LOS ANGELES -- In his freshman year at Duke, Cherokee Parks admits he was "along for the ride," a wide-eyed youngster who took a back seat while Christian Laettner drove Duke to the NCAA championship.
Parks moved up to the passenger seat as a sophomore, but with Bobby Hurley at the controls and Grant Hill and Thomas Hill navigating, Parks could pretty much roll down the window and enjoy the scenery.
Now Parks is a junior, and while the 6-foot-11 center is not in the driver's seat -- that role clearly belongs to Grant Hill -- there are days when coach Mike Krzyzewski hands Parks the keys.
There was last Saturday, when Parks scored 24 points and had 11 rebounds in a 75-62 victory over Maryland. Or on Jan. 22, when Parks had 23 points and 10 rebounds in a 106-79 victory over Florida State. Or Jan. 15, when Parks had 19 points and 14 rebounds in a 66-58 victory over Virginia.
Then there was Jan. 10, when Parks scored 25 points and had 14 rebounds in an 89-71 victory over Brown; and Dec. 11, when Parks had 23 points and nine rebounds in a 73-63 victory at Michigan; and Dec. 4, when Parks had 20 rebounds in an 82-60 victory over Xavier.
Get the picture?
Parks, the former Huntington Beach (Calif.) Marina High standout, has gone from a bit player as a freshman to Duke's best supporting actor -- and sometimes leading man -- as a junior.
An almost timid freshman, Parks spent his first college season as Laettner's practice punching bag and averaged five points, 2.4 rebounds and 12 minutes. He is now the dominating center that most expected when he was coming out of high school.
Parks is tied with Hill for the team scoring lead, at 16.3 points per game, and averages 9.6 rebounds. He is shooting 62.6 percent and has 27 blocked shots.
He has had only one sub-par game this season, a five-point, seven-rebound effort in a 69-68 loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 13.
Parks is one of the primary reasons Duke is 15-1 and ranked first in the nation.
"My role has increased each year, but it seems like there has always been two or three 'go-to guys,' so there's not that much pressure," Parks said. "Antonio [Lang] will have a great game one night, Grant Hill the next, then maybe me. Still, it's nice that I'm doing a little more now, getting some more recognition."
Not if you're an opposing Atlantic Coast Conference coach. Florida State's Pat Kennedy saw Parks dissect his front line and came away with a new appreciation for the center, who is known as "Chief."
"I've been very impressed with Cherokee's development," Kennedy said. "Being able to go away from the basket and help them, I feel that's an added dimension for that team."
Parks has added a mid-range jump shot to his repertoire, but the main reason for his emergence has been his continued development in the post.
He has a few more inside moves, he has gained strength, and a summer tour through Argentina and Spain with the U.S. Under-22 World Championship team helped put him in the proper frame of mind for this season. "It was a good chance to play against quality players, and the game abroad is very aggressive," Parks said. "That whole experience helped me out. I've been trying to be more aggressive from block to block. If you're aggressive on defense, it all translates to offense."
When you regularly play against 7-foot North Carolina center Eric Montross, there's no room for timidity. Parks and Montross will renew their rivalry tonight in Chapel Hill.
"This whole Duke-North Carolina thing gets pretty wild here," Parks said. "Last year, our school papers were lashing out at each other weeks before the game. On the front page of ours, there was this huge, white block of nothing, and the caption read: 'This empty white space is here to remind you of Eric Montross.'
"They said something about my hair, that it was too long or bushy, that I needed a haircut. I can live with that. It's unbelievable how up the students get for this game, and I've never seen anything as intense as the rivalries between schools here."
It took Parks almost a whole season to escape Laettner's shadow. Parks had a solid sophomore season -- a 12.3-point, 6.9-rebound average, a 65.2 percent shooting mark that was third best in the nation and 65 blocked shots.
But an eye injury sidelined him for eight weeks in the fall. He injured his ankle in the first half of Duke's NCAA second-round game against Cal and didn't play in the second half of the Blue Devils' loss.
"Christian had a great sophomore season," Parks said, "and they were expecting the same from me."
That was not fair to Parks. Laettner was an all-around talent, who was as effective shooting three-pointers as he was in the post. Parksis more of a traditional center, who rarely wanders beyond the key, yet Duke fans expected him to do the same things Laettner did. "Last year, people said I needed to do this and that, but I haven't heard that this year," Parks said. "I've established myself down low. Christian did more on the perimeter, but I'm more of a center than he was."
He is also more of a conversation piece in college basketball in at least one way -- his name.
His parents, Larry and Debe Parks, named his older sister Coreyshane and decided on Cherokee for their second child before they even knew it was a boy.