On a crisp, gray morning the Sunday before Easter, Smush Parker is standing on the corner of Utica Avenue and Beverly Road in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, with his hand out. A decade removed from a five-year NBA career that included a starting role on two Lakers playoff-bound teams, Parker isn't delivering a fist pump to Jack Nicholson this morning. Instead, he's playing the role of a greeter as churchgoers arrive for services.
Parker, 36, offers a smile and handshakes to the gathering "covenant partners" at the ministry. He's wearing round sunglasses, neat slacks and a black shemagh rising from the neck of his tan, seemingly brand-new, three-quarter-length coat.
"I'm the pastor's armor-bearer," Parker says, walking back toward the corner after greeting an older woman with a hug. "I'm security for him, and I greet people outside to make sure people are ready to be ministered to."
The R.O.C.K. Brooklyn occupies the entire second floor of a commercial building above a daycare center. Inside the chapel, introductions include a dance team, an ensemble of singers and what a first-time visitor to this congregation might best describe as a hype man. The floor shakes with pride and praise as the young pastor, Louis Straker Jr., finally emerges to the tune of The Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius," the song best known for backing the Michael Jordan-era Bulls' pregame intros. Parker positions himself for duty to the ministry by taking the first seat in the first row.
Services like this and weeknight Bible study classes here are where William "Smush" Parker, who made the nearly impossible trek from the caged courts at West 4th Street in New York City to the starting lineup of one of professional sports' greatest franchises, hangs out.
Parker is something of an NYC basketball legend for making the NBA despite playing just three years of organized ball prior. But in NBA circles, he's probably most widely known for a public feud with Kobe Bryant years after they'd stopped being teammates. Parker has found peace with his youthful decisions and public perception in the wake of coarse comments by a legend who said of him, "He shouldn't have been in the NBA."
"Hearing the word and having the Holy Spirit working inside me brought me back here every week," Parker says. "In fact, it got me through the week.
"I feel myself growing every day, and [I'm] at peace with some things that I was angry, hurt and bitter about."
Growing up, Parker says his father, William "Bill" Henry Parker II, was his best friend. A longtime Amtrak employee and an active playground player himself, Bill taught Smush the fundamentals. His mother, Robin Royal Parker, gave him the nickname "Smush," a term of endearment that roughly translated for her to "something to cuddle." When Smush was 9, Robin died of AIDS after he says she received a contaminated blood transfusion.
"My dad remarried when I was 13, and that transition wasn't the most pleasant for me," Parker says now. "I held on to a lot of hurt and pain from childhood without that mom figure that I was looking for."
Despite flashing a hot temper that came with a heavy heart, Parker earned a reputation as one of the top young ballplayers in New York City thanks to a regular series of impressive performances against grown men in games at the famed West 4th Street courts. Rodney Parker—the late basketball guru immortalized as the quintessential street agent in Rick Telander's book about playground basketball in NYC, Heaven Is a Playground—had a plan to get Smush on track.
"My junior high had a ninth grade, and then Rodney told me that the high school I went to for 10th grade was too small," Smush says. "So he called in connections and got me an address in Queens so that I could go to Newtown, who was a powerhouse then."
Parker still didn't have the grades to play in 11th grade, but he joined the Aim High AAU program run by Vince Smith, the brother of NBA champion Kenny Smith, competing with the team in Las Vegas and Paris before he'd ever played in a high school game. With Rodney's help, Parker attended the famous ABCD Camp and impressed those watching with his mastery of the basics, eschewing streetball tricks.
"Smush had an old-school feel for the game compared to other inner-city high school kids," remembers Roy Beekman, then an Aim High coaching staff member and longtime college assistant. "He knew he didn't have to be flashy to get the job done."
While at Newtown, Rodney also arranged for Parker to appear as a nameless model in an advertising campaign for Nautica clothing, including a giant billboard on Houston Street and Broadway. His photo appeared in SLAM magazine and Sports Illustrated. In Parker's one season of high school ball, his senior year, Newtown reached the city quarterfinals with Smush averaging 20 points per game for a team that also saw fellow future NBA player Charlie Villanueva pitch in a bit as a freshman.
After a year in junior college at Southern Idaho, Parker returned to New York to play at Fordham, led by ex-NBA head coach Bob Hill. After sitting another year for academic reasons, Parker averaged 16.5 points and 4.5 assists per game for a team that went 8-20 in 2000-01.
Parker completed the journey from West 4th to the NBA when he earned a spot on the last Cleveland Cavaliers team of the pre-LeBron James era. An undrafted rookie, he played in 66 games, averaging 6.2 points and 2.5 assists for a team that was built to lose. Despite flashing some of the raw ability he'd been touted for, Parker found himself out of the NBA the next season.
"I was in veterans camp with the Atlanta Hawks, and Dominique Wilkins called my agent saying that there's no way I don't make this team," Parker says. "But someone got injured, and the team couldn't cut him while he was hurt, and that cost me my spot."
The next few years Parker became something of a hoops nomad. He went to Idaho and played in the CBA for NBA veteran Larry Krystkowiak, who ran the triangle offense. Then it was on to Greece, where he won a championship. He had abbreviated stints with the Phoenix Suns and the then-defending champion Detroit Pistons the next season—checking into the game just as the "Malice at The Palace" ensued. "I had the ball and was mad I didn't get to play," Parker says with a laugh.
He also played in the NBA's D-League (now G League) that year, recording the developmental league's first-ever triple-double. By the summer of 2005, Parker caught on with the Lakers.
"In preseason, [then-head coach] Phil Jackson never called me 'Smush,' but he called me everything else—'Smash,' 'Smooch' and 'Spat,'" Parker remembers. "I didn't know if I'd get cut or not, but I was still on the roster opening night, waiting for the 'Can we see you in our office?' call. Right before the game on opening night, he came up to me and said, 'Oh yeah, Smush, you're starting.'"
Parker scored 20 points or better in three of the first four games and started every contest thereafter in the 2005-06 season. He lived in Santa Monica and says he kept to himself, passing his time off the court by taking in standup comedy and going to the 17,000 member City of Refuge church.
"If you know me, I'm quiet and observant," Parker says. "I go to Washington Square Park just to people-watch. I'm not very outspoken or forward in making friendships, so I didn't really build any relationships, but there were cool guys on the team like Brian Cook, Luke Walton and Lamar Odom; he went out of his way to bring me into his entourage because I was from New York."
The Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs in both of Parker's years there, and he says that while he and Bryant never got close, they also never had a problem.
"There was really no interaction between us at all," Parker remembers. "We didn't have a relationship outside of the locker room or even in it, but when I put on that Laker uniform, we were teammates, and I believe that he thought the same thing. We had a lot of good basketball moments because I believe we played a lot of good basketball together. He's Kobe Bryant, a Hall of Famer. He did the majority of the work. ... Me and Kobe had a lot of special moments in the backcourt. In the Phoenix Suns playoff game, I hit a three to put us down two and stole the ball from Steve Nash, saved it from going out and Kobe came down and hit a layup to put it into overtime. He embraced me after that play, which was special for me."
When Parker's L.A. story ended, he signed with Miami but was out of the NBA altogether by the end of the 2007-08 season. He moved on to playing stints in China, Russia, Greece, Iran, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Croatia, Tunisia and Mongolia.
Eventually, he made his way back to New York, and outside the West 4th Street cage, he did an interview in 2009 in which he revealed what he really thought of his time with the Lakers and the often hard-to-please Bryant.
"Playing with the Lakers was an overrated experience," Parker said. "Phil Jackson was great. I don't care what the media says. They said I had a problem with Phil Jackson, but the problem was never with Phil Jackson. It was with your boy, 24. Formerly known as KB, Kobe Bryant."
Despite getting along just fine on the court, Parker always felt Bryant could have done more to motivate that particular Lakers group. Although Parker had complimented Bryant in previous interviews, he took this particular occasion to voice his bottled-up displeasure. He didn't hold back.
"The reason why I say overrated is because everybody thinks that playing with Kobe Bryant is the best thing since sliced bread, when it's not," Parker added.
His comments ignited a war of words that Parker largely has been on the losing side of. He criticized Kobe as a ball hog who broke from the triangle at will and said that the five-time NBA champion was aloof and cold toward teammates. Parker said he eventually stopped passing Bryant the ball.
Kobe's response came in October 2012 prior to an exhibition game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
"I tell Steve [Nash], you won MVP, but I was playing with Smush Parker," Bryant told reporters. "He's playing with [Leandro] Barbosa. I'm playing with Smush and Kwame [Brown]. My goodness. ... Smush Parker was the worst. He shouldn't have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard. We let him walk on."
There was more sniping after that, but it eventually cooled down. Kobe, through his foundation, declined comment for this story.
This past winter, Parker and fellow NBA alum Jamario Moon led a revival of the famous Albany Patroons minor league franchise in the upstart North American Premier Basketball league. But with the team in first place and the playoffs looming, Parker left suddenly and returned to the city, citing instability in the new circuit. Parker attended the Big 3 combine but went undrafted for a second straight year.
"I think he got jerked, to be honest with you," says actor and podcast host Michael Rapaport, who has served as a sideline reporter for the Big 3. "Last year, he was talked about as being the most ready to play, and I was disappointed he didn't get picked up."
Parker knows his playing days are numbered. Aside from frequenting The R.O.C.K., he stays involved with the Police Athletic League as a guest speaker, encouraging kids to focus on school. He's started a small clothing line, Smush Parker Elite, selling caps and T-shirts via social media. His 6-year-old daughter lives in California but spends summers with him in New York. He says he'd maybe like to be an NBA referee one day or possibly a player development coach. Despite the growth he sees in himself, internet trolls still haunt the legacy of his five seasons in the NBA.
"This might not ever happen, but in a perfect world, if Kobe would just say something like he might have said something [about me] out of anger and he didn't really mean those things about me being the worst point guard in the NBA," Parker says earnestly. "I really can't believe that the two seasons that I played with him, with the numbers that I put up and moments that we had, that he really felt like I was the worst point guard in the NBA."
"If he could say something like that, it would really mean the world to me," Parker says, laughing at the notion of being issued an apology. "I get a lot of whiplash for being the guy who said something about Kobe Bryant."
Parker and Kobe haven't spoken in years. But last Christmas, Parker reached out to Kobe's foundation, requesting that a photo be autographed for Pastor Straker. Aside from using "Sirius" as his intro music, the pastor regularly works basketball references into his sermon. To Parker's delight, the photo and the ball came back signed.
"I didn't talk to him directly, but I'm pretty sure he knew it was me because I put a little letter in there thanking him and apologizing actually," Parker says. "I said, very briefly: 'For what it's worth, I apologize for things said or done in the past. Young mind, young thoughts, young actions.' And that's where I left it."
Matt Caputo is a former editor at SLAM magazine and has written for the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Maxim and Muscle & Fitness among many others. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @mattcaputo.