Former Golden State Warrior Sonny Parker 26 Years Later

By Kendahl Damico - - December 05, 2008

After six years playing pro ball, the Texas A&M alum and Chicago native talks about his non-profit organization, his houseful of kids, and his thoughts on Bulls rookie Derrick Rose.

Retired from the game for almost 26 years now, Sonny Parker, formerly of the Golden State Warriors, has found a different way to keep basketball in his life.

President and Founder of the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation, Parker shifted his focus from his performance on the court to the new generation of basketball talent. Providing an educational and recreational outlet for kids K-12, the SPYF uses the fundamentals of basketball to instill self-esteem, stability and guidance for kids who might not otherwise receive it.

The SPYF aims to teach lessons that go beyond the drills, and instead, school their players on the importance of life outside the game: academics, graduating, self-assuredness and even, politeness.

“We teach respect; look eye-to-eye, don’t lower your heads,” Parker said, illustrating just how deep the foundation’s efforts reach. For Parker and his fellow volunteers, it’s about giving the youth the tools to be well-rounded athletes, and respectable people.

“Growing up on the west side of Chicago, it was the older guys that took me under their wing and helped me out a lot,” Parker said, reflecting on his childhood days in Lawndale, and the importance of extending this same favor to today’s rising stars.

“It keeps me busy, and it’s rewarding. I have a passion for it.”

With year-round events and programs, keeping busy is an understatement. When he’s not in the gym running practices or sharing insights, Parker is attending local basketball games from grammar school to college.

Though he’s careful not to call it “recruiting,” a four-letter word around kids under the age of 14, the search for the next big thing is always underway. More important to Parker than finding that basketball phenomenon, however, is being available to him/her to answer questions and provide support when schools and coaches find them next.

“When we have events, I invite a lot of schools to come and watch a tournament, but I make sure the players don’t talk to any adults unless I’m present.," Kids, and sometimes parents, are vulnerable. There’s all that pressure on a kid and things can get very aggressive,” Parker said.

“I’ll be the one to facilitate [the relationship], but what I don’t do is use our program as a feeder system to other schools. I make sure the parents make their own decision.”

With recruitment starting at younger ages than ever before, Parker has made it a priority to keep his players focused on their education and playing the game for the right reasons, in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of a cutthroat industry that he has experienced first-hand.

A first-round draft pick back in 1976 and a six-year pro, Parker sees the changing face of basketball, most notably, within this realm of recruitment.

“When we were playing sports, our parents just made sure we were safe," Parker said. "Now, you have to monitor your kids because there’s so much going on, you can’t trust people. Our program supports these kids and their families.”

“It takes a village to raise a child, so we surround our program with positive role models. Basketball is the hook, but once you got ‘em listening, we talk about other things.”

For Parker, his job and the job of his foundation, is to keep these Chicago kids on track long enough to see graduation and then decide if, and how basketball might integrate into their lives.

“We’re not taking their dreams away, but we have to be realistic," Parker said emulating the message he often shares with the kids. "You can be a brain surgeon, you can work in the NBA, there are other jobs than just playing.”

“A lot of times, we force feed kids, but we don’t hear ‘em. It’s good sometimes to listen and find out what’s on their minds,” Parker said, explaining basketball is simply the “hook” that might get the kids’ attention, but that there’s often something more lying beneath the surface.

With seven children of his own with wife Lola, Parker certainly has a knack for getting through to kids of all ages. Ranging in age from 13 to 35, the Parker kids have had both a dad and a coach as a parent. With three out of four sons following in dad’s footsteps, Parker and his wife must be doing something right.

“We get our priorities together," Parker said, blurring the lines between coach and dad. "School comes first. You cannot be an average student and play basketball. Playing basketball is a privilege.”

At 13-years old, Jabari Parker is garnering the most attention for his talent. Learning from big brothers, Darryl and Christen, who both pursued basketball throughout their education (Darryl continues to play overseas), Jabarri is able to advance his game smartly, thanks to dad.

“Every day I’ll tell my son, ‘you can quit right now, you don’t have to play’, but some things you just have a gift for,” Parker said proudly. Parker is supportive, but cautious to avoid becoming his son's cheerleader -- a lesson he is also mindful of sharing with other parents.

“My wife is good at keeping our kids grounded. It’s important to stay humble and have a good experience. Through the game of basketball, you meet people, you travel, but we monitor [the kids]. When you need a break, take a break.”

Though the busy retiree doesn’t seem to be following his own advice, Parker finds enough free time to follow his Golden State Warriors and even Chicago’s own Derrick Rose.

“We are very proud that Derrick has been involved in our community, and to see him play for his home team—he has real good support here.”

While he admits that the Bulls may have a few more years to go before reaping the benefits of its young, agile team, Parker exudes a genuine optimism for the athlete that Rose has become from his days at Simeon. A regular guest to the SPYF events, Rose personifies the athlete that Parker strives to build among his kids.

After all, it’s because of mentors like Parker that allow boys like Derrick to evolve into men—polite, self-assured, grounded men.

"Our defense stepped up today, and thanks to that we won the game," Sim said.