Past Imperfect: Richie Parker’s 15 Minutes of InfamyPosted by JWeill on December 29th, 2011
Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the saga of New York City prep star and convicted felon Richie Parker.
There was never any middle ground when it came to Richie Parker. Either he was a criminal, a thug who represented everything wrong with the college game – that “win at all costs” mentality – or he was a kid who made a mistake he was overpaying for, a victim of a system rigged to punish and punish again a repentant man, no, a kid because of intense media pressure and political pressure and just flat out pressure.
So which was it? Was he trouble, a felon who shouldn’t be given chances that wouldn’t have been afforded a kid who couldn’t run, dunk and shoot a basketball like he could, or was he the quiet kid without a speck of bad behavior before who lost his senses for fifteen minutes on Jan. 13, 1995, in a high school stairwell when he and a friend intimidated a freshman classmate into performing oral sex?
Or could he be both? Or neither? Everyone had an opinion.
Tabloids put the story on the cover and sports talk shows had a field day. Women penned editorials detailing their own stories of rape and abuse to show that no matter how repentant Parker was he would never have to suffer the lifelong fate of his victim. Some spoke movingly of second chances and of the mistakes they’d made. Women’s groups around the country mobilized. The victim’s family eventually publicly forgave him. Everyone had a stake, and everyone had firm convictions. And caught in the middle was Parker: 6’5”, athletic, shy, the eye of a storm all about him.
In June, Parker apologized to his victim, pleaded guilty to felony sexual abuse and was sentenced to five years probation and counseling, but that did nothing to quell the furor. Far from it. Now he was officially a felon. The school he’d accepted a scholarship promise from, Seton Hall, reneged on its offer under pressure. Wouldn’t be the right message to send, its president said. George Washington University, whose progressive and creative president offered a scholarship to both Parker and the victim, eventually also caved to intense dissatisfaction from alumni, trustees and student groups outraged by the possibility of a sex offender gaining admittance to their institution. Utah and Oral Roberts and Fresno State and Southern Cal backed off even sooner, the moment administration officials were tipped off of their coaches’ interest in Parker, usually by tabloid reporters like Barry Baum of the New York Post, who made his name breaking Parker stories that year. People lost jobs over Richie Parker.
Ultimately, there were no basketball options left for him after his plea deal. No administration was willing to have its reputation sullied in the press for admitting the radioactive Parker. And the press kept finding out who was interested and with a single phone call would end that interest immediately: ‘Did you know your coaches are recruiting a sex felon?’ Parker’s mother, Rosita, suffered chest pains from all the stress. Parker simply kept staring at his shoes, his once bright future vanishing before him because of those impulsive, those irrational, 15 minutes in the stairwell, a quiet kid now retreating further into his shell.
Rob Standifer, the coach at Mesa Community College in Arizona, took a chance on Parker. But while Parker flew out west, Mesa athletic department and administration officials learned about him at the last minute and balked. Standifer was forced to resign. The school did allow Parker to matriculate but he couldn’t play ball. But after everything he’d been through, that was OK with Parker. Out there, far away from the turmoil of the city he’d been a basketball star in, he could work on his grades and keep in shape, all with the faint hope that someday he would get the chance to play college basketball, other than the NBA the only thing he’d ever really wanted.
Two weeks before the fall semester of 1996, Parker got the call he had been waiting for. It took a leap of faith from Gale Stevens Haynes, the provost at Long Island University in Brooklyn, to break the shell around Parker. A mother of three teen daughters and a woman of color, Stevens Haynes offered the disgraced prep star a scholarship, providing his academics were in order. Stevens Haynes saw her school’s mission as, in part, offering a chance to better oneself regardless of past digressions, to allow those who have accepted their role in misdeeds to atone for them. In Parker, Stevens Haynes saw not a predator but another young African-American man on the verge. Without basketball, where would he be in a year or two? On a street corner? In jail? Without the chance to pursue his education – something he had clearly shown his desire to do by traveling to Arizona without basketball as an option – what chance would Richie Parker have in life?
A chastened Parker hand-delivered his application and transcripts to downtown Brooklyn to assure they arrived on time. He was accepted.
“I’m going to be just like every other student trying to earn my degree,” Parker said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to go to school and take care of my responsibilities. I’ve learned that I have to respect everybody.”
Parker joined coach Ray Haskins’ basketball team in the fall of 1996. Haskins, a longtime Brooklyn high school coach, had a good team already. Mostly he had Rutgers transfer Charles Jones, a slashing scorer who had led the Scarlet Knights in scoring as a freshman before transferring home to Brooklyn. Now, with Parker, Haskins had a rarity in the off-the-radar Northeast Conference – two high Division I talents. Jones would go on to lead the nation in scoring, over 30 points a game.
In his collegiate debut – a moment Parker that had questioned so many times would ever even happen – LIU stunned St. Johns in Alumni Hall, rocking the city’s basketball watchers. For Parker, who had gotten so much attention for those 15 minutes in the stairwell years ago, it was the beginning of his redemption, not as a basketball player, but as a man. Suddenly freed from the shackles of public opinion, Parker flourished with the Blackbirds. With Parker providing the glue and Jones the star power – in effect sucking the spotlight away from Parker and his past – the Blackbirds found a groove.
”Richie made all of the guys on this team become friends because they were all protective of him,” Haskins told the New York Times.
Long Island led the nation in scoring at over 92 points a game that season, using its combination of Jones and Parker to run and run and run over and past teams. They beat Medgar Evers College 179-62, then an NCAA record. Their run-and-gun offense led them to 21 wins in 29 games, and all the way to the conference final and a chance at an NCAA tournament berth, the school’s first in 13 years.
In the waning moments of the game, Jones’ behind the back dribble, crossover and scoop bucket put LIU up three. Monmouth had one last shot, but it caromed off the rim. The rebound came to Parker, who grabbed it with six seconds left and was fouled. Now, the kid who almost never made it to college, the radioactive recruit, stepped to the free throw line with a chance to ice the game and give his new school, his place of salvation, a trip to the NCAAs. Despite missing his first three attempts at the line that day, both of Parker’s free throws now found the net, and the release began. Parker, the shy kid, beamed a wide smile.
Long Island’s trip to the Big Dance was short. A first-round loss to Villanova, 101-91, ended the Blackbirds’ season. But the journey for Richie Parker – from New York City to Arizona and back again and yet so much farther than that – had been unimaginably long. He had a life again, providing he kept his nose clean and never again let temptation overcome him. And he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. It would have let so many people down, people like Gale Stevens Haynes who had given him a chance when no one else would. Parker would never disgrace LIU, his new home, by proving the tabloids had been right about him.
Though he would finish as LIU’s fifth all-time scorer and complete his degree, Parker would never be an NBA star. Parker’s professional basketball career would send him to offbeat locales like Atlantic City of the USBL instead of the Knicks or the Nets. The closest Parker came to the NBA was appearing in some basketball shoe commercials directed by Spike Lee guarding Ray Allen. But it seemed life held different choices for Parker. That he had choices at all was something remarkable.
In the early 2000s, his pro dreams done, Parker became involved in mentoring programs for New York teens and dreamed of coaching someday. In 2005, Parker took a job at his alma mater, becoming the schools’ Assistant Director of Student Activities. Was it redemption? Maybe. Or maybe it was just what a man who has been saved does to be a part of the school that gave him new life.
Parker isn’t a hero, and he wasn’t innocent. He admitted as much. Whether he really deserved the second chance he got remains an open question. Some will say yes, others, ‘No way.’ As it always was with Richie Parker, everyone has an opinion.