PORT COQUITLAM — To tell the story of Jessica Parker without cutting corners is to be, at once, both challenged and inspired.
Her story is complicated, in all the ways that we as adults debate the parametres of our sport, one which needs both rigidity to survive and compassion to flourish.
Yet her story is also simple in the ways in which its very tenets of sacrifice and team work seemingly never fail to manifest themselves as the blueprint for journeys which exceed the norm.
To tell the story of Jessica Parker, you can’t wear rose-coloured glasses and you can’t pontificate from inside of a vacuum.
You need to step outside your comfort zone, as she has so bravely done, and make up your own mind as to what ultimately matters.
Other than that?
The details follow, but it’s important to know that more than a year after leaving her home in up-country Princeton to pursue her basketball journey at Port Coquitlam’s Riverside Secondary, one which included sitting out all of last season as a transfer, she has found a way to once again flourish.
Sure, the basketball matters to her.
But so do a lot of other things, including finding a fit within her peer group, and just being a happy kid.
“I am not a huggy kind of guy, but she hugs me every day,” admits Riverside head coach Paul Langford who has watched Parker, a 5-foot-11 forward, excel with the Rapids over this, her Grade 11 campaign.
While Langford admits he is aware that his own peers in the B.C. girls high school community are likely not at a consensus over the way Parker has been granted eligibility, he is also aware that within his sport’s imperfect model, so many other things have gone right and deserve celebrating.
Like those hugs.
“Yeah, I do that quite a bit,” laughs Parker. “I hug everyone on my team. I find that there is an energy to it that makes you happy. If I am close to that person and they need a hug…hey, they need a hug. And if they don’t? I say they still need a hug.”
THE STRUGGLE TO FIND HER FIT
Sometimes, the nitty-gritty details of any story cast too wide a blanket and serve as too much of an indictment of those who may or may not have contributed to an issue.
With that in mind, it’s most responsible to say that in her hometown, Jessica Parker couldn’t find the environment she felt she needed to thrive as a student-athlete, the place where she could be free of distraction to chase the rare skill she has for the sport of basketball.
While many have great youth sport experiences growing up in small towns, many do not. And of course the same can be said for cities, suburbia and all manner of places in-between.
Yet for Parker, her greatest struggles came in wanting to gain acceptance from her peers for who she was as a person and as an athlete.
Rejection on one level began to point to at-risk behaviour on another, and if not for the skills that landed her a place on the B.C. Under-14 provincial team at an early stage of her development, her life may have taken a distinctly different path.
Thankfully for her sake, she was spotted by that team’s coach, Alex Rucker, a Coquitlam native who has since gone on, through his specialized skills in basketball analytics, to a front office position with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
Last season, one spent as a transfer student who could practice but not play in games for the Rapids, Parker stayed with Rucker, his wife and their two children.
The family has since relocated to Philadelphia, but Parker has been able to find another family with which to stay.
“I was 14 when I moved here, just ready to turn 15,” says Parker, now 16. “I can remember just sitting in the learning centre (at Riverside) just eating lunch by myself. I already knew (Riverside teammate) Tessa (Burton) from the U-14s so I had her. And I like to think I am pretty outgoing. It all worked out. But basketball is what made it a lot easier for me.
“I think for me, I realized what my obstacles were back home and I didn’t want to ruin my chances with basketball,” she adds “It was still good (in Princeton) but from a different standpoint. I like to say that I haven’t lived two separate lives, but that I have had two very different experiences.”
THRIVING IN HER ENVIRONMENT
We’ve said off the top that Jessica Parker’s story is one you have to judge for yourself.
Yet all things being equal, it’s hard not to feel a warming trend move in when you learn how a former at-risk teen now so comfortably embraces the role of mentor.
“I love Sammy and I see her as the little sister that I never had,” Parker says of Sammy Shields, the beyond-talented Grade 9 guard who has the chance to become perhaps the most storied player in program history. “I know she will go far, she is so amazing and I so I try to encourage her. We enjoy each other’s company and we click so well.”
Which brings us around to the actual technical part of Parker’s game.
Watch her for a second and you see where she thrives on the court.
If she is slightly under-sized to play at a power spot in the front court, she nonetheless plays bigger than her stature on a regular basis because of her competitive zeal, her natural strength and the feel she brings to her shooting game.
This past summer, she not only got a chance to see North America as a member of the North Vancouver-based VK Basketball club program, she also got a chance to play for Team B.C. at the North American Indigenous Games in Toronto where she helped this province to the championship final where it lost to a team from New York.
It’s all part of a maturation process that has made her a post-secondary prospect, as she teams with high school teammates Burton, Shields, Alanya Davignon and others on roster which is so youthful it will return fully in tact next season.
THE GIRL WHO LOVES HUGS
On Friday, Riverside makes its longest road trip of the season when it travels to Penticton Secondary for a two-day invitational tournament.
It’s not a random stop along the river for the Rapids. Instead, Langford chose the location for its relative proximity to Princeton, just over 100 kilometres away.
“I wanted to find an opportunity that wouldn’t be so far for her parents to have to drive,” said Langford of Parker’s parents Reuben and Barbara. “They have seen an opportunity for their daughter to grow and they have embraced it. A lot of girls leave for university to play basketball, but Jess is just doing it a few years earlier than most.”
And speaking of home, if Princeton wasn’t the right fit for her at this time in her life, no one should question the love Parker has for its lands and her family’s place within it.
“I have always hunted and I have always fished,” says Parker, whose First Nation’s heritage is Metis on her mother’s side. “I have always been super into it. When I was nine, I learned how to drive a stick (shift) and my dad would always ask me if I wanted to shoot or drive. We are so close. My dad and I love to high-five.”
Yet she is quick to note how deeply-rooted the outdoors are in her life.
“There is a comfort being out there,” she begins. “We don’t hunt for fun. We hunt to supply our family with food. We use the hide of deer to make drums. My mom is a support worker at both of the elementary schools in Princeton and she makes drums for the kids at those schools.”
And Parker says that the connection she feels to her roots in the outdoors can be mirrored in a lot of ways to the empowerment she feels when working with her teammates on the basketball court.
“There is something about the physicality of the game that I like,” she begins. “It makes me feel strong. It makes me feel like I am capable of doing so many things.”
Last season, as she sat through her transfer, Langford saw a young lady grapple with so many of the questions that come from making such a big decision in life.
“She sat back and at first she was very quiet,” the coach says. “And in practices she was very tentative. But as soon as our season ended, we saw a whole new kid. Through spring league and then into club season with VK, she was loud, proud and aggressive. She went from being very introverted into this kid who is a real leader.”
And so at the very core of this story is a happy ending, an ending which seems to be a prelude to that next-level opportunity.
No one is debating the fact that the backdrop of this story is shaded by its grey areas, and everyone knows this will not be the last time that player movement within the game will come under extra scrutiny.
It begs questions, ones which Langord and others know have to soon be answered for the very survival of the girls game in this province.
Would the girls high school basketball model in this province be better off if every program were allowed one transfer player?
Would that stop a lot of the dishonesty that already goes on at so many programs?
Or is all of that just preparing the can of worms to burst wide open?
The million dollar question?
How do we maintain the need for a rigid set of transfer rules that maintain competitive balance, while at the same time having the ability to show compassion when it is most warranted?
Today’s story balances those very questions on a fence and gives us pause to consider that behind every decision, there is a young person whose ability to amaze us all should never be underestimated.
“If I am close to that person and they need a hug…hey, they need a hug,” reminds Jessica Parker. “And if they don’t? I say they still need a hug.”
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