Jabari Parker finds bright side as he recovers from latest ACL injury

Forward has no time to be forlorn as he works on latest comeback bid

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

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MILWAUKEE — Paul George thought back to his own comeback. The long, lonely hours of rehab work on the right leg he shattered in Las Vegas while playing with Team USA. And, worse, the dread that his career might be over that weighed on him mentally even after most of the physical chores were done.

“It’s not the work. You’re fine with the work,” George said, back to his All-Star self, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, after scoring 20 in a Halloween romp over the Bucks. “What sucks is the repetitiveness. Continuing the same rehab, doing the same stuff for a whole year, that’s where it bothers you.

“When you’re playing, the game is different every night. But when you’re rehabbing, when you’re doing the same stuff over and over to build muscle, to build confidence, it sucks.”

Now, George was asked, imagine having to do it all again. Another lost year, the grind again, and all the uncertainty of what’s next.

“That would really suck.”

Jabari Parker knows all about it. He is living it, a Groundhog Day of a surgically repaired left anterior cruciate ligament. In the movie, Bill Murray at least mixed things up while stuck in the same place, messing with people, dialing up his risks, forcing some adventures.

I don’t find this very different. … The only difference is that I know what I’m going through. From there, second time’s a charm.”

Jabari Parker, on rehabbing from a second ACL tear

For Parker, about the only things that have changed are fresh scars that run parallel to his earlier set and the venue where he tackles his daily slogs. The first time, after blowing out his left knee in Phoenix in December 2015, the Bucks made their practice home at a small college south of the city, close to Lake Michigan and equipped at a fairly basic level.

Now, as the 6-foot-8 forward from Duke and product of Chicago’s Simeon High grinds through the final months of that second ACL tear, he does so at a relative Taj Mahal of sweat and exertion. The Bucks’ new practice facility is state of the art, offering nearly every apparatus and all the technology an athlete could need to ideally stay healthy but yes, to recover and rehab as well.

But it’s like cooking a familiar meal in a new high-tech kitchen — there are no shortcuts to the prep work, no hurrying through the baking time. ACLs need TLC, and a maddening level of monotony.

“The only thing that’s changed is really the environment,” Parker said on Oct. 31. His teammates were in various stages of readying themselves to face the Thunder — glancing at the video breakdowns on the dressing room’s big screen, taping and stretching and strapping while Parker tugged on the street sweats he’d wear home.

“Work is work. It’s the same equipment, actually,” Parker said. “It’s just better when you have a lot of bodies in the gym.”

Mostly Parker is around Suki Hobson, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and other members of the team’s training and medical staffs. He brings a certain layman’s expertise, too; remember, he spent 10 of the 26 months between his two knee blowouts doing virtually the same daily regimen.

“I don’t find this very different,” Parker said. “Just things that I learned have been fundamental for me going forward. The only difference is that I know what I’m going through. From there, second time’s a charm.”

‘Got to keep grinding’

Parker, 22, has been healthy on his March 15 birthday just once in three NBA seasons and already has lost more games to injury than LeBron James has in 15 seasons. He occasionally will drop an aphorism into a conversation like a verbal crunch on which to lean: “If it doesn’t kill me, it’s just going to make me stronger.” Or “Bad things happen for a good reason.”

But his true ability to cope comes from his devout Mormon faith, instilled by his mother Lola and exemplified by volunteer work Parker has done, the charities he supports and the social issues on which he’s spoken.

Only once since the second injury, he said, did he fall prey to the “Why me?” question. That came and went fast, in the moments after he made a move to the basket against Miami Feb. 8 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, felt the pop and the pain and knew what was wrong by the time he crumpled to the court.

Otherwise, there’s a calm about Parker, laced with optimism and even the serenity of flipping the keys to, and stress of, this to something greater.

“I’m just a spiritual person, you know?” he said, loud locker-room music pulsing beneath his words. “I never forget what drives the vessel, what drives the ship. So if my spirit is good, anything is pretty much attainable. My dream is to come out of this, so I’m just directing it accordingly.”

By the morning of Feb. 9 — if not sooner — Parker said he had steeled himself to the long rehab road ahead.

“I flipped a switch and said, ‘Hey, you’ve just got to get up. And work,’ ” he said. “Mope? That’s not going to do nothing for you, that’s not going to do much for me. Just got to keep grinding. And never give up.”

At the time of the interview, Parker was said to be participating in about 70 percent of the Bucks’ practice activities. He still was about three weeks from being cleared for real contact and 5-on-5, full-court scrimmaging, pushing that stage closer to Thanksgiving. He refuses to put a date on his return, lest he skip or rush through some steps, so Milwaukee is sticking to a vague February-ish timeline. After which, as Parker sees it, there still will be time to for 2017-18 to be productive.

“This season is successful for me, personally, if I’m able to play again,” he said. “Get better. Being efficient. Playing in the playoffs — I’ve never done that, so that would be good to experience. And just make it through, take it day by day and game by game and see where it goes.

“The basketball part comes naturally. There’s only so much you can see from looking out, ‘cuz I don’t have, like, videos and they don’t show me out there, right? It’s just believing. That’s the easy part. It’s just trying to re-establish myself with the team again.”

Familiar next step remains for Parker

Listening between the lines, there seems to be some strain or distance between Parker and the Bucks. Some of that’s natural, given the questions that will linger over his ability to return a second time.

Also, they couldn’t negotiate the multimillion-dollar contract extension for which he and others in his 2014 first-round draft class were eligible this autumn. Parker grows terse, too, when asked if his coaches have given him any added duties to draw him close, the way Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has thrown video work at Gordon Hayward to keep him engaged through his ankle rehab.

“Next question,” Parker said.

He’s in a great situation with a great organization. So, like, everybody’s ready, everybody’s waiting, for him to go over that hurdle. But he keeps getting bit by the injury bug.”

Thunder star Paul George, on Parker

Finding a valid comparison or role model for what Parker is trying to accomplish is difficult. Single ACL injuries are challenging enough in a sport built on jumping, running and applying extreme torque to lower extremities. One player who can relate, to a point, is Parker’s fellow Simeon alum, Derrick Rose, who swears there was nothing in the drinking fountains of that school that led to their repeated injuries.

“You have to be around the team. You have to do everything like you were playing,” said Rose, the 2011 MVP who subsequently lost the equivalent of three seasons to knee, leg and other injuries. “Travel with team, that type of stuff whenever you get the chance. You can’t just stay home rehabbing, ‘cuz you’ll drive yourself crazy.

“Having faith and knowing that you can only control what you can control [helps]. Like, injuries happen. You can’t sit there and moan or feel bad because of them, or you’ll kill yourself on the inside. It’s all about just getting over it the best way possible. Everybody’s different. And having that family around so you have somebody to vent to, to talk to.”

Parker has leaned on his mother especially during this second rehab. And he visualizes not merely coming back but coming back better, which is what he did the last time. Averaging 20.1 points, 6.2. rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Parker was stirring some All-Star reserve talk before he went down. He appeared to be in the best shape of his life, and he had stretched his shooting range to legitimate 3-point territory, making 36.5 percent on 178 attempts. In 101 previous NBA games, he had taken only 51 from deep.

“He came back and he was killin’,” said Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins, who was drafted No. 1 to Parker’s No. 2 three years ago. “He did real good. Some people say, when you get hurt, when you tear something, your leg is strong. He looked bouncy. He’ll come back stronger. He’s a hard worker.”

Said George, who contacted Parker after the February setback: “He was playing better than before. He was more athletic, more explosive. It was crazy. I think what sucks the most is, he’s on the verge, he’s right there in being a star in this league. He’s in a great situation with a great organization. So, like, everybody’s ready, everybody’s waiting, for him to go over that hurdle. But he keeps getting bit by the injury bug.”

Instead, it’s Parker having to wait for the Brinks truck — a five-year, $148 million extension — that backed up to Wiggins’ account last month. George, Bucks coach Jason Kidd and Parker’s teammate, Giannis Antetokounmpo (and the rest of the league), are waiting along with him.

Parker sounds uniquely equipped to handle the unknowns in play, drawing on his first injury and return, relying on his faith and perhaps running Plan B through his head should the outcome this time be different.

“People look at this as a negative. They don’t really look at it as a blessing,” Parker said. “But what you do, you create your own story. Like, a lot of people walk around like they haven’t been touched. And then when they face adversity, they don’t know how to deal with it because it’s the first time in their life.

“There’s basically nothing in my life that can make me quit, that can make me go under. It’s the same with Derrick. Me and him just have a mental toughness where we’ve dealt with everything before. So we just move forward. … We’re able to show people that, if you dream big, those dreams can still stay alive if you stay positive. You can stay above water.

“Real people who have real issues will look at us. That’s what makes me more humble.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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