It began in seventh grade when Mike Parks Jr .was just a boy.

A growing lad, already. But still a kid. On the east side of Cleveland where angels feared to tread.

Dad wasn’t on hand. His mother Jamie was trying to hold things together. A son and three daughters to support. Whatever she could do to get them to a better spot for a better life.

New areas, different schools, the stops then began to mount up.

“Between 11th and 12th grade, I bounced around maybe eight different homes,” Worcester Wolves imposing centre recounts in the latest MVP Cast. “And some of them weren’t even suitable for a home. So we went through a lot, but nobody really ever knew because I never talked about it.

“I always kept a smile at school. Like, once people find that out, they’re like, ‘dang, like, I didn’t even know he was going through that.’ He adds: “I was just trying to live and get my education and graduate, like my mom was telling me.”

To live, for most, is the mere basic. Taken for granted. For Parks, now in his first season in the British Basketball League, that had to become an ambition and goal, not an unthinking acceptance.

From the east to the west side, to the inner city to the suburbs and outside Cleveland, around the houses and back again. “It was rough,” his mother, Jamie Gambrell declared.

And then some.

“Cleveland is a bad area for sure,” Parks adds. “It’s people getting killed every day, you know, robberies and a whole bunch of stuff. Like, you really got to watch your back out there. I ain’t going to say I’m safe. But a lot of people know me, you know? Oh, that’s big Mike … they know me.

“But you just never know. I have friends get killed. One time, I was just minding my business. I’m doing a photo shoot at a playground. And then, like a couple feet away from me, they start shooting.

“And I’ve just seen this young boy, 17, shot in his legs. I went over and helped him wait for the ambulance came. So you’ll see stuff like that on a daily basis. It’s real tough. You gotta be built for that.”

Throughout the chaos, Jamie sought more. Opportunities. Safety. She wanted to become a teacher, a reliable option and a passion. She got in a car accident. Bills mounted up. The kids had to take long bus rides to school from their latest abode.

Life went downhill, Parks reveals. And then got worse.

“I missed a lot of school days. I have seen my mother cry, you know, stuff that you don’t want to see.

“We had to stay in an abandoned house. … that was a tough time. One room, it was in winter. One bed, with my sisters and my mom. We got a little heater, a little microwave, a TV with no cable.

“So it was really going through it. And we stayed like 40 minutes from my school. So having to catch the bus to school early in the morning. seeing my sisters having to sleep like that. I didn’t like none of that.

“I’m like, ‘man, in the future, that’s all going to change. I never want to experience that again, or want anybody to experience that.’ Because that’s you at the bottom right there. That’s the lowest of the lowest.”

He wanted to quit school to get a job to get money to get them out.

Jamie refused, point blank.

Parks was already a known hoops prospect. The court was his escape from the noise.

His mother, fatefully, landed a role on the coaching staff at his high school, her knowledge invaluable. It was one of the boosts the family needed. “And we got a handle,” he says. “We eventually got on our feet after so long, but it was definitely a tough journey.”

The mother-son bond was strong then, and remains so. I needed to keep a positive mind-set, says Parks. There were perils lurking around the corner. Simply, he could not let her down. “It’s a lot of cases, especially in Cleveland, where mothers losing their sons, and I’m her only son. I can’t do that.”

Colleges came knocking. Without the test scores to automatically jump into Division 1 and the bright lights of the NCAA, Parks attended a community college in Mississippi before earning a transfer to the University of Memphis.

Tubby Smith, a coaching legend, had long tracked him. For a scholarship offer, the repayment was instant numbers as a starter.

Not enough to prevent Smith from being replaced. By a NBA legend in the shape of Penny Hardaway, given the role on name alone. The hype around the one-time Orlando Magic guard was turned up to the max.

“It was crazy when Penny came,” Parks laughs.

“One of the most lit games was a we played Tennessee. at home. We came out for warm ups. The whole arena was already full. And we play in the NBA arena.

“So it’s like, ‘oh my god, like I’ve never seen as many people at a game before.’ That was a definitely a sign and I just started to savour the moment.”

Undrafted into the NBA after averaging five points and three rebounds in his senior years, he had the unexpected summons of the NBA G-League when the Raptors 905 picked him up in their annual draft.

He got five minutes of action in total. One shot attempted. No real shot given.

Just business he shrugs. “They brought down this guy (from the NBA) that was in my spot and if they bring down the guy, he has to play regardless.” They let him go, with no return route. “I know the situation,” he adds. Then Covid struck and he was done for a year.

Worcester’s coach Matt Newby offered a reprieve. A wrench too, to be away from his adored son Zachary. But an offer not to be refused, despite delays in processing his work permit.

Averaging five points and six boards so far in the BBL for a mid-table Wolves, the 23-year-old is making himself right at home.

“We definitely can improve more,” he said. “We plan on winning more, definitely. I see in practice, we’re definitely getting it down pat and having each other’s back and nobody’s being selfish or anything. We know this is a team thing. And we all want to win at the end of the day.”

Back home, Mom is good now. Her admirable determination to keep pushing her son to excel has reaped just rewards.

“We definitely strong,” he proclaims. “Like, we talk every day. And my sisters are in college now. It’s kind of funny that they split up and went to different colleges. My mom was kind of hurt. She had a lot of time with her babies!”

Strength in numbers, no matter where they lay their heads.

“Now we definitely have a strong bond because at the end of the day, it was just us. We were all we had. So we had to be strong for one another.”

This story originally appeared in the MVP Mail. Sign up for your regular email newsletter with exclusive news and features. 

Photo: Wolves

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