BROOKLYN En route to Easy Street, Richie Parker's misguided act sent him skidding out of control on a Road to Nowhere, when suddenly he managed to pull a U-turn to avoid winding up in Oblivion.
Then a well-known, blue-chip national basketball recruit, the Manhattan Center High School senior pled guilty to first-degree sexual abuse of a freshman classmate in 1995, receiving five years probation. With his scholarship rescinded, Parker's Seton Hall days ended before ever beginning.
"It was times where I just lost hope, and I thought that things would never get back to the way it was or be the same," Parker now says. "The lowest point was seeing Seton Hall turn away after I signed with them."
Utah coach Rick Majerus, UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian and USC's Henry Bibby all came calling, but those school administrations were all scared off by Parker's soiled reputation.
That Richie Parker.
"It's just I don't think the president or anyone else took the time out to see what type of person I was," Parker said.
After Parker exhibited responsibility and remorse for his actions, the victim and her family endorsed his second chance in life. Even after a stint at Mesa Community College in Arizona, however, Long Island University in Brooklyn was the only Division I program to accept him.
That June 1996 announcement triggered protests from outraged women's groups. For a time, the city's newspapers were fixated on Parker.
That Richie Parker.
"It was unbelievable," said LIU Associate Athletic Director Greg Fox, then the school's sports information director. "It was from the moment I arrived in the office every day 'til eight, nine o'clock at night. It was non-stop phone calls about Richie.
"And we haven't had anything like that, even remotely like that since."
Some smelled an LIU deal with the devil. Was this some jock-sniffing administrator with little regard for women, someone using a troubled black athlete for a shot at March Madness? Hardly.
The person who made the decision to admit Parker, LIU Provost Gale Stevens Haynes, was none of those things.
"I also felt as a woman, as a woman of color, as a mother of three young girls, that I probably saw the issues as clearly as anyone," she recalls, not to mention being an attorney with two daughters then attending the school over which she still presides.
"I'm not a big basketball powerhouse," Stevens Haynes said, referring to herself and the downtown urban school as one. "I didn't make this decision to get to the Final Four or Sweet 16," she added, chuckling at the notion.
"So people couldn't ascribe the same kind of motives that perhaps they did other institutions, to me and to this university," Stevens Haynes said. "Young people are capable of change, and young people are most deserving of second chances.
"What was most compelling to me was he took responsibility for his actions," Stevens Haynes said of Parker, "That there was no effort to step away from it in terms of his responsibility there."
"She was like a second mother," Parker said of Stevens Haynes.
|LIU Provost Gale |
Stevens Haynes opened
the door for Parker.
"What I remember most was Richie's mother," Stevens Haynes said of Rosita Townsend, who, running out of options, approached LIU. "She impressed me so much. And really, I could feel the anguish in her as she was trying to help her son move through this time in his life.
"There was this lovely, poised, proud woman standing in front of me, saying, 'I'm looking for an institution for my son.'"
LIU's doors swung open for Parker.
"He was dealt with from the perspective of our judicial system, and it was time to think about next steps," Stevens Haynes said.
That staircase had societal ramifications.
"You have a young man that's 18 or 19 years old," Stevens Haynes said. "Where's he going to go next? What does his future hold for you? Would we like to meet him on a dark corner, frustrated and angry?
"Or will we try to hold out our hand and say, 'If you're interested, if you're serious, if you really want to build a life for yourself....'"
Parker jumped at the chance, though skeptics questioned if that break would have been afforded a troubled artist or math whiz instead of a basketball stud.
"It's that second-chance philosophy that we had for all students," Fox said. "Whether it was a basketball player or a tuba player, we would have had that same philosophy."
Scariest, Parker says, was the prospect of always being a pariah.
That Richie Parker.
"I used to pick up his chin and say, 'Look at me in the face,'" Stevens Haynes said. "Because he would say 'Hello' and look down at his feet. He believed that somehow on his tombstone they'd probably have some statement about who he was or what people believed himself to be."
"At that time, that's all that I thought," Parker said. "Once my name came up, that that type of reaction was going to happen. But that was something to turn a negative to a positive."
Then one day a funny thing happened on the way to Oblivion.
"He didn't look down at his feet," Stevens Haynes said. "He looked into my eyes. And I knew that the healing was complete, that he felt strong enough and good enough about himself to meet me eye to eye."
LIU soon grabbed headlines again, pulling a major upset at St. John's Alumni Hall in Parker's collegiate debut.
Laughing, Parker called it, "The biggest turning point. And I realized that everything was going to be all right."
"I remember him coming over, right off the court, and giving me this enormous hug," Stevens Haynes said. "And just whispering in my ear, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,' for believing in him.
"And all of a sudden, he was a young man again. He didn't have all of that to carry on his back, at least for that moment."
The long-suffering Blackbirds program and creaky old home court at the Schwartz Athletic Center were now jumping thanks to Parker and Rutgers transfer Charles Jones, the nation's leading scorer those next two years.
"Just to go through that experience, to see the gym is packed and it's more people outside waiting, trying to get in," Parker said. "That was a major experience for me."
Leading the nation in team scoring during Parker's freshman year, LIU beat Medgar Evers by 117 points college basketball's largest victory margin ever at the time 179-62.
Named Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year, Parker helped LIU to an NEC Championship and NCAA Tournament bid. The Blackbirds made the NIT the next year.
"Coach (Ray) Haskins and Provost believed in me. So I wanted to reward them," Parker said. "And when we won that championship that year, I think that was one of the biggest rewards that I could give to them."
Or was it?
Finishing as LIU's 5th all-time scorer, Parker also earned his degree. His basketball resume later included not the NBA but the ABA and USBL. Parker's greatest achievement though, was his exorcism of Public Enemy No. 1.
That Richie Parker.
Even when road fans provided hostile reminders of his past, "Once I got to the game, and played the game, and people saw me face-to-face, and saw what type of person I was, it was a big change," Parker said. "And when the game was over, people came up to me and told me they enjoyed watching me play.
"That meant a lot to me. That meant that people saw me as who I was as a person."
"Richie was among the easiest, if not the easiest kid to deal with back then," Fox said. "Every appointment that we made he was early for. He answered every question like a pro."
Today, LIU is proving that it really does take care of young people other than just star athletes. Take the university's assistant director of Student Activities, who assumed that position last year. He's an alumnus who needed a job while planning his life's next chapter.
That Richie Parker is now known simply as Richie Parker.
"I look at it as more of a family when I was here," Parker said, "Because the door was always open for me. The door was always open for me to come back."
What qualified Parker for his job?
"He's good with young people," Stevens Haynes said.
"Brooklyn embraced me a lot," Parker said. "And sometimes, just walking on the streets in Brooklyn people recognize me. And people just reflect back on when we were winning, and just know me from playing at LIU. And us being one of the biggest teams at that time in the New York City area."
After more struggles, LIU basketball is again rejuvenated with its new $40 million Wellness, Recreation and Athletic Center, and fifth-year coach Jim Ferry, with whom Parker says he'd love to coach.
"My main focus is, even if I don't coach, just to help the basketball program out to get back to the way it was," Parker said. "Because that's the way I think LIU and Brooklyn are supposed to be."
Fox has seen this Road to Nowhere come full circle for Parker, who, like most of us, is neither on Easy Street nor in Oblivion but somewhere in between.
"I really thought that when the smoke cleared that we would come out smelling like a rose," Fox said. "And I think we did."
"If we simply cut people off at every path, what are we then setting up to happen here?" Stevens Haynes asked. "There's no island, there's no place that we can send folks that disappoint us and they never come back.
"Every action has a consequence, certainly, but we all have responsibility for each other."
"I feel I proved people wrong," Parker said, "Because a lot of people respect me as a person."
"This is what higher education ought to be about," Stevens Haynes said. "Taking responsibility, taking ownership. Not just for the gems that shine, but for some of them that need a little polishing."