NBA veteran and former Texas A&M star Sonny Parker has grown weary from the daily reports of death, violence and mayhem in Chicago. Like many, he longs for the days when he could freely travel from one side of his beloved hometown to the other in search of a good pickup game.
“Kids, especially kids here in Chicago, don’t have that opportunity anymore,” said Parker, who now mans the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation. “How can we expect kids to be their best if we aren’t first doing the work of making them feel safe and bold enough to be able to even explore who they want to be?
“I had the time and space to blossom into my dream of becoming an NBA player because I was free to come and go as I felt I needed to be,” he added. “Having that path for self-discovery can’t be overlooked; you can’t expect someone to get to point B without having first passed point A.”
His own son, Jabari Parker stands as the exception to at least some of those rules. The eldest of Parker’s two boys, the 6' 8 Simeon Career Academy star is widely regarded as the top high school player in the country and carries a 3.6 GPA for good measure. He recently signed a national letter-of-intent to attend Duke University on full scholarship and helped bring his team their fourth straight state title.
But for every Jabari Parker there is a Michael Haynes, and the hard-knock fate of the latter pains Sonny as much as the wondrous rise of his son heartens him.
“Jabari’s way may not be the exact path of every other kid,” Parker says of his 18-year-old devoutly religious son. Reared from birth as a Mormon, the younger Parker has even hinted at perhaps putting his surefire NBA career on hold to someday embark on a religious retreat.
“But none of that should really matter in this case,” insists Sonny. “The bottom-line is every child should have the same rights of being able to grow up and flourish into the person they were meant to be. Our philosophy at the foundation has always been “as a man thinketh, so is he.” It all starts with instilling in each and every one of these kids the belief that they have the potential for greatness.”
Haynes, a 22-year-old former preps star, never really got the chance to fulfill his own potential. Just hours before he was scheduled to head to New York and Iona University on a hoops scholarship, he was shot and killed while attempting to break up a fight between neighborhood acquaintances.
“Good kids, good young men being taken down before they even have the chance to fly,” laments Sonny. “That’s the kind of thing that just rips your heart out.”
Simeon is no stranger to tragedy. Few Black Chicagoans over the age of 35 have forgotten the story of Ben Wilson, the school's legendary hoops star who famously proceeded Parker at the school, where he was the country’s best high school baller. In 1984—just a day before Wilson and the Wolverines were slated to begin defense of their state title, he was shot and killed less than a block from the school in a robbery attempt. His rise and tragic fall was recently immortalized in the ESPN "30 for 30" film Benji.
Sonny Parker, who has worked with the likes of NBA rookie Anthony Davis and current Louisville star Wayne Blackshear, tries his best to help his players avoid such future tragedies and constantly preaches the virtues of making the right choices.
“We can bring people in and they can talk to kids,” he said. “They’ve heard it all before, all the ‘Say no to drugs, say no to gang violence,’ all that stuff. In the end, they’re thinking what are my choices? They need to see some choices and, as parents, our jobs are to put them in the right place to make the best ones for all of us.”
Glenn Minnis is a sports and culture writer who has contributed to the likes of ESPN, Vibe and the NFL Magazine. He has also been on staff at AOL Sports, the Chicago Tribune and was the founding sports editor for 360HipHop.com. You can follow him on Twitter at