Milwaukee, Let’s Ride

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Jabari Parker, Forward / Milwaukee Bucks - The Players' Tribune

I’m driving.

When I close my eyes, that’s where I am. I’m somewhere on the road, in Milwaukee, and I’m driving. I’m by myself, cruising, not really going any place in particular. It’s dark out and I’m going through Bay View, the neighborhood not far from where I live. When you see the neon lights and the vintage vibe, you know you’re there. I’m on Kinnickinnic Ave — a long, smooth strip where the red lights are spaced out just right. I’m merging onto 794, onto the interstate, to let the engine work a little bit. I’m not in any kind of rush, just turning where I feel like. After some amount of time — it depends, half an hour, sometimes an hour — I’m back home, pulling up to the garage.

That’s what comes to mind, when I think about the last few months — I’m driving. I did a lot of that, to pass the time … to just be with my thoughts.

And now Friday is here, it’s crazy. It’s my first game back on the court in a Bucks uniform in pretty much a year, and a lot is going through my head. Milwaukee, man, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed playing ball for me. And I’ve missed playing ball for you. You know, I haven’t actually been gone. I’ve been here. But still, I’ve just missed it all, and that’s the thing with injuries, you know? The physical rehab isn’t the only thing. It’s the isolation, too — it’s the waiting. It’s the battle with yourself. After two separate injuries, and two separate rehabs, that’s kind of the hidden side of it.

So right now I just want to take a second to say what’s up and tell you what’s on my mind. I’m not about to rattle off some kind of boring rehab diary. But I do want to say something, to tell you where I’m at.

When it was announced that I’d be returning February 2, I got a lot of the same types of questions. But they all pretty much boiled down to, “What’s it gonna feel like … to be back?”

My answer? I’m going to treat it like any other game. My routine is going to be the same as always.

Except for one thing.

I’ll have a meal in the afternoon, as usual, and then get a quick nap. I’ll get to Bradley Center around three and go through my warm up — stretching, getting shots up — same as always. Then sometime before the 20-minute mark, before official warmups, before we head back to the locker room, I’ll dip out.

I’ll go to the chapel.

It’ll just be me. I can’t possibly communicate everything I’ll be thinking about in there. But I’ll try, right now, to give you some idea.

It’ll be two things. Two different images. Two stories from the past few months. One has to do with driving, but since I already mentioned a bit about that, I’ll tell you about the other one first.

It’s a story about the gym.

But it’s really about hip-hop.

It was back in October. At that point, I was making a lot of progress — getting back to a place where I was doing drills, full-speed, feeling healthy. I wasn’t cleared to play pickup with my teammates yet, which was frustrating. I was focused on my rehab routine with Frank Johnson, my trainer. (If there’s time, I’ve gotta tell you more about Frank, because he’s a real one.) So, every day, Frank would put me through my daily rehab program, which we’d been doing for the last six months. After the weight room, we’d do skills work with a ball — working on exploding off my first step, shooting, ball handling, that kind of thing. When I got home, I’d be dead tired. Then I’d meet him again the next morning.

I ran the whole Doggystyle album from the top. “F*** wit Dre Day.” Anything Eazy-E. Anything Cube.

I remember the day all my friends texted me — about the same thing.

I was in Oshkosh that day, working out with Frank at our G League gym. After we finished, my phone had a ton of texts on it — it was friends telling me the same news: That we were not able to reach an extension with the Bucks.

And so my friends were texting support — they were mad on my behalf. But me, in that moment? I wasn’t mad about the news. I really wasn’t. I love this organization from top to bottom. I knew it was a business decision. I understood it.

I couldn’t really blame my friends, because they were just frustrated for me. But it made one thing really, really clear: What matters to me is not accolades or awards or headlines. That’s just not where I’m at. After injuries and rehabs, what matters to me is what I can control. What matters to me is going after what I love and then working as hard as I can to protect it.

So that same night, back in Milwaukee, I did the only thing that made sense to me. I went to my sanctuary. I went to the gym.

I went there every night for the next two weeks. The Bucks training facility is empty after 8 or 9 p.m., so that’s when I’d go. It would just be me, the security guard and the custodian.

I’d line up a rack of balls and go to work.

After injuries, and rehabs, what matters to me is what I can control.

Jabari Parker

I was thinking about coming to Milwaukee in 2014, as a rookie. I remember how I was focused so much on all the outward stuff, on what other people were saying about me. How I was going to be this and be that. How I wanted to be Rookie of the Year and be an All-Star. When I got injured that first time, I felt robbed of all of it. In the gym, I’m telling you, I was feeling all of it all over again. All that pain.

I’d plug in my phone to the aux. Volume all the way up. See, I was mad and I needed some music to associate with my madness. The only music that I could vibe on at the time was the most rugged music ever — and that’s ’90s hip-hop. Especially West Coast hip-hop. The gym was rattling with Tupac — “Hail Mary,” and “Ambitionz az a Ridah.” Snoop — I ran the whole Doggystyle album from the top. “F*** wit Dre Day.” Anything Eazy-E. Anything Cube.

I’d grab a ball and go f****ing full out.

I wasn’t supposed to be doing that. I wasn’t supposed to be doing extra. Frank had ordered me to go home and rest after our morning workouts.

I couldn’t, not that night. I had to go to the one place where I’ve always been able to be creative, open-minded, free. The music I had playing just took on a new meaning, making all the emotions I was feeling that much louder. For two weeks it felt like I was in one of those ads where a guy is playing himself one-on-one. Me against myself. Not me against another guy. Not me against my rookie self. Jabari vs. Jabari.


That’s where the driving story comes in.

After I’d leave the gym, that frustration would follow me home. “Hail Mary” would still be ringing in my ears.

And you know what saved me at that time? Besides Frank?

It was driving.

Growing up, I admired old cars. In Chicago, on the South Side, people didn’t have the newest cars, but one thing I always noticed was that they took good care of their cars. It was a pride thing. Even if you had a funky Oldsmobile, you kept it clean. You changed the oil. You took a toothbrush to the rims. So I think that’s where I got a thing for Cadillacs. If you were middle class in my neighborhood — if you were accomplished, if you were doing alright — you got a Cadillac. I saw those folks as my role models.

After my late-night sessions, I’d go home to shower and rest, and then I would get back in my car and take a drive.

I plugged in my aux. Turned it up.

Different playlist, though. I was still feeling that intensity from the gym. But I needed a different vibe.

So I went to Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield. I went to The Four Tops, The Temptations, Junior Walker, Jimmy Ruffin, David Ruffin.

I went to R&B. I went to soul. The themes in that music, the soulful emotion of that music … honestly, it helped put some things in perspective. It was like Marvin and Curtis were saying to me, Maybe everything’s not the same, but everything’s going to be alright.

Those drives were my way of trying to find some balance.

When I wasn’t in the gym, going Jabari vs. Jabari, I was driving around Milwaukee at night.

I was always out driving at night, and maybe you even saw me and didn’t know it. I was pushing a ’64 Coupe De Ville. Driving it gives me this time-machine vibe. It reminds me of the South Side, of just being a kid. It’s a Cadillac, champagne gold. A 429 engine. Cream interior. Leather seats with a light brown dash. It’s a big, wide car. There’s something about the way the De Ville feels. I call it a sailboat car — because you can feel every dip and every bump, like you’re gliding through little waves.

If you’re reading this and like, Yo, it’s just a car … I get that. It’s true. It’s just a car. But new cars don’t have the same feel. They don’t have a story. Old cars have things to say. With an old car, you have to be extra observant about everything. You have to listen and pay attention — to how the engine sounds, where the oil levels are at, if it’s running hot, all of that. You’ve gotta be tuned in, and I like that. New cars, to me they just feel like plain sheets of metal.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, these past few months. When I wasn’t in the gym, going Jabari vs. Jabari, I was driving around Milwaukee at night. It was part of my therapy.

I almost forgot to tell you about Frank.

Starting about six months ago, I got assigned to a guy named Frank, our player development coach.

Frank became my sensei. But at first, it was tough to get a read on him. If you meet Frank, you’re first gonna think he’s an intimidating dude. He’s kind of tall, like 6′ 2″, with this mean muggin’ look on his face. He’s in his 50s but he’s stronger than most of us players — dude has a six pack … in his 50s. His voice is deep and raspy, but then you start to listen to him and you see that smile come out and you see how animated he is, how high energy he is, how caring he is.

Frank and I have spent every day of the last six months together. Some days, Frank was the only other person I saw, so he really witnessed all my ups and downs.

I remember the day I found out J. Kidd was fired. It was hard, and that’s the truth. You know why? Because, yeah, there were rumors for a while, but at least speaking for myself, I didn’t have any idea if it would happen. The players, we didn’t know. But we all did know that the NBA is a business, for coaches and for players. It’s not always fair and we felt for coach. It was really a reminder that you can’t control everything. And with J. Kidd moving on, it meant Frank was also losing his job. You forget that when a coach is let go, a whole group of staffers are gone, too.

When Frank called me afterwards, and we met up for dinner. When I saw him, I almost wanted to cry. This man had helped me get to this point this year more than anyone. So it was just really hard. It was like, How do I move forward? What do I do? I was mad — mad for him. But Frank was calm. He told me not to worry about him.

So tonight, when I’m by myself in the chapel, before tip-off, I’ll be thinking about all of the things I told you today. Man, I’m just excited to play again. Yeah, I’ll be thinking about what I’ve lost, but mostly about what I’ve become by going through something that hasn’t been easy. The way I see it now — and I didn’t always see it this way — success isn’t defined by accomplishments, trophies or awards. If I’ve learned anything from going through these two injuries is there’s no cruise control — not in life or in basketball. It’s not like driving in that way.

To me, I’m not making a comeback. Yeah, I’ve had injuries. Yeah, I’m a different person from who I was as a rookie, or from who I was a year ago. But the thing I’m thinking about these days is, Who am I now and who do I want to be?

Because we’re all coming back from something, each of us, at different times. It’s a journey. It really is. This year, I’ve understood that in a deeper way. I believe that if you love what you do, and you work hard at it, everything falls in place.

Back at that dinner the other night with Frank, before we finished he reminded one more time not to be impatient. I think he could tell I was upset.

“You’ve still got a lot to do,” he told me.

Thank you, Frank. And thank you, Milwaukee.

Damn right I do.

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