Staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror on the morning of Nov. 4, Jabari Parker admired his shaggy afro. Each millimeter of hair signified another excruciating wall squat, another sleepless night because of swelling in his knee, and another frustrating game spent in a suit during what many expected to be his Rookie of the Year campaign.
When Parker planted awkwardly attempting a layup in a road meeting between his Bucks and the Suns last December, he knew immediately that something was wrong. He heard that dreaded popping sound and collapsed immediately to the ground, grimacing in pain. Other than a broken foot that had forced him to miss time during his senior year of high school, the Chicago native had enjoyed a remarkably healthy playing career to that point. Now he’d torn his ACL, and the road ahead had become hazy.
With surgery and nearly a year of ensuing rehabilitation laid out in front of him, Parker knew he’d need some extra motivation to get through what he’d been told was an extremely frustrating and mentally taxing process. That’s when he decided he wasn’t going to cut his hair until he was back on the court.
“The idea was about growth,” Parker said. “Every time I looked in the mirror, I could see the stages of progress I was making by seeing the length of my hair. It reminded me that the grind isn’t always pretty at times, and it just tells me where I’ve been and where I’m trying to go.”
Parker’s path had been clear for a long time. The son of former Golden State Warrior Sonny Parker, Jabari was immersed in the game from an early age, playing in youth leagues organized by his father throughout the Chicago area. Basketball came naturally to Parker, who made his school’s eighth grade team as a fourth grader and by age 10 had already received five scholarship offers from Division I schools.
In 2009, a then 6-foot-4 Parker enrolled at Simeon High School, the alma mater of 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, where he became the first freshman in school history to start on the varsity team. In four years at Simeon, he led the school to a 118-15 record and four consecutive state championships.
Parker committed to Duke in December of his senior year, enrolling in the Fall of 2013 and scoring 22 points in his first game with the Blue Devils. In 35 games, he set Duke’s freshman scoring record, averaging 19.1 points to go along with 8.7 rebounds per game en route to consensus First-team All-American honors. He declared for the NBA Draft in April of 2014 and two months later was selected second-overall by Milwaukee.
He was considered by many experts to be one of the most NBA-ready rookies in recent memory, and Parker entered the season as the front-runner to be named the top newcomer. In 25 games before his injury, the 6-foot-8 forward averaged a rookie-best 12.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting. In November, he’d been named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month and averaging a cool 13.4 points on 57 percent shooting in December he looked likely to repeat.
The injury he suffered on Dec. 15 was undoubtedly the toughest challenge of Parker’s career. Since the first time he’d picked up a ball as a kid, he was the biggest, the strongest, the quickest, and the most skilled. But now he couldn’t get on the floor at all.
Sometimes when he was feeling down, he’d make the two-hour drive down I-94 to visit his hometown. The support he received from family and friends during those trips helped keep him on track, but sometimes he’d take time to just ride alone through his old neighborhood and soak in the nostalgia.
“It was really fortunate, because I knew that I had a safe haven 90 miles south of me,” he said. “Every time I needed to remind myself how I grew up or how far I’ve come, I’d just drive down.”
“It’s going to give me just that extra boost moving forward in my career, because I’ve been through a lot. Now I’m just trying to leave that past behind me and have a fresh start.”
Growing up in Chicago in the 2000s, Parker loved two things: basketball and hip hop. And the latter influenced his sense of style quite a bit. He remembers vividly when one of his favorite artists, Jay Z, grew his hair out in 2009. And while Hov’s natural look was rather tame in comparison to the one Parker recently wore, the message was clear.
“It told male and female African Americans that they didn’t need to fit the mold of society in terms of their appearance,” Parker said. “That you should grow your hair out, naturally the way it’s made, because you can’t change that so you should appreciate it.
“You see more kids now growing their hair out naturally and being proud of the things they’re born with. And I’m glad that trend has taken off and that people are more comfortable being in their own skin.”
For Parker, growing out his hair wasn’t only about giving himself extra juice on his long road to recovery. It was also about trying to send a message the same way Jay Z and other people he’d admired growing up had. But as his return to the court drew closer, he knew he’d have to complete the cycle and ditch the hair.
The 20-year-old woke up on Nov. 4 feeling equal parts anxious and excited. It was the day he and team doctors had circled for his sophomore debut, and as he left his house that morning he took one last glance at his hair in the mirror before driving to the Bucks’ practice facility.
After morning shoot-around, he was met by local barber Kenny Lock, who sat Parker down in a chair, draped a black cape over his chest, and went to work on the unruly hair. Large clumps began to fall at Parker’s feet, carrying with them the weight of nearly 11 months of grueling workouts, demanding physical therapy sessions, disappointment, frustration, and self-doubt.
Parker is working his way back from the injury cautiously, slowly building up his endurance and regaining strength. On Saturday, he played 30 minutes in a game for the first time this season, also reaching double-figure points for the first time. He’s not quite back to where he was physically when he suffered the injury, but he thinks the experience has made him stronger mentally.
“It certainly makes me a lot more appreciative of what I have,” he said. “It’s going to give me just that extra boost moving forward in my career, because I’ve been through a lot. Now I’m just trying to leave that past behind me and have a fresh start.”
The physical manifestation of Jabari Parker’s maturation may be gone, but the young forward is just in the infancy of his professional growth.