Former NBA Veteran Cherokee Parks Finds Second Life in League Office

LAS VEGAS -- Cherokee Parks could hardly hide if he wanted to. Even at the G League Winter Showcase—where NBA players past, present and future stalk the halls of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center—he towers above most, his 6’11” frame barely bent by the 15 years that have passed since he last suited up for the Golden State Warriors.

And even in Las Vegas, where colorful characters abound, the tattoos that peek through his red flannel button-up and blue jeans—most evidently, the “True” on his right hand and “Grit” on his left, one letter per knuckle—cause more than the occasional head to turn.

If you're getting a bunch of tats and you're 18,” he tells CloseUp360 in late December, “just make sure it's something you like because it's still going to be there at 50.”

Cherokee isn’t quite 50 yet, but at 46, he’s easily the oldest of the 10 graduates from the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associate Program so far. "Chief," as friends and colleagues call him, is also the tallest and, perhaps, friendliest project officer in elite youth development at the league office in New York City, from which post he’s deployed to provide life skills programming to NBA players, G Leaguers and members of USA Basketball’s junior national team.

“If there's such a thing as a very tall poster child, he's it,” former WNBA player Jamila Wideman, the NBA’s vice president of player development and Cherokee’s co-worker, tells CloseUp360. “He came in, took the opportunity and really, quite frankly, I would love him to talk to anybody else who comes in the future, because it's the way he approached the program and the energy, the willingness to ask questions all the time, to really reach out to everybody on our team.”

That glowing report might come as some surprise to those who knew Cherokee during his eight-plus years lurching through the league as a role player on seven different teams. But middling students often make great teachers, and Cherokee has plenty of life lessons to share.

Cherokee

Cherokee Parks at the G League Winter Showcase in Las Vegas. (Josh Martin)

As a player, Cherokee was recognizable both for his tattoos and his headband. Nowadays, he wears many hats—more figurative than literal. When he’s not hustling around NBA headquarters inside Olympic Tower in midtown Manhattan, he can typically be found either at major basketball events, from All-Star Weekend and summer league to the combine and the draft, or checking in with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers as the league’s representative to those teams.

In Vegas, Chief splits his time between the Winter Showcase and the Tarkanian Classic, a sprawling high school basketball extravaganza that, on the first official Friday of winter, has taken over Bishop Gorman High School. In the main gym, he greets Nicol Mobley, the mother of Rancho Christian School (Temecula, Calif.) standouts Isaiah and Evan Mobley, both of whom will play college basketball at USC and are firmly in Team USA’s pipeline. In the side gym, he consoles Richard Isaacs, who shares his ill feelings with the officials while watching his son, Richard Isaacs Jr., compete for Coronado High School (Henderson, Nev.).

Here, Cherokee is providing touch points for the parents of kids who appear primed to rise through basketball’s ranks—and may benefit from the information pertaining to off-the-court development that he’s there to offer.

“You just don't cold call 15-year-old kids and just roll up on them, you know what I mean?” Cherokee explains. “You talk to the parents and we start to develop a relationship with the parents to help them better understand, because all these parents are super involved with what their players are going through. That's what we do. And just kind of open up that conversation and understand that they have resources available to them.”

Cherokee Parks Tarkanian Classic Nicol Mobley

Cherokee greets Nicol Mobley during the Tarkanian Classic at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. (Josh Martin)

None of this was available to Cherokee when he was coming up in Huntington Beach, California. Nor was it quite so necessary for a prospect of his (or any) stature to get that kind of guidance back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, social media wasn’t even a twinkle in the nascent internet’s eye. Teams from prep academies didn’t criss-cross the country for tournaments and showcases. The spring and summer AAU scene had yet to be subsumed by shoe conglomerates and spun into competing circuits. And overseas leagues had barely opened up as paths to the NBA for international players, let alone American teenagers seeking alternatives to the NCAA.

“We just played. That was it,” Cherokee says. “You tried to get into college. You tried to get yourself a scholarship and pass a SAT. That was the thing. If you couldn't pass your SAT, you had to go to JUCO for two years to get into college. That was the landscape.”

Cherokee would’ve hardly had time to consider other paths before he burst onto the scene. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 14, and only because people around him figured he’d be a better fit for that sport than baseball, thanks to his height. Rather than racking up road miles playing travel ball, he found joy in competing at Issy Washington’s Slam-N-Jam basketball tournaments and Rich Goldberg’s American Roundball Corporation (ARC) league events around Southern California.

At Marina High School, Cherokee emerged as an efficient finisher and imposing presence in the middle. From a regional scene that featured future pros like Tracy Murray, Bryon Russell, Tyus Edney and Adonis Jordan, Cherokee was the one chosen to appear alongside Northern California phenom Jason Kidd on the cover of Cal-Hi Sports in November 1990—with both wearing cowboy hats, no less.

Cherokee’s talent earned him a basketball scholarship to Duke, where he won a national championship as a freshman in 1992 and took in the now-legendary wisdom of head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“What jumps way out front is just passion for what you do,” Cherokee says of the lessons he learned from Coach K, “and the importance of everything that you're doing within that moment.”

Cherokee Parks Jason Kidd

Cherokee and Jason Kidd on the cover of Cal-Hi Sports magazine in November 1990. (Courtesy of Cherokee Parks)

After returning to Mandalay Bay from the Tarkanian Classic, Chief peels off for team awareness meetings with some of the G League squads in attendance. Each club will attend three such sessions—which touch on everything from respect among players, to diversity and inclusion, to mental health and wellness—over the course of the four-day showcase.

“In a business, that's just what you do. That's how you network and you develop mentors,” Cherokee says. “If you're in that position, that's how you grow in your field. That's part of whatever job you do—is not only being really good at your job to advance, but there's a way to advance.”

Cherokee never quite got that off-the-court grounding during his playing days that he’s now responsible for dispensing. Back when he competed, the NBA wasn’t so corporate, and he wasn’t so interested in anything the league had to offer off the court.

After four years at Duke, Cherokee emerged as the No. 12 overall pick of the Dallas Mavericks in the 1995 NBA draft—ahead of future All-Stars like Michael Finley and Theo Ratliff, and productive pros in Brent Barry, Greg Ostertag and Fred Hoiberg.

The 1995 lockout, which ate up much of that summer before ending prior to the 1995-96 season, infringed on Cherokee’s development into a pro. So did the 1998-99 lockout, which reduced that campaign to 50 games and wiped out All-Star Weekend.

In between, Cherokee posted what would be his best year in the NBA: a modest 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as a part-time starter with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I just had a tendency to fall into the groove of a role player and not see myself as anything more, and that's not the right attitude,” he says. “You always have to see yourself as something better.”

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 30:  Cherokee Parks #44 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks past Mike Miller #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the NBA game at Staples Center on March 30, 2003 in Los Angeles, California.  The Clippers won 102-100.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement Mandatory Copyright Notice:  Copyright 2003 NBAE  (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cherokee, a Los Angeles Clipper for the second time in 2003, dunks past Mike Miller of the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cherokee never strayed far from his lane on the court during his eight-plus years in the league. While battling the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning in the low post, he fought his own inner demons.

“I was going through a bunch of depression when I was playing,” he says, “and at that point, figuring that basketball was the root of it, it just becomes a chore.”

So Cherokee did what was asked of him and not much more. He showed up to practices and games, put himself through the motions and went home. There was little extra work to build up his body or develop his on-court skills, let alone explore alternative career paths in basketball.

“I wasn't thinking about the game like that,” he says. “Being the best I could be on the court wasn't even there, so just thinking about anything off of that was just not part of it.”

Though Cherokee didn’t care to delve into the business of basketball at the time, he was nonetheless exposed to every aspect of it. He played for eight teams, lived through two work stoppages, was part of three trades, went through free agency four times and was waived or released twice. Those experience showed him what it meant to be a commodity in a game he’d come to love.

By the time the Warriors sent him packing in December 2003, Cherokee was ready to move on.

“You're in something that's very high profile and a lot of times very physical,” he says. “If you're not fully engaged in that, that's tough. It's just tough. It was just that.

“A good nine years just goes by in a heartbeat. I just quit and rolled out.”

Cherokee Parks

Cherokee attends to some business over lunch at the Winter Showcase. (Josh Martin)

As much as Chief enjoys his work in off-the-court player development, in all its facets and across all its levels, he seems positively giddy about the exposure to operations of other departments that his role with the NBA affords. While touring around the grounds of the Winter Showcase inside the Convention Center, he admires the effort and coordination required to erect the makeshift arenas, practice courts, dining halls and staging areas through which players, coaches, scouts, executives, agents and media members are milling about.

“You get to see everybody's different responsibilities that they have with each one of these events, because I do multiple things,” he says. “So you understand the position, but then understand what that position does with each one of these different events.”

Cherokee got a feel for the rewards and rigors of event production after he left the NBA.

Once Golden State cut him, he returned to Huntington Beach to close out 2003. Towards the end of 2004, he found a vacant venue near where he grew up. With some of the money he’d earned playing basketball and the energy he had left at the age of 31, Cherokee bought the place and opened up a punk rock bar he called The Brigg. There, he hosted shows for his favorite local acts, from Youth Brigade and Circle Jerks, to Shattered Faith and Electric Frankenstein, to Channel 3, D.I. and JFA—not to mention The Helm and Charlie Horse, both of which featured Cherokee’s sister, Corey, on bass guitar.

“It was really cool having a lot of bands come through and a lot of bands I grew up listening to,” he says, “but man, it's a lot of work. I could understand why people go to business school to do these things.”

Corey Parks Slash

Cherokee's sister, Corey (center), playing bass with Slash from Guns N' Roses. (Courtesy of Cherokee Parks)

Keeping The Brigg afloat proved to be a challenge for Cherokee. As much as he loved punk rock, the surrounding community wasn’t always so keen on it. He sold the bar in the fall of 2006.

After that, Cherokee hung out in his hometown for a while before finding a more fulfilling endeavor: family. In January 2008, he became a father for the third time with the birth of his daughter, Rhaetia. He fully immersed himself in parenthood, and eventually began toying with thoughts of a return to basketball. In early 2011, he pulled out a piece of paper and a pen, and jotted down a list of steps—mostly “personal details,” as he says—that, in his mind, comprised a path back in the NBA.

“You've got to have a plan,” he says. “We hear it all the time: successful people make lists and they write down all this stuff. I put that to the test with the words.”

Later that year, on Father’s Day, Cherokee got a phone call that would launch his plan into action. It was Mark Soderberg, a fellow Marina alum who had played basketball for the Vikings in the 1960s. He wanted to know if Cherokee would be interested in playing for a team in Aubenas, in southeastern France.

“I was, like, ‘Oh shit, I can actually go play? All right,’” Cherokee recalls.

That fall, he found himself in Europe—and found joy in the game again. He might not play his way into the NBA, but getting back on the court would surely jump start the completion of his personal check list.

Cherokee Parks Rhaetia

Cherokee with his daughter, Rhaetia, in France. (Maxi Basket)

But as great as Cherokee felt emotionally, by 2013, he felt “terrible” physically. He returned to California, where doctors discovered an aortic aneurysm in his heart. He underwent a procedure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, thereby cutting short his comeback. By putting him through his physical paces and agitating his heart to the point of inspection, though, the game that Cherokee once resented had, in fact, saved his life.

Less fortunate was the frequent commute he had to endure after his operation. For three months, his life revolved around the all-day affairs of shuttling between Orange County and mid-city LA for his doctor’s appointments and rehab sessions.

As soon as he was cleared to fly, he hopped on a plane to Durham, North Carolina, to complete his recovery on campus at Duke.

Beyond the lack of traffic, being back on Tobacco Road gave Cherokee a chance to reconnect with Coach K and the Blue Devils. He worked out at the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence, caught games at Cameron Indoor Stadium and basked in the basketball glory of his college days.

Then, in the winter of 2016, came another call. It was Denise Booth, the Los Angeles Clippers’ longtime vice president of community relations and player programs. She was inviting Cherokee, a two-time former Clipper, to attend legendary broadcaster Ralph Lawler’s enshrinement on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Cherokee’s rehab program prevented him from returning to LA in time, but he planned to be back in Southern California soon thereafter and asked Denise to keep extending him invites to team events.

Come the spring of 2016, he was busy rekindling his connections with the Clippers. He became a regular around the Junior Clippers, basketball camps alongside fellow former player Lamond Murray and other community functions.

In June 2016, while at the funeral of former Clippers teammate Sean Rooks, he ran into Leah Wilcox, a vice president at the NBA he’d known from his playing days. Later that year, at a meeting Denise arranged at the Clippers’ practice facility in Playa Vista, he met Alexys Feaster, a director in player development at the NBA whose cousin, former WNBA veteran Allison Feaster, had just started in the then-brand-new Basketball Operations Associate Program. Cherokee was intrigued—even more so in January 2017 when, at a Clippers event, he learned more about that pathway from former teammate Corey Maggette.

“I didn't know where I would land or how that would go,” Cherokee says. “I just knew where I wanted to be.”

That led him to the NBA’s Career Crossover program in June 2017. Alongside fellow former lottery pick Acie Law IV and former D-League (now G League) All-Star and champion Moses Ehambe, he split three months between the NBA’s player development department and the minor league, learning about where basketball would take him next.

“It's more like education 101,” he says. “You go in and just figure out exactly what you wanna do, how you can take things that you learned on the court, how you can bring those things into the office and how that works.”

All the while, Cherokee continued to make the short trek from Huntington Beach down to Newport Beach to pick Corey’s brain.

After completing the Career Crossover, Cherokee set his sights on the Associate Program. Where Corey and his cohort had done their training remotely, Cherokee’s four-person class—which included Acie and former WNBA players and fellow Duke grads Lindsey Harding and Michele Van Gorp—would get its crash at NBA headquarters in NYC.

“Now we get exposure to everything that the league does and all the different departments,” Cherokee says, the excitement in his voice rising, “from ref ops and basketball operations to analytics, to how the G League works, to how the W [WNBA] works, to global partnerships, to marketing and media and social content, how we work with the CBA, what Kiki [VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations] is doing as far as managing the teams and player adjudication, how that's going.”

Cherokee completed the program towards the end of September 2018. Around that time, the NBA was opening up new positions in player development.

Once again, his timing turned out to be fortuitous.

Cherokee's Classmates

Lindsey Harding
Philadelphia 76ers Scout

INGLEWOOD, CA - MAY 17:  Lindsey Harding #10 of the Los Angeles Sparks poses for a photo during the Los Angeles Sparks Media Day on May 17, 2013 at St. Mary's School in Inglewood, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE  (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Acie Law IV
Sacramento Kings Regional Scout

OAKLAND, CA -MARCH 16: Acie Law #2 of the Golden State Warriors dribbles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on March 16, 2011 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

Michele Van Gorp
Referee Operations

MINNEAPOLIS - AUGUST 23:  Michele Van Gorp #31 of the Minnesota Lynx reacts during the game against the Detroit Shock on August 23, 2003 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The shock won 86-77.  NOTICE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo By David Sherman/WNBAE via Getty Images)

(Photos courtesy of NBA Entertainment)

At the Winter Showcase, Chief can hardly take a single long, gliding stride—the one that helped him hang around the NBA for nearly a decade, despite his apathy at the time—without running into a friendly face.

He greets Lindsey and Michele, who now scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and work in referee operations, respectively. He trades good-natured Duke-North Carolina barbs with Jake Mendys, a former junior varsity player for the Tar Heels who’s now a referee operations lead assistant for the league. He catches up with Malik Rose, an assistant general manager for the Detroit Pistons, and Nazr Mohammed and Ayana Lawson, both of whom work in OKC’s front office.

There’s also a stop-and-chat here with Jonathan Wolf, an associate manager in the NBA’s player development department; a joke there with Toby Bailey, a former player-turned-agent; and greetings for Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Ashley Battle and Andre Barrett, the current class in the Associate Program.

“Honestly, he doesn't really walk down any hall at the NBA where every single person doesn't say hello and know him,” Jamila Wideman says. “It’s just his personality to extend himself and be incredibly generous.”

IMG_6967

Cherokee catches up with Lindsey Harding at the Winter Showcase. (Josh Martin)

Finally, Cherokee gets to sit down and watch some basketball. The Wisconsin Herd are grinding it out against the Memphis Hustle. With his two phones—one for work, one for personal use—turned face down on a black-clothed table, he takes mental notes on the size and length of Christian Wood and rookie Brandon McCoy, and marvels at the talent on display in the G League, with Donte DiVincenzo, the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player, a perfect example on the court in front of him.

But Cherokee, ever concerned with off-the-court player development, also eyes the guys on the sideline. He observes where they’re sitting on the bench and whether they’re clapping and cheering for their teammates or slumping in their seats. Are they listening attentively to their coaches or staring into daydreams? Are they in the middle of the huddles during timeouts or sequestered in their own little worlds?

“That says a lot about a guy,” he says.

Cherokee would know. He’s been in their position—maybe not in the G League, but certainly in mindset and career arc.

And while he may still struggle at times with mundane office tasks like sending out calendar invites and working efficiently in a group, when it comes to engaging the disengaged with a broader perspective, he’s already an authority beyond even what his skyscraping stature would suggest.

“Our player department is the league's investment into players having successful careers—and not only them, but their families as well,” Cherokee says. “It's extended beyond the player. It's amazing.

“To have that going as far as mental health and wellness, who does that? Life doesn't just give you those things, you know what I mean? It's just, like, here's a bunch of resources and people that want to help you and see you be the best that you can be. It’s awesome.”

Those resources may not have mattered to Cherokee when he was in the league. But now, it’s his job—and his passion—to make them matter to the next wave of future former players.

 

Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.