Sweat drips in slow motion from Jabari Parker’s brow as he squares up against his defender. There are seconds left in Game 7 of the 2020 NBA Finals. The score is tied, and the hopes of a city rest on the young man wearing the number two on his back. He stutter-steps, leaving the guard for dead as he drives to the rim, lifts off and tomahawks the ball through the hoop.
Pandemonium breaks out in the United Center. Chicago has its first trophy since Michael Jordan’s dynastic Bulls brought it home for the sixth time in seven years in 1998.
But suddenly the cheers fade, and the dream is over. Instead of the United Center, Parker finds himself on the church court in Hyde Park, where he learned to dunk for the first time. Instead of LeBron James or Steph Curry, his opponent is his older brother Christian.
Throughout Parker’s high school years, the brothers used to sneak off from their South Shore home to the church, where they’d play one-on-one late into the night. Sometimes, they fell asleep on the couches in the lobby, dreaming of playing for the Bulls before waking up in the wee hours of the next morning to go again before school.
“I just remember the buzz around town as a kid,” Parker remembers now. “The Bulls were everything. Everybody had big dreams, and everyone fantasized about playing at the United Center.”
In those days, Parker’s name became synonymous with success—and great expectations. He was the first freshman in the history of Simeon Career Academy to start on the varsity team. He won Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior. USA Basketball chose him as their Male Athlete of the Year in 2011. And he led Simeon to four straight state championships.
Fast-forward five years—through a single season at Duke University, a first-round NBA draft pick and four years with the Milwaukee Bucks—and Parker has come home at last.
At just 23 years old, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound small forward signed a two-year, $40 million contract with the Bulls, priming him to become the hometown star among a cadre of young players like Zach LaVine (23), Lauri Markkanen (21) and Wendell Carter Jr. (19), upon whom the Bulls are counting to propel them to future glory. Together, these young assets are raw and unformed. The team is playing the lottery, hoping one of its investments blossoms into a superstar, but also knowing that a muted season will result in a high draft pick next year. It’s a process.
Parker didn’t always want to come home. Growing up in South Shore, he dealt with ragged textbooks and junkies in the alley outside his bedroom window. And then there was the shooting. He was 18 years old, already committed to Duke, when he stepped out one day in December to grab some snacks from the Walgreens at 79th Street and Jeffrey Avenue. Someone sprayed machine-gun fire from a car window on the opposite corner. Parker hit the deck.
“Bullets don’t have a name,” he says. “They can fly and get you from anywhere. It put fear in my heart. I just ran back home and knew I had to get out of here and go live my dreams.”
Parker was one of the lucky ones. Most of the kids he grew up playing streetball with didn’t leave the neighborhood, much less make it to the NBA. “The odds are stacked,” says his father, Sonny Parker, who himself played for the Golden State Warriors in the ’70s and ’80s. “Less than half of 1 percent make it to the NBA. And to play for your hometown team? Maybe less than half of the half of the 1 percent.”
Despite Parker’s previous desire to get out of the city, his perspective has changed. “Growing up, we used to think that a lot of the guys who came from Chicago and made it to the NBA were folklore,” Parker wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2016. “We never saw them. They never came back.”
He wants to be different. Perhaps it’s his faith (his mother, Lola, raised him as a devout Mormon), or the example he saw from Sonny, a native son of Chicago whose charitable foundation and basketball programs provide positive opportunities for inner-city youth.
“These kids are crying out for help, and nobody’s listening to them,” Sonny says. “We do things year-round, because they’re going through it year-round. You have to live alongside them. You have to be there for them. You have to listen to them.”
That’s what Parker intends to do. He’s a living example of the heights a kid from Chicago can reach, and his message is clear: “We can be something. We matter. Our lives matter.”
The question is how much time he’ll have to spread that message in a Bulls jersey. As part of their deal with Parker, the Bulls included a team option for the second year, which means they can let him go next season if it doesn’t work out.
Chicago loves a homecoming story. Point guard Derrick Rose, another Simeon alumnus, played one year of college ball before being drafted by the Bulls in 2008. He captivated the city with his on-a-dime cuts and explosive drives to the basket and became the youngest MVP in the history of the league.
Of course, a championship wasn’t meant to be. Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Then he tore the meniscus in his other knee and never regained his old step. Hungry for their first title in more than two decades, Chicagoans cry out for another talisman.
Therein lies the risk with Parker. He’s sustained not one but two ACL tears in his left knee. Though that injury is no longer the career-ender it was in the 1980s, it’s rare for a player to better his stats after a trauma like that, much less two of them. After every injury, there are doubts: Does he still have it? Can he come back—not just as good as he was before, but better?
When faced with these questions, Parker offers a parable about his love of classic cars. He recently bought a pink 1965 Cadillac DeVille through a Bulls security guard and loves to cruise through town listening to old-school R&B. “Working on those cars, tuning them up, rehabbing them—that’s what I’ve been doing with my body,” he says. “Getting back on the court is like getting on the road and finally being able to open it up.” He pauses, considering the peace he finds both behind the wheel and under the stadium lights. “It’s simple: Basketball is my sanctuary. It’s the place where I can be free.”