CJ Parker is a professional basketball player who was born in Chicago, Illinois.
A small forward who has already seen time in countries such as Mexico, Spain, Moldova, and Morocco, the 6-6 Parker routinely gets buckets by combining his rugged toughness with an acute feel for the game.
It’s no secret that Parker’s poetic displays on the hardwood have sent myriad international scouts scrambling to ink him to a contract, but what many don’t know is that years ago Parker was actually more enamored with collecting RBIs on the baseball diamond than he was in bullying his way into the paint and finishing through contact.
“I played baseball a lot when I was little, and the sport just continued to grow on me,” Parker recalls of his youth, much of which was spent participating in the Jackie Robinson league in the Windy City.
In fact, Parker’s devotion for America’s pastime was so strong that he admits he never envisioned hooping professionally to be an option, even though growing up he was no stranger to getting shots up at local parks.
“I always played basketball,” Parker says. “If I didn’t have baseball practice going on, I was always outside playing at the parks with my brothers and some of the neighborhood kids.”
Following his freshman year of high school, Parker added a few inches, in the process also shedding some excess weight that allowed him to become an overall more explosive athlete.
From there, Parker decided to transition from baseball to basketball, embarking on a path that would eventually see him sign with Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college located in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But Parker’s time at the D-II school was brief, and he soon transferred back to the Midwest and enrolled at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Parker says that during his time at Mount Mercy he encountered a litany of challenges, including being forced to redshirt so he could become academically eligible.
Yet, Parker credits head coach Aaron Jennings with revitalizing his passion for the sport and teaching him how to conduct himself like a consummate professional.
“I didn’t have much of an ego [when I was at Mount Mercy],” Parker says of his time with the Mustangs. “I just wanted to play basketball.”
After posting respectable numbers in the NAIA during the latter half of his collegiate career, Parker was inundated with calls from scouts overseas who were drawn to his size and innate feel for the game.
Over the course of the next few years, Parker then made his way around Mexico and Europe, continuing to dazzle coaches and teammates with his on-court performance, but also taking time to appreciate the places the game of basketball took him.
Parker says that among the several locations he has explored, the oft-forgotten country of Moldova was particularly memorable.
“People say that Moldova has the best wine in the world, and I was never a guy who was a big wine drinker, but over there I developed a taste for it,” Parker shares, and while experiencing the world as a professional athlete is something only few ever get the opportunity to do, Parker adds that not everything is utopian when it comes to playing basketball for a living.
That’s because for years hoopers who have crossed the Atlantic in order to further their basketball dreams have dealt with deceptive teams who don’t always fulfill their financial obligations.
Parker reveals that during his time in Morocco, he too was thrust into a precarious position.
“I didn’t go through an agent when I landed with this team,” Parker says of his stint in Morocco, which originated via the internet.
“We connected through Facebook when a team manager saw some of my highlights. He sent me a DM and at that point I made the decision to not involve my agent.”
For context, professional basketball players typically have agents who represent them during contract negotiations, but for players who aren’t netting supersized contracts, in this case Parker, it’s not uncommon to then see these players negotiate directly with a team in order to secure a better deal.
“I know guys who have played overseas for five or six years and have never had an agent. That was why I was willing to go into the Morocco situation without an agent,” Parker says, but that decision might have backfired because soon into his tenure in Morocco, management informed Parker he would not be compensated due to the team’s underwhelming performance.
Naturally, this caused contention between Parker and the club.
“I told them that I was not over there playing for free, especially because I have a family,” he says.
Parker’s time in Morocco was not without its pitfalls, but despite that setback, the bruising wing was undeterred in pursuing further opportunities.
It helps that Parker’s game is extremely malleable, so whether his team needs him to carry the offensive load, be a distributor, or clamp down on the opposing team’s biggest weapon, coaches are always impressed with his selflessness and desire to help the team win.
This team-oriented mindset also explains why Parker is still fielding calls from several clubs who would love to incorporate a player like him into their lineup.
And while other aspiring pros would be wise to emulate this type of approach, Parker mentions that there are always a select number of individuals who stray from the team dynamic.
“I’ll say this: there are a lot of guys overseas who understand their role, even though as an American player you’re looked at as Michael Jordan or LeBron James,” Parker says.
“And yes, the majority of guys who go over there do what they’re supposed to do, but there are a handful of players who are just over there to take a bunch of shots.”
But unlike in modern American basketball, the ball-hog mentality has not been embraced overseas.
“My advice to a lot of younger guys who go over is that they should be mindful of the fact that teams want to win,” Parker says.
“The whole notion of scoring 100 points but taking an L is not conducive to what they [European teams] want. I’ve seen guys average 30 and get cut after two weeks because their team lost back-to-back games.”
Much of this has to do with the fact that over in Europe teams take pride in collective accomplishments, but there is also a financial incentive for them to win instead of having their games serve as a showcase for American players looking to earn bigger paydays.
“Teams there want to win and move up to the next league because they want to attract sponsors who can help them sign better players, continue moving up the ranks, and get more publicity,” Parker explains.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon players such as Parker to seamlessly assimilate into their team’s playing style, otherwise their time abroad may be a short-lived experience.
Still, if Parker has learned anything from the last four years of professional basketball, a stretch that has included a variety of nagging injuries and the sledgehammer that was COVID-19, it’s that nothing in the game of basketball, or life, is guaranteed.
“I don’t take it for granted,” Parker says of these overseas spells.
“Because you just never know when it will be your last opportunity in that country.”
As the 2021-2022 basketball season tips off, many players around the world are readying for another grueling campaign.
For Parker, he is still parsing through those aforementioned inquiries he says he is thankful to still be receiving, but even for a walking bucket like him, there will always remain the inevitable question:
“I ask myself that every day,” Parker says with a laugh.
“There are times when I feel like I’m done and I don’t want to go back overseas, but there are other days where I wake up and know that I’m capable of still doing everything that I’ve been doing.”
To lure him away from his family, and in particular his son, Parker says he would have to be presented with something different from what he has received in the past.
While money is always a factor in any contract negotiation, Parker emphasizes that what’s more important is entering into a situation that won’t drain him emotionally.
“I’m interested in finding a team that offers good pay, but also a place where I feel comfortable,” he acknowledges.
“I wasn’t comfortable in Morocco, and I started to lose my love for the game because I was distracted by having to deal with the business side of things.”
Perhaps the days of Parker lacing up his sneakers as a professional basketball player are dwindling, and while there are many who actively want to see the phenom continue his playing career, the reality is that he has already begun to think about the next chapter of his story.
“Ideally, I would be a head coach somewhere, whether that is in high school or junior college. I’m also open to being an assistant coach for a team overseas,” Parker says.
“Basketball has always been in my blood, and I can’t see that ever changing.” QS
To follow CJ Parker’s pro basketball journey, check out his IG!
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