Counterculture kid finds right matchup at Duke


LOS ANGELES -- Cherokee Parks is part of the Woodstock Nation, second generation.

He grew up wearing tie-dyed shirts and long white robes, tagging along with his mother to see the Doobie Brothers and the Eagles in concert, listening to eight-track tapes and spending long summer days surfing at the beach.

So can this kid of the counterculture find happiness in the buttoned-down basketball world of Duke University?


Proclaimed as one of the top big men in the country in the high school class of 1991, Parks is the prime recruit of the defending men's national basketball champion Duke Blue Devils. This weekend, he has stepped onto a national stage as member of the West team participating in the U.S. Olympic Festival.

Parks is 6 feet 11, 232 pounds, a Christian Laettner-type center who has a soft touch from the outside. He averaged 28.3 points and 14.5 rebounds last season for Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., and was named to the 1991 McDonald's and Parade High School All-America first team.

Around Southern California, though, some have called Parks the next Bill Walton. It is a description that makes him cringe.

"Big white kid from Southern California, I guess that's the thing," he said. "I don't like to be compared to other people. I know that puts limits on a person trying to live up to other standards."

Parks fits few stereotypes. His light brown hair is cut like a mop, short on the sides and long on top, frequently dropping below his eyes. Asked whether he was the valedictorian at his school, Parks smiled and said, "I'm the tallest in my class, I guess."

He's not stuck in some time warp. His mother long since has dumped the eight-tracks for CDs and the Doobie Brothers for country music. Parks prefers to listen to the Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion.

He was named by his father, Larry, whose ancestors include Cherokees. His parents were separated when he was 3, and Parks was raised by his mother, Debe, a self-described hippie.

"Those old TV movies of the week, that was me totally," she said. "I was so organic it was obnoxious.

Barefoot. Vegetarian. Health conscious. Tapestries hanging on the wall. A couple of times I felt like packing up the kids and moving to a commune. But my conservative streak came through."

Debe Parks, who is a sales representative for an air conditioning company, encouraged her son to play basketball. Cherokee was 6-9 in the eighth grade and began playing the sport seriously in the ninth grade. College recruiters began circling him almost immediately.

Debe Parks was ready. She ordered an NCAA manual and read it cover to cover. She also read the book "Raw Recruits," an investigative account of the basketball recruiting process.

She laid down strict guidelines for the coaches. She refused to give out the family's home address. Contact with her son could be made only on Sundays. Once, a coach gave Cherokee a T-shirt, and Debe Parks sent it back. "I got so obnoxious, I'm sure some coaches hated me," she said. "I could tell these coaches were irritated. 'Mrs. Parks, it's not big deal.' Well, I read about these no big deals every night. Some coach buys a steak dinner for a mother, and it's plastered all over the newspaper. Let's stick to the guidelines."

During the middle of his junior year, Parks narrowed his college choices to Duke, UCLA, Kentucky, Arizona and Arizona State. His mother then called players from those teams and their coaches.

"One thing you never want is for your child to be hurt," she said. "One serious injury and there will be no one calling him, wanting to be his friend. We tried to play it low-key, keep our life in check."

When Parks committed to Duke after visiting the campus last November, the decision rankled the coaching staff at UCLA and flustered some fans in Southern California. Even though it has been two decades since UCLA dominated college basketball, Southern California recruits face enormous pressure when they turn their backs on a regional power.

Still, Parks provided all the right reasons for selecting Duke. He liked the school, the head coach and the playing style. He also needed time to develop behind a proven center. At UCLA, he would have been expected to lead the team from his first game as a freshman.

"I didn't think I'd be that effective [at UCLA]," he said. "They were -- bam -- going to stick me in the middle. I have a good time. I don't try to do things I can't do. I know it will take awhile to adjust. In high school, I was playing against a lot of 6-foot-5 guys."

"Once Duke won the national championship, people shut their mouths and kept their opinions to themselves," he said.

In college, Parks will be going against 7-footers. Like most players out of high school, he'll have to toughen himself for the physical grind of playing in the middle. He'll also have to work on power moves inside.

But basketball clearly does not dominate his life. He recently skipped a summer-tournament game to attend his senior prom.

"It was the last big go-around for high school," he said. "I've been hanging around these kids my whole life. There is always a basketball game. People tend to get burned out. They make basketball more of a job than fun or pleasure. That's not the way it should be."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad