One night when I was 18, I was walking to the Walgreens that was on my block. It was December and freezing in Chicago. Usually that means it’s a little safer, too.
I was just going out for some chips and a drink, but before I even got to the store, shots rang out. Another drive-by. I hit the ground for a few seconds and then started running back home.
I wanted to keep running though. Away from the South Side, away from Chicago. I just wanted to get out.
Let me tell you about my city.
Growing up where I did on the South Side, it was easy to think that there wasn’t much beyond those city blocks. Because not many people were telling us any different. We were expected to live in the same house we had grown up in, which was the same house our parents had grown up in.
Around the Ickes projects, you see the same folks every day. You see the same cop cars chasing people up and down 79th Street. You get used to the crime and, from a young age, you learn how to live with it. You learn what to do during a drive-by: You duck. And you run. I’m not saying all this to be tough, it’s just how things are. There are certain rules you live by. Make sure you’re with your big sisters. Be home before the lights at the park come on. All that sort of stuff.
What kept me safest, though, was my neighborhood. Throughout Chicago there are little communities where, no matter what’s going on — drug dealers, gangs — everyone is looking out for each other. One of my neighbors, Mr. Johnson, was an older man who had served in the military. When I was in elementary school, he’d have me over to his house to play video games with his son. And then on the other side was Mr. Brown. His grandson and I always used to play ball because he had a hoop. All day, we’d just play outside and older folks would look out for us. No matter how bad we were at the time, they weren’t ever so slow to check on us.
As close-knit as those neighborhoods were, though, you could get stuck in them. Man, I have a bunch of family members who have never left Chicago. Nothing but the same stuff every day.
By the seventh grade, when I took Ms. Reed’s history class, I came to realize that I didn’t have to be stuck. All of a sudden, right here in Chicago, in that classroom, I learned that there was something more than just my neighborhood on the South Side.
Our textbooks may have been 20 years out of date, but Ms. Reed opened my eyes. She had us read Frederick Douglass and other black writers. She had us read poetry and plays by African-Americans.
We’d watch Spike Lee films and old VHS tapes on Jean Baptiste Point DuSable and W.E.B. Du Bois. When I learned about authors like Maya Angelou or inventors like John Albert Burr and Frederick McKinley Jones, it changed my whole perspective of who I was, and who I could be.
Everything else around us — TV, movies, music — mostly seemed to show us a limited image of what it meant to be black. An athlete. A rapper. A drug-dealing gangster. There are not a lot of kids from the ghetto who see themselves as the next Steve Jobs. And that’s because there are not a lot of people telling them that they can do whatever they want to do.
Not a lot of people are showing them that they can do whatever they want to do, either. Growing up, we used to think that a lot of the guys who came from Chicago and made it to the NBA were folklore. We never saw them. They never came back.
Except for my dad, Sonny Parker.
After six years in the NBA, my dad could’ve taken a coaching job with a pro team or with a college when he left the league in 1982. But instead, he returned to Chicago to work with kids. He started the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation before I was born. He already ran out of the money he had earned in the NBA by the time I was born, too. He played in a different era, when there wasn’t as much money in the pros as there is now. It just didn’t last.
What has lasted, though, is his work in the neighborhood. He never really sat me down and told me why it had been important for him to come back to his hometown. But every day, I saw it. I saw the kids and the families that he helped, just by being there and pushing them in the right direction.
My dad is pretty well known around the South Side, where his foundation helps kids stay in school and prepare for college.
People like my dad and Ms. Reed give us kids a sense of pride in where we come from and what we could do. We can be something. We matter. Our lives matter.
Around the time that I was taking Ms. Reed’s class, I also started to play AAU basketball, which meant that I was playing games and going to practices in other parts of the city. I got to see a world beyond the South Side. Some of my best friends on the team lived on the North Shore, in really nice neighborhoods. We’d have sleepovers after practices or games and I’d be in their rooms looking at their school books. I’d pick them up and run my fingers through the new, crisp pages and over the covers that weren’t torn off. History books issued this year? At my school, I’d open my book and inside the cover (if there even was one) I’d see my older brother’s name from eight years earlier, and even more names before his.
When we played games at schools on the North Shore, I saw that they had the newest computers and software. Over on the South Side, we were using old computers from the ’90s or something — until the day we finally got Dell computers.
“Man, this is what’s up! Dells! We made it!”
The more I saw, the more I became aware of the inequalities — that we didn’t get as much funding for our schools, not only for textbooks and computers, but also for after-school programs and college prep. I mean, at the end of the day, who really expected us to go to college?
I went to Simeon Career Academy, a vocational high school. But even as college recruiting letters started to arrive and I began to think about what school I would go to, it seemed Chicago was still reeling me back in. One older guy in my neighborhood kept telling me that I needed to learn a craft.
“Electricity. Plumbing. Welding. That’s what you need to do.”
But I knew that basketball could be my way out and into college, like it had been for my dad. And I knew I could only grow as a person by leaving the city.
Because by that point, I did not want to stay in Chicago, I did not want to see one Illinois license plate. I was so used to my neighborhood, my environment. I had gotten sick of it all.
I got sick of using old books. I got sick of all of the noise. I got sick of helicopters flying above my house at 2 a.m. I got sick of sirens. I got sick of junkies in the alleyway under my bedroom window. I got sick of the police putting giant spotlights on top of telephone poles to try and keep drug dealers away.
I got sick of gunshots on the Fourth of July — to this day, I can’t even enjoy the Fourth of July. My parents always told me to go inside because on the Fourth, there are always a lot of murders. Gunshots sound like fireworks, so it’s easier to get away with firing a gun. Even today, I sometimes still flinch at fireworks.
So when I had the opportunity, I decided to go to Duke. A massive campus in North Carolina? Green grass? And most importantly, not a single Illinois license plate? I would’ve gone the day I committed if I could have.
It’s funny, but the night I had been walking to the Walgreens on my block was in the winter of my senior year, not long before I announced that I was going to Durham. I was so excited about what was ahead and I remember thinking, Man, I’m almost out of here.
And then — pop-pop-pop! Another drive-by.
I knew that I could — that I would — come back home someday. But at that moment, I knew that it was time for me to go.
You could be doing everything right. A 3.6 GPA. College recruiters. But you could also be out trying to buy a snack one night and still end up with your face pressed into the concrete trying to keep from getting shot.
There was no place better to grow than Duke. I loved Durham. Everything started moving faster for me, everything started making sense. I met new people, saw new things and realized that there was so much more for me to do. I took classes where I could watch more Spike Lee films and be proud of where I came from. I’d walk down the hallway of my dorm and kids would be blasting ScHoolboy Q, just like we did in Chicago. The other students at Duke were from other places, and had different perspectives than mine. And I didn’t have to worry about being stopped by cops or dodging drive-bys.
But after we lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament and the end of the school year arrived, I had to think about entering the draft. A lot of guys had already thought about it — and made up their minds and signed with agents in April. Me? Two weeks into May I still wasn’t sure. A lot of players worry about how high they’ll go in the draft. But what was weighing on my mind were the classes I’d miss. The degree I told my mom I’d get.
I loved going to class. I didn’t care about being the first or second draft pick. But I did care about missing out on reading new books and meeting other students. I never wanted to leave college, man. I loved to learn. I loved just being a kid.
But it was tough being a college athlete. I know it may sound like I’m complaining, but as a basketball player, we got two meals day while we were in season. For the rest of the year, we were on our own. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to send me money every week for expenses like that. I needed to start making money for me and for my family, even though they wanted me to stay and get my degree.
So I prayed on it, and then I decided to leave for the NBA. And with it came an NBA salary — and the impact I could start making with it.
I didn’t want to be folklore. I wanted to help Chicago.
I wanted to be like my dad, who every day showed me the impact of his sacrifices, of coming back and working to make the city better.
I wanted to be like Juwan Howard, whose basketball camp I went to as kid for six years. Those camps meant everything to me and my friends. We’d all seen Juwan on TV and then … there he was. In our gym. We could see him. We could give him a high five. His camp was more than just a place where we could learn skills. It showed us that he loved us, that he wanted more for us.
So I always knew I’d come back. My dad and Juwan showed me how important that was.
It’s only been a few years since I left, but Chicago isn’t the same city anymore. It’s worse. A lot worse.
Nearly 50 schools closed in Chicago in 2013, mostly in neighborhoods like mine, with primarily black students from low-income homes. Now, you might be thinking, Well those kids can just go to other schools. Is it really that big of a deal?
Yes, they can go to other schools, but the real danger is that these kids are now forced to go outside of their neighborhoods and maneuver around unfamiliar territory — some of which is controlled by gangs that are rivals to the ones near their homes. They’ve lost the safety and the insulation that we had from some of the violence because we went to school in our own backyards.
When I was a kid, there was crime and violence, but we could still run around and play. We could live around it. But July was the deadliest month in the city in 10 years.
Now, you’re hearing about kids being caught in crossfires at all hours of the day. Nearly 3,000 people were shot in Chicago last year alone. Already in 2016, there have been over 2,500 victims of gun violence.
Black Lives Matter and police brutality are issues that are important to me. But I also need to speak up for my city. Chicago’s kids need to know that their education matters, that their lives matter, because every day they are more and more at risk of being victims of gun violence.
Like six-year-old Tacarra Morgan, who was shot in the stomach while sitting on her front porch.
Or four-year-old Kavan Collins, who was shot in the face while he stood holding his mother’s hand. He suffered a fractured jaw and shattered teeth.
Or six-year-old Jaylene Bermeo, who was shot in the back while she was drawing on the sidewalk. A bullet punctured her lung.
I could go on and on. But doing that, or just screaming, “Stop the violence, stop the gangs!” won’t get us anywhere. I know that.
Education is what’s going to give these kids a future. It doesn’t have to come from new books, or new buildings. We can deal without those. I’ve seen it. We can use those books until the pages fall out — I did it. But when you close schools and force kids into different neighborhoods, when you cut programs that keep them off of the streets, where are they going to go to escape? Where are they going to find something productive to do after school gets out at 3 p.m., in the hours when juvenile crime is at its highest?
Where do they go to learn that their life matters?
I know what it was like to grow up in Chicago and see the same problems every day. But people like Ms. Reed, my dad and Juwan showed me that I could do something more. So that’s what I’m trying to do now by holding free basketball camps of my own for the kids of Chicago.
They see the drills and hear about my hard work and what motivates me. But maybe they also think, Hey, this NBA player thinks it’s cool to be class president. I’ll try that too. Hopefully my camp is another outlet for them, a few moments when they don’t have to worry about what’s going on in their neighborhoods. I try to talk to each of them, to show them that there’s something else out there — to show them that they don’t have to be ball players. They could also be the next Steve Jobs.
Everybody in Chicago needs to do more, for these kids and our city. It’s something that Jahlil Okafor and I talk about all the time. He’s a Chicago kid, too (although he went to a school with nice books). We say to each other, “We gotta surprise people. We need to do something.”
We just want to be an example for our community.
Right now, I have the basketball court. But I can’t wait for the day when I can stand in front of a classroom. Going back and getting my degree is something that I promised myself and my mom the day I called her and my dad to tell them that I was entering the draft. Not a lot of people in my family can say they got a college diploma, so I want to do that — for them and for me.
But I also want to do it for the kids of Chicago. I want to become a teacher after I get out of the league, and help show kids what my dad and Ms. Reed showed me: There’s more out there than the gangs, than the liquor stores, than the violence. So next year, I’m going to start taking summer classes and working toward getting my degree.
It’s hard to be optimistic and hopeful that things will change in Chicago. But I am. I have to be. Because if I don’t have that attitude, then the kids there won’t believe that things can get better. But things are going to get better.
It is going to change if we step up and help our city.
And I’m here to help. I’m not going to be folklore.