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.