HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE : NBA Player Cherokee Parks Has Found a Sanctuary From Professional and Personal Pressures


Cherokee Parks rolls into a parking lot in Sunset Beach, and unlimbers his 6-foot-11 frame from his Range Rover. He looks like virtually any of the other twentysomethings who live in the houses and apartments near the sand: backward baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy shorts, sunglasses and a wisp of a goatee.

But Parks isn’t quite like the others.

For the last three years, he has been paid $1.1 million a season to play basketball in the NBA.

Parks, who played at Marina High, can’t be sure when he’ll be back on the court. Nobody in the NBA knows for certain because of the contract dispute between the owners and the players’ association over the collective bargaining agreement.


For Parks, it is all the more unsettling because his three-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves expired July 1, and the lockout has left his future even deeper in limbo.

In the midst of this uncertainty, Parks decided to come back to a place he trusts. A place where he can relax, breathe the ocean air and feel comfortable. And just be Cherokee Parks.

“You have to love it here,” he said. “I don’t think this place has changed since I was growing up. You wake up in the morning, the sun is shining and everything feels great. You have to feel good.”

Parks can visit his Pacific Coast Highway haunts like Mother’s, Captain Jack’s or the Harbor House. Or, if he wants, he can just spend a big chunk of any day listening to the music of Subhumans and Gorilla Biscuits on his CDs.

“My kind of bands,” he says. “The old school.”

Parks also added a couple of new tattoos recently. He had a Mayan sun put on an ankle during his first year at Duke. A green apple core with a skeleton’s face and a totem-type image on his right leg were added later. One of the most recent additions is a dragon that stretches across his stomach.

He says none of the images has any special significance. “Just body art,” he says. “I like it.”

Coming Home

Parks hasn’t been back to spend much time in the area since he left Marina High seven years ago for Duke.

At Marina, he built a reputation as one of the best centers to play high school basketball in Southern California. In one memorable game his senior year, he scored 30 points, 16 on dunks, to help Marina defeat Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division I-A semifinals.

UCLA wanted him badly, but Parks chose Duke.

He played on two teams there that reached the national championship game--as a freshman in 1992 with Christian Laettner when the Blue Devils won against Michigan, and as a junior in 1994 with Grant Hill when Duke was beaten by Arkansas.

A year later, he was the 12th player picked in the draft by the Dallas Mavericks.

Parks might have been chosen earlier had Duke’s season not been something of a disappointment. The Blue Devils went from national prominence to an 11-18 record while Coach Mike Krzyzewski was out with a back injury. Despite that, Parks averaged 19 points and nine rebounds his senior season.

Parks still had a lot going for him with the NBA: a good shooting touch as well as size, along with that charismatic first name.

A son of free spirits with a hippie lifestyle in the early 1970s, Parks was named after the Native American tribe of his great grandmother. His mother, Debe, fed him a formula of juices from beets, spinach, carrots and brewer’s yeast. “I still remember it,” Parks says. “It was a nasty concoction.”

Those genes produced height, but not weight.

Parks isn’t as physical as many NBA centers, and that’s been an adjustment for him in his three years in the league.

Parks also has been going through the transition of a separation from his wife, Anne-Marie, whom he met at Duke. Parks spent the last two off-seasons living in Greenwich Village while his wife studied for a master’s degree at New York University. After the separation, he decided to return to Southern California for the summer.

Slow Start

The last several weeks have given Parks time to reflect.

He’s still disappointed by the way his NBA career started in Dallas. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “I don’t whine about things, but it was a joke. We were locked out all summer and couldn’t do anything with the team. We showed up about five or six days before the season started. And when it did get started, I’m getting the first DNPs I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t a good situation for a rookie.

“We started out pretty well that season, but we had a bunch of injuries around all-star game time and the whole thing went south. It was a bad way to get started. It could have been phenomenal in Dallas, but it wasn’t.”

After the season was over, Parks went back to Dallas for a meeting with the team’s new owners and learned that he had been traded to Minnesota. “The whole conversation took about 25 seconds,” Parks said. “I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this what this league is like?”

The last two years in Minnesota have been an improvement but Parks still hasn’t played as well as he hoped. He averaged 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds last season in 21 minutes a game.

“Up until now, I’ve been sort of a middle-of-the-road player in the NBA,” Parks said. “And that frustrates me. But there were times when I’d play 30 minutes in one game and three minutes in the next. It’s hard to prepare that way. I’m hoping that I can eventually get that kind of thing behind me. I don’t want to have to worry about playing time. If that happens, I think my game will start to flow again.”

Parks has played mostly at center. At 235 pounds, he often gives up bulk and strength against players such as the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal.

“I check those guys and the Mournings and the Ewings of the league, but it’s hard sometimes,” Parks said. “I’m giving up 50 or 60 pounds to some of them, plus a lot of those guys are All-Stars who have been in the league for 10, 12, 13 years.

“It’s like when I’m playing against a buddy of mine sometimes. I’ve got him by about 40 pounds. He’s guarding me in the post, and I feel like I can do whatever I want just about every time. That’s been killing me for the last three years. I haven’t had the body.”

Parks says he likes playing center, but would have no problem moving to power forward if it would help.

“I’ll play anywhere, but ideally I can be the kind of center that creates my own matchups,” he said. “That way I can pop out and shoot jumpers and pull them away from the basket. But we have a lot of guys we can move in and out of the post. We’ve got guys who can do a lot of things.”

A move to power forward still might not be possible next season because of Minnesota’s lack of depth at center.

The Timberwolves drafted Radoslav Nesterovic, a 7-foot Slovenian, with their first pick this year, but he is under contract to an Italian League team for one more season. That probably will leave Parks and Paul Grant sharing time at center unless the Timberwolves make a trade.

Trying to Grow

Parks has been working out to build strength. However, gaining weight has always been difficult for him. “I started last season at 235 pounds and finished the year only a little above 220,” he said. “But I feel I’ve been putting on some good weight this summer. I’ve been working hard in the gym, as hard as I’ve ever worked.”

Parks says he probably would have played in the Summer Pro League at Long Beach State this summer if he wasn’t a free agent. “But I can’t take a chance on getting hurt without a contract,” he said.

Parks says he’s showed up a couple of times for half-court pickup games at Laguna Beach. “But mostly I was there just to work on my tan,” Parks said. “That was about it. I’ve run into some guys there I played against in high school. I’m terrible with names, but I remember the faces.”

Parks says he hopes to be back with the Timberwolves next season. Minnesota finished last season with its first winning record (45-37) in the franchise’s eight-year history.

“The fans there are great, and we have a lot of good, young guys,” he said. “We came along well last season, and I think we’re going to continue to get better. I like the Minnesota coaches too.”

Parks is reluctant to speculate about his contract situation because of the uncertainty of the overall salary structure in the league. However, he says he’s confident his agent, attorney Lon Babby, will work out the best deal he can when the time comes. NBA coaches and team officials are banned from comment about players or contracts because of the lockout.

“I wish I was one of those guys they had to worry about re-signing, but I just want to play basketball,” Parks said. “I’m more interested in being happy with my basketball situation than anything else.”

His six-figure shoe contract with Nike also has ended, and Parks says he won’t be offered another. “Hardly anyone gets shoe contracts these days,” Parks said. “That market is changing a lot.”

But Parks says he doesn’t have to worry about money.

“I can go into the music store and know I can buy any CD I want,” he says with a laugh.

It wasn’t always that way.

“We lived paycheck to paycheck when I was growing up,” said Parks, who was raised by his mother after she and his father divorced. “I couldn’t have anything I wanted. You know, when we had school pictures, I’d get the smallest package. And when it came time to get new school clothes, I’d get two new T-shirts and a pair of shorts. Now I can go into a store and buy 12 T-shirts and 12 pairs of shorts if I want.”

Parks’ mother and his two sisters have moved away from the area. His mother and younger sister, Madison, moved to Durham, N.C., for Parks’ senior season at Duke and have remained there. His older sister, Corey, plays bass guitar in an Athens, Ga.-based rock band. “It’s a real jammin’ band,” Parks says. “My sister even blows fire on stage. She’s doing great.”

Parks hopes that Corey can someday say the same about her brother’s career in the NBA.