing to learn and I cannot wait.”
The Bulls and Parker hope this becomes a reign of terror on their opponents.