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Living The Dream

July 24, 2013 11:24 am EDT

From draft day afterthought to recruiter du jour, Chandler Parsons' remarkable hoops journey rolls on

HOUSTON - Chandler Parsons sat there and stewed.

What else could he do? The evening of June 23, 2011 found him inside his parents’ Orlando home surrounded by family and more than a dozen of his closest friends. They excitedly huddled together while watching the NBA Draft and waiting for his name to be called, only for hours to pass while one small forward after another got selected in his stead. That number ultimately rose to twelve – just ask him, he can rattle off the names of every single small forward selected ahead of him by heart – before the Rockets mercifully ended his wait by tabbing Parsons with the 38th overall pick.

But even that sigh of relief and the resulting ecstasy proved only temporary. The instant dissection of his game and skill set made sure of that. One analyst predicted Parsons’ professional basketball destiny was to make a lot of money … in Europe. Another talking head said the reigning SEC Player of the Year was always going to leave people wanting more.

Parsons took it all in – the euphoria, the frustration, the disbelief – and did his best to put it in its proper place. There clearly was work to be done.

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Chandler Parsons sat there and stewed.

What else could he do? The afternoon of December 9, 2011 found his long, lanky 6-9 frame spilling out of a chair near the baseline of the Rockets’ practice court as the team launched the start of its training camp with a rigorous three-hour cram session. But while his teammates worked up a sweat attempting to rapidly digest a brand new system and style of play implemented by first-year head coach Kevin McHale, Parsons could only sit there in his hoodie and flip-flops and watch the proceedings play out before him. The rushed and helter-skelter post-lockout world saw the Rockets scrambling in an attempt to make moves both great and small. The vast majority of those deals, both realized and left on the table, had to be completed in a certain order. The finalizing of Parsons’ rookie deal would have to wait. And so would he.

For ten days he sat, stone-faced and alone with his thoughts, allowed to be nothing more than a mere spectator. Like any competitor would, he yearned to be out there making a good impression. He knew he needed NBA reps and lots of them. He lamented the unique circumstances brought about by the lockout – no summer league, a brief playing stint in France that was cut short by an injury, and a dramatically condensed training camp and preseason schedule – not exactly ideal circumstances for a second-round pick desperate and eager to prove he belonged.

Parsons took it all in – the frustration, the craving, the defensive schemes and offensive sets – and did his best to put it in its proper place. There clearly was work to be done.

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Chandler Parsons sat there and schmoozed.

What else could he do? The night of June 30, 2013 found him at a table in a swanky Southern California hotel surrounded by Hall of Famers and other heavy hitters from the basketball world. He fit right in. The Rockets were making their sales pitch to Dwight Howard and Parsons was deemed a no-brainer addition to the club’s convoy of past and present hoops greats determined to convince the seven-time All-Star that Houston was the place to be.

For weeks Parsons had been exchanging text messages and phone calls with Howard, filling him in on everything Rockets-related; from details about the coaching staff led by McHale, to the unique chemistry and cohesion of this roster filled with young, talented and rapidly improving players. Their friendship blossomed. And when Howard ultimately headed south to Houston, there was little doubt that Parsons’ powers of persuasion played no small part in his decision.

Parsons took it all in – the excitement, the anticipation and the well-earned respect – and did his best to put it in its proper place. There clearly was work to be done.

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Such is the remarkable ride the 24-year-old Florida product has endeavored upon through his first two seasons in the NBA – a path that has led him from being a draft night afterthought to Dwight Howard recruiter du jour (General Manager Daryl Morey’s tongue-in-cheek pre-draft analysis of Parsons in retrospect: “The key to us drafting him was we thought based on the pre-draft interview that one day Dwight Howard would want to play with him. You can’t pass up that kind of value with the 38th pick.”).

In the process he has surpassed all expectations nearly every step of the way. It took him just seven games into his rookie season to lay claim to Houston’s starting small forward spot – again, without the benefit of summer league or any training camp time to speak of – and his across-the-board improvement in year two featured clutch shots, praise from some of the game’s biggest names and several outstanding postseason performances.

Suffice to say no one is sleeping on him now. His play has opened eyes around the basketball world, bringing him to Las Vegas, Nevada this week where some of the game’s top young talent is on hand to take part in Team USA’s mini-camp. Parsons fully earned his spot on that list – a list, by the way, that includes only one other player (DeAndre Jordan) who was selected outside of the draft’s first round – and the resulting respect he has garnered ties quite a bow around the two years of occasional tumult and frequent doubt he was forced to endure and overcome in order to get here.

“I got goose bumps when I put on the USA jersey for the first time,” said Parsons during a phone conversation following his first workout with the national team. “Playing for Coach Krzyzewski, seeing Larry Bird and just being here with all these other great players is pretty surreal.

“My whole career in Florida I always heard, ‘He’s not big enough, he’s not strong enough, he can’t shoot it well enough, he’s not athletic enough.’ I’ve heard it all. Clearly they were wrong.

“I’m not bitter at all though because I love being in Houston and I would not want to be anywhere else and I think the situation was perfect for me. Looking back on it, I was definitely shocked and confused that I didn’t go higher in the draft. But that’s just where you start out, it’s not where you finish, and I try to use that as just a stepping-stone. It’s irrelevant and means nothing to me now.”

Of course, it’s far easier to get over such snubs when life is good and you’re the toast of the town. But the fact of the matter is it’s just not in Parsons’ nature to hold grudges. He is at heart a goofy, fun-loving guy who’d rather binge watch episodes of Breaking Bad (OK, perhaps watching Walter White’s downward spiral isn’t the best example of “goofy” behavior) than waste time worrying about things that were said years ago.

His ebullient personality has endeared him to teammates and coaches alike, and created an especially strong bond with McHale. Theirs is a relationship that goes far beyond basketball; it is, in fact, downright familial given the mutual respect, trust and fondness that clearly exists. And rarely are the unique properties of that bond ever more present than they are when the back-and-forth between the two men begins and the good-natured barbs start flying from one to the other. McHale will mock Parsons’ hair (though who doesn’t?), prompting the latter to respond with a crack about his coach’s propensity for waxing poetic about the good old days. Their comedy routine runs on a daily basis during the season and it’s indicative of the common thread that likely connected them in the first place: neither man takes himself too seriously, but both possess an insatiable desire to compete and to win.

“He’s got this little runner that he shoots that he knows I hate,” McHale recalls with a chuckle when asked to shed some insight into the characteristics of their relationship. “He works on it with (Rockets assistant coach) J.B. Bickerstaff and I ask Chandler all the time: ‘Why do you work on that shot? Don’t ever work on that shot. I hate when you shoot it.’ So when he shoots it in the game and it goes in, he just gives me a look and just nods his head with that smile of his. And of course when he doesn’t make it – which is often – he never looks at the bench. So it’s a dreadful occasion when he makes one of those because that means I’ve got to hear about it for the next week. That pretty much sums him up. He likes to have fun out there.

“But I’ll tell you what: He works as hard as anyone. And he’s a fearless guy. He just goes out there and plays. He doesn’t play with fear. He’ll take big shots. He’ll pass, he can shoot it, he’ll get dirty and fight for a rebound, he’ll dive on the floor for loose balls. He’ll do whatever it takes to help his team win. Teams need glue guys and teams need guys who can bring everyone together. He’s got that.”

He’ll need it. There will be no more sneaking up on people – not for him or his team. Gone are the days of anonymity and underdog status. He and the Rockets are marked men now, armed with a massive amount of talent and the outsized expectations that come with the territory of entering true contender status. The goal is no longer simply making the playoffs; it’s inflicting damage and making real noise once they get there. A new set of challenges await, not the least of which will be the management of all the various egos in the locker room – or, as McHale puts it, the battle to place we before me.

That applies to Parsons, too. His engaging personality and unique ability to bring people together and foster a spirit of brotherhood will be tested, but so will his capacity for handling the trappings that come from newfound celebrity. He’s in the middle of his national coming out party now, appearing on red carpets and national TV with increasing regularity. Endorsements are rolling in. Everywhere he goes people recognize him and want their picture taken with the burgeoning heartthrob with the boy band good looks (and hair).

That’s heady stuff for anyone to handle; all the more so for a 24-year-old whose pro hoops career seemingly began within the shadow of shadows. But Parsons seems to take it all in stride, crediting his tight-knit family for making sure his feet stay firmly planted on the ground.

“That’s just how I was raised and how I am,” he says. “That’s the makeup of my family and my parents and I’m a product of them no matter how many red carpet events I do, no matter how much money I make. My life has changed, but that’s not going to change me. Everywhere I go now people recognize me and they’re taking pictures. It’s crazy and I never thought that I’d be one of those people that others act like that when they see them.

“But I look at it like I used to be one of those kids. I got crazy excited when I saw Grant Hill at the mall. So now I just try to be genuine, I try to take pictures, I try to sign autographs and I just try to be who I am. That stuff will never change me, or the way I work, or the way I approach basketball.

"At the end of the day I’m a basketball player. I want to win. I want to be an All-Star. I want to be a champion.”

In other words: Chandler Parsons is still taking it all in – the success, the fame, the expectations – and doing his best to put it in its proper place. He knows that now, more than ever, there’s still so much more work to be done.