NEW YORK — Here is a list of things Jabari Parker likes to do during his free time:
Go to the zoo. Museums, too, but the zoo, according to his father Sonny Parker, is his favorite away-from-basketball activity. He also loves watching cartoons. And scaring people, as in he'll hide in a closet, wait for someone to walk by and then jump out and yell. "He's just a big kid at heart," Sonny said.
But that kid is also an old soul, one who loves old-school R&B music, and old-school cars, and especially old-school R&B music in old-school cars. John Henson, Parker's longtime Milwaukee Bucks teammate, laughs when recalling the time last year when Parker drove him from a restaurant to a bar in his black 1967 Lincoln Continental while blasting R&B music out of the car's speakers.
"That's very much JP for you," Henson said.
Parker, though, has no interest in revealing that side of himself—at least that's what he said on this cold February afternoon while sitting on a couch in the lobby of a swanky downtown Manhattan hotel. He said he's open to all questions, but his repeatedly vague answers—deployed, he said, purposely—paint a different picture.
Part of that, no doubt, is frustration with the predictable line of questioning. Parker, the second player taken in the 2014 draft, recently returned to the court for the first time since last February, the result of his second torn ACL. Just 22 years old, he's already missed 145 games in less than four seasons, meaning he's spent way too much time talking about his injuries and his rehab—and how the whole process can grow repetitive.
And so anything you expect an athlete to say upon returning from a major injury is exactly how Parker described the ordeal and his current state of mind: "I just look forward to being on the court and getting that feeling of adrenaline," and "I got to redeem myself, regain that trust from teammates and coaches," and "I've been through a lot and right now I'm pretty grateful for having the opportunity to better myself."
His rehab, he said, was about focusing on the day-to-day. The mental part was often more difficult than the physical. There were times when he found himself thinking about life without basketball—only to realize that such a life was not one he wanted.
On the day of this interview, he spoke softly and looked at his knees when he talked. When he finished with a thought, he raised his dark eyes to make clear he was done. When asked why—after years of speaking freely, on topics from basketball to religion (he's a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) to Chicago's ongoing violence epidemic—he suddenly felt the need to build a wall between himself and the public, he said, "Because no matter what you give strangers, they're never going to understand you. It's just, like, not putting yourself out there too much for people who don't even care about you."
This isn't how Parker always felt.
He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where he starred for local powerhouse Simeon Career Academy. There, he was named the 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year, which earned him a spot on the Duke basketball team. There, he was named a first-team All-American, which propelled him up NBA draft boards.
He was drafted by the Bucks. His build (6'8", 250 pounds) and game (silky jumper, crafty feel) reminded scouts of a younger and bouncier Carmelo Anthony. The plan was for Parker to play the role of franchise savior, a position now filled by Giannis Antetokounmpo. That plan was derailed by injuries, leaving Parker at a prematurely pivotal point in his career.
If not for the lure of the NBA, he'd be in just his first year out of college. Instead, he's now months away from entering NBA free agency for the first time.
Instead, he's now a 22-year-old kid being asked to show, and prove, that his best days aren't behind him.
Except that's not how Parker sees it. He hates that his body's failed him on multiple occasions, but he said, "I've learned so much in the span of four years, it's amazing. I used to look far out at stuff—at the future—at stuff that wasn't in my control. Now I'm all about focusing on the present moments."
That means relishing his current role coming off the bench. He's played in four games—the Bucks have won three of them, improving to 8-2 since firing head coach Jason Kidd—and is averaging a strong 9.3 points in 17.8 minutes a game. He's done so by endearing himself to teammates. By doing whatever the team needs and not forcing the action one-on-one. By, he said, understanding the difference between deserved and earned and how "saying I worked so hard I earned this makes more sense than saying I deserve it."
Pushed for an example, Parker demurred. "What have I earned?" he asked. "Nothing now. We're at ground zero. I haven't earned anything, so it's exciting to see where we're going to go."
Which is one way to look at it, though that would seem to unfairly discount all the success he had before entering the NBA and the platform that gave him. Then again, perhaps Parker is no longer interested in being that former outspoken version of himself.
"One of my big things two years ago was social progress and I can try to emphasize that as much as I want, but people still won't be able to understand it," Parker said. "Because they lack knowledge, they lack experience, and they have to experience it for themselves. It doesn't matter how good I am, people who don't know me, they still hold their guard up around me because I'm a tall black guy and there are some things you can't get away from."
Asked to elaborate, he once again let his guard down.
"It's just, like, tiresome," Parker said. "I don't want to keep repeating myself. It's not like I'm not going to fight the good fight, but you have to know when it's a good time. It's a constant frustration when you don't see things going the right way."
As a result, he said, he's wary of reporters. He's been "burned" and fears their ability to control and, if they choose, manipulate his quotes. But that can't be all that's caused a player who's authored five Players' Tribune pieces to clam up. There has to be something deeper, something, perhaps, that Parker will decide to reveal at a different time.
What's his message for now?
"People are constantly changing," he said. "They use you for temporary happiness. So you just have to be yourself."