Aaron Parks fumbled a bit on that cold January morning as he gathered his bags at BWI Marshall Airport. He turned to his mom and two brothers and hugged them, then she laid her hands on her sons in prayer.
There were tears all around.
Three months earlier, Aaron’s father, Marcus Parks Sr., had been shot and killed while driving an MTA bus in Baltimore. Ever since, Aaron had hung close to his mother and siblings as they comforted one another.
Now, the 26-year-old from East Baltimore was going overseas to continue his professional basketball career. He was bound for Georgia, nearly 6,000 miles away, and the decision to leave home could not have been harder for the former Lake Clifton star.
“I knew as soon as I had to get on that plane, it was going to hurt me because, in a sense, I would be leaving my father,” said Parks, who signed to play for BC Vera in the Georgian Basketball Super Liga. “After talking to my family, we all realized that this is what my father would want. I know the things he instilled in me as a kid, about being tough and understanding that life comes with adversity. To me, I thought the best way to honor him was to keep playing and continue to make him proud.”
Parks took a lingering question with him to Georgia, his third stop overseas in his fourth year as a pro after a four-year, 1,000-point career at Cal State Northridge.
Without my dad — the man who taught me the game, gave me pep talks, was my harshest critic and biggest fan, and the one I still called after every game — would I still have the motivation and edge I need to play the game the way he always expected me to play?
He’s determined to make sure the answer is yes.
Strength through faith
Marcus Parks Sr. loved his family, God and his 20-year job as a bus driver, which enabled him to share his joy of life with many people.
The foundation he and his former wife, Tomeca Parks, instilled in their sons — Marcus Jr., 29, Aaron and Joshua, 23 — emphasized hard work, education, humility and respect for others.
It is all based on faith, and theirs was tested as never before when their 51-year-old father was slain in the middle of the day on Oct. 8, 2020. After Marcus Parks had let off all his bus passengers in Southeast Baltimore, a man tried to board the bus and stole his bag, police said; Parks gave chase, and the man shot him.
It was Aaron, home between basketball seasons, who had the strength to speak for the family in the days following the highly publicized tragedy. And it was Aaron who stood out front at the candlelight vigil that celebrated their father’s legacy outside Lake Clifton High School.
“Throughout the whole situation, Aaron was like our rock,” Joshua Parks said.
While two suspects were charged with the killing a day after it happened and months have passed since, the family still remained numb, together.
And then came the time for Aaron to get on the plane.
“With all of us, we’re still trying to grasp that he’s actually gone,” Marcus Jr. said. “So for Aaron to be able to leave so soon with that burden on his shoulder and excel the way he is, it just shows a lot of how our father raised us and prepared us for life.”
Laying the groundwork
At 5 years old, the Parks brothers already had a lengthy list of chores. They were responsible for taking out the trash, washing the dishes, washing their own clothes and cleaning their rooms.
Their father also taught them the value of money and set an example by the precise way he went about spending it.
“It was just [my father’s] principles, and it actually started when we were young,” Aaron said.
And then there was the rule.
“He always told us: Whenever we left the house we were representing him and the family, so whenever we stepped outside the house we made sure to present ourselves well for our father and mother,” Aaron said.
In high school, the three Parks brothers excelled in sports and their father, who also had played basketball at Lake Clifton, supported them all. But Aaron was different.
[ Slain MTA bus driver reignites conversation around public safety at vigil ]
“Aaron showed a special passion for basketball,” Marcus Jr. said. “With him, my father saw that gift he had to play basketball, so he put in a lot more time to make sure he put him in the best position to excel in the game.”
With the investment came high expectations from Marcus Sr..
Lake Clifton coach Herman “Tree” Harried witnessed it time and time again.
“He was a driven man, and he wanted his kids to be driven,” he said. “If he didn’t feel like they were giving their all, he would let them know they didn’t put it all out there and he wouldn’t settle for less. So I saw him challenging them sometimes and I also saw how they responded to his challenge. They came back the next time and brought it.”
As he grew older, Aaron began to better understand his father’s intentions.
“He was always there for my games and very hard on me, and a lot of people couldn’t understand why that was,” he said. “People would come up to him and tell him to ease up, and he listened to what they would say. But he always did things his way because he knew how he wanted to raise his sons.”
Harried has never had a player in his 25 years of coaching who matched Aaron Parks’ work ethic.
[ Court records: Man charged with murdering bus driver threatened to kill another bus driver in July ]
As a senior guard and captain, he was so motivated to do extra, it had the veteran coach sitting in his office one day before the start of the 2011-12 season pondering a question he had never come across.
“I asked myself: ‘How as a coach do you tell a kid he’s doing too much when most of the time you’re telling them they’re not doing enough?’” Harried said. “How do you relate to a kid that you got to cut back a little because he’s doing too much and won’t make it through the season?”
Harried found a way and Parks found his way, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds to lead the Lakers to the state tournament in College Park.
In the Lakers’ semifinal win, Parks was happy they were moving on to the title game, but disappointed in what he deemed an unacceptable individual performance. So, like many times before, he looked to his father going into his final high school game.
“He just told me: ‘Go out with a bang. This is your last high school game. Leave everything out on the floor. Don’t worry if you make any mistakes, Coach isn’t going to take you out. Just play your game and have fun,’” Aaron said. “It gave me ultimate confidence.”
He brought endless energy to Lake Clifton’s 70-64 win over Largo, scoring a team-high 22 points and adding 14 rebounds on his way to earning All-Metro first-team honors. At the buzzer, exhausted and relieved, he collapsed onto the Xfinity Center court and remained there a few seconds until his teammates scooped him up to celebrate.
His dad was all smiles: “You did it!”
Despite his gifts and his success, a theme in Aaron’s career is facing down adversity. At 6 feet 3, he’s not a big player by pro standards. His Instagram feed is populated with basketball, adored nephews and his mom, but his handle is “underrated_ap,” and he comments on his approach when taking on bigger men on opposing teams.
These issues are things his father helped prepare him for.
“He was the greatest father,” Aaron said. “I’m just forever grateful for him instilling in me the mental capacity and mental strength to get over adversity.”
If not for that, he said, as he and his brothers face their grief, “I think, mentally, we would be in another place.”
[ Vigil held for slain MTA bus driver outside former high school ]
Calling on the village
In the weeks leading up to Aaron’s departure last month, Tomeca Parks called on the family’s village.
She asked Aaron’s uncles, past coaches and close friends to please chip in with her and his brothers to help fill the void left by his father.
“When Aaron told me he was leaving to go back to play, I asked, ‘You good?’” Tomeca said. “He said, ‘I’m not really sure, but this is something I just need to do.’ [I told him] ‘If that’s something you need to do, then that’s what we’re going to do.’ And then I just prayed that during this time of grief that God would be there to comfort him.”
The village would be there, too.
It is most important for them to simply be present and available, calling him with words of encouragement and allowing him to feel like he could be vulnerable when needed.
Last week, one of his followers, a fan who worked at Cal State Northridge, offered him a vacation whenever he needed one.
It speaks volumes as to how many people Aaron has reached.
“I told him that basketball is a tool for you to be able to make your mark wherever it may take you,” Tomeca said. “And even after you lay that ball down, think about all the connections you have already made just for the fact that you put that ball in your hands. So he has a job to do!”
After a couple of preseason games, Aaron readied himself for his first regular-season game with his new team Feb. 7 against a highly regarded opponent, Kutaisi.
Joshua challenged him with a wager: Score 20 or more points and I’ll do 100 pushups on your command. But if you score any less, you owe me.
Tomeca, who loves to post all of her sons’ good work on social media, put in her own request: “All right now, I need you to put up some numbers for me — I need some numbers!” she told him.
Keeping his father close
Aaron Parks has two necklaces that he always keeps close.
One has a photo of him and his father. The other is a gold basketball that has some of his father’s remains inside.
On game day, he kisses them and says a prayer with them tightly wrapped in his hands.
“Before every game, I always thank my father for just being him,” he said. “And just as much as I pray to God, I’m also praying to him in a sense.”
That opening Sunday, he felt his dad there with him.
“It’s crazy how energy works,” he said. “Before the game, I kind of felt a presence and energy for some reason. In my mind, I’m like ‘Man, I’m ready to go out there and get 35.’ That was my mentality.”
At his size and 208 pounds, Parks is a tenacious defender, much the way his father was back in his playing days, and he loves to attack the basket on offense. He was at his best in taking the lead role as his new team came away with a 96-71 win.
Parks gave his mother her numbers, which she proudly posted on Facebook and Instagram. The pushups from Joshua are coming.
His 27 points and eight steals in just 27 minutes — Parks rested in the fourth quarter with his team comfortably ahead — had him firmly believing his father was smiling down on him.
He answered the question the only way he knew how.