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Me and Smush (and Kobe)

What happens when your childhood teammate becomes an NBA player who becomes Kobe Bryant's enemy

As of Tuesday morning, there were 1,155 messages in my Gmail inbox with the subject “Google Alert — Smush Parker.” They date back to August 30, 2005, when the headlines read “‘Smush’ gets 2-year deal with Lakers.” I’ve been receiving those e-mails for more than seven years, and for much of that time I wondered if I were the only person on the planet who asked Google to keep tabs on Smush. Well, now I’m willing to bet that there’s at least one other person as crazy as me.

His name is Kobe Bryant. Last week, Kobe launched into an unprovoked rant about his terrible mid-2000s teammates, especially Smush, at a Lakers preseason game. Smush responded on a little-known podcast the next day, then Kobe took credit for giving Smush “his little 30 minutes of fame” and wrote a dickish Facebook status update obliquely addressed to Smush. It was one of the strangest and most unexpected ex-teammate kerfuffles in recent NBA memory, and it made me wonder just how vindictive Kobe is. I imagined him hanging a poster of a bloated Smush playing overseas in a secret chamber buried several stories beneath his Southern California mansion. It’s the same room where Bryant stores the exploding bow tie he plans to send to Bruce Bowen on his 50th birthday, the jar of poisonous ricin pills with “SHAQUILLE” written on the side, and the life-size papier-mâché statue of Michael Jordan that Bryant plans to behead after winning his seventh NBA championship, at which point he’ll proclaim, “There can be only one.”

My reasons for following Smush’s career are simple: We grew up together and we were teammates in some of the same youth leagues. Although his NBA career never amounted to much, I’ve always treated the fact that I once set high screens for Smush Parker as if it were one of my greatest achievements, even if the only things I did to earn that “achievement” were to be born and raised around the same time and place as Smush, and to join the same recreation-center travel team as him.

The reasons behind Kobe’s Smush fixation are harder to pin down. The two haven’t been teammates since 2007. Smush has been out of the league for more than four years, and he pretty much only enters the NBA conversation nowadays as a punchline, his unusual name a convenient bit of shorthand that summons memories of an unfortunate period in Lakers history. Kobe did lose two years in the prime of his career while Smush was the Lakers point guard — instead of competing for championships, a mediocre supporting cast left Bryant competing for scoring records. A few years ago, Smush told an interviewer that playing with Kobe had been an “overrated experience” and made it clear that he disliked him personally. Apparently, those transgressions were enough to land Smush on Kobe’s permanent blacklist, as the Lakers guard proved last week when he told reporters that Smush “shouldn’t have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard.” Bryant also went after former teammates Kwame Brown, Tierre Brown, and Chris Mihm, but it was clear that Smush was the primary target.

In less than a week, just about every opinion imaginable has been rendered on Bryant’s comments and Smush’s response: Kobe is one of the greatest players ever and he can clown whomever he chooses; Kobe is pathologically driven to win, and we accept that, but even for a competitor as intense as Kobe, this grudge seemed creepy; Smush isn’t backing down and he’s keeping it real; Smush is just bitter. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that with his comments, Kobe effectively erased Smush Parker the NBA player from basketball fans’ collective memory. Smush won’t go down in history as an NYC playground legend who scrapped his way into the NBA despite long odds. He’ll just go down as the guy about whom Kobe talked shit.

Along with my father, Smush Parker is probably more responsible than anyone for making me love basketball. My father is the one who badgered me to practice shooting and play pickup hoops every day after school. He instilled the routine, but it was Smush who brought joy to the game.

Even though he was only 11 or 12 years old at the time, Smush was already a legend in Lower Manhattan in the early ’90s. Yes, he was born in Brooklyn and he usually claims that borough when asked where he’s from, but for the five or so years we played together, Smush lived in Tribeca, in Independence Plaza, an apartment complex on North Moore Street that for years was the last patch of affordable housing in a ritzy neighborhood best known for residents like Robert De Niro, Jay-Z, and The Real Housewives of New York. When I was 11 years old and I got picked to join the Carmine Street Recreation Center (now the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center) travel team, a friend’s mother told me, “Wow, you’re going to play with Squoosh.”

At the time, I had never heard of Squoosh or Smush or William Henry Parker. He was a year older than me and had been playing in an older division. “He’s like a genius,” she told me. “He always shoots, and he never misses.” Back then, that wasn’t far from the truth. Smush, lanky and rail-thin, would traipse over the half-court line and loft high-arcing 3-pointers from wherever he pleased. It was only a surprise when he missed. Playing with him was a blast, even if it meant sticking to a role of setting screens, grabbing rebounds, and being ready to catch and finish when Smush or one of our other guards decided to drive and dish. We traveled to Harlem and beat other recreation centers’ teams by 55 and 71 points. We rode to the Bronx and hung tight with the Gauchos, then the city’s premiere AAU outfit, alongside Riverside Church. We competed in summer tournaments against teams led by NYC phenoms and future Big East stars like Omar Cook and Andre Barrett. On the court with Smush and my other Carmine teammates, I felt like I was really good at something I dreamed of being great at. As it turned out, I was just pretty good, but I’ve never forgotten how it felt to compete against NYC’s best, to be so close to real talent that I believed I actually possessed some of it. Over time, as I left New York to attend college and then to live in the Philippines, I always brought only two photographs with me: one family portrait and one of me, Smush, and our other teammates standing behind a 6-foot sub and hoisting trophies (Smush holds one in each hand) after we won the 1994 Manhattan Parks Department 12-and-under winter league.1

Smush’s downtown legend grew. In 1997, Rick Telander, author of the seminal NYC playground hoops book Heaven Is a Playground, returned to New York to report on the city’s summer basketball scene for Sports Illustrated, and Smush wound up in the article:

Yesterday on West 4th I ran into my old friend Rodney Parker, the freelance ticket agent and street scout from Brooklyn who had been my guide and companion in my first foray into the playgrounds long ago. He was still doing the same stuff, he told me. And the street talent? The barrel had more fish than ever, he said … The bubbling humanitarian who used to play street ball with a Brooklyn kid named Lenny Wilkens gave me his salesman’s eye. “I got a kid who’s 15, he’s gonna be the next Jordan,” he said. “His name is Smoosh. There’s gonna be a sneaker named after him. Six-one, with arms that make him six-four. Best skills I’ve ever seen. Ever.”

Around the same time — we were still in high school — Smush modeled for a Nautica ad campaign. An image of him holding a basketball and glaring into the camera appeared painted on the side of a five-story building along Houston Street in Soho, as well as in the pages of SLAM magazine. I still have several copies of those issues of Sports Illustrated and SLAM Saran Wrapped and stacked underneath the bed in my childhood home.

Bryant-Parker

For a guy who had half of lower Manhattan convinced he was destined to play in the NBA since he was about 10 years old, Smush’s path to the league ended up being so riddled with pitfalls and bad decisions that it’s a wonder — and a testament to his raw talent — that he ever actually made it. Despite the fact that Smush had been playing for several different traveling teams and that he was known for holding his own in 18-and-under and men’s leagues throughout the city, he barely had a high school career. His freshman season he played for Washington Irving High School, which competed in the Manhattan public schools’ second-tier B division — and he was somehow stuck on the junior varsity. As a sophomore, he transferred to Newtown, an A-level school in Queens that had a stronger basketball program, but for the next two years he couldn’t get his grades high enough to qualify for high school sports.

Before Smush’s senior year at Newtown, if you asked anyone who had played against him in summer tournaments and street games, you’d probably hear that Smush was up there with New York City’s “Holy Trinity” of point guards — Omar Cook, Andre Barrett, and Taliek Brown. (If eventual NBA success is the ultimate measure of these players’ abilities, then Smush turned out to be better than all three of them.) But because Smush had yet to play a meaningful high school game, the Daily News and the Post barely knew his name. In the 1998-99 season, Smush’s final year at Newtown, he kept his grades high enough to remain eligible and earned second-team All-City honors while leading the team (along with freshman Charlie Villanueva) to the public league semifinals. Schools like the University of Illinois and South Carolina were reportedly interested in recruiting him, but Smush’s academic career pretty much ended the day after the season did. He couldn’t qualify for an NCAA Division I scholarship. With no clear next step in his career, the NBA started to look less like destiny and more like a pipe dream.

The next season, Smush ended up playing junior college ball at the College of Southern Idaho, but not for long. I remember hearing rumors that he left the team after feuding with fellow guard Kenny Brunner, who, during his brief enrollment at Fresno State, infamously assaulted a fellow student with a samurai sword in 1998. Smush resurfaced at Fordham University, where he averaged more than 16 points per game and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 second team in 2002, his lone year of D-I competition. Set aside the scoring, however, and numbers like Fordham’s 8-20 record and his almost even 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio suggested that he wasn’t ready for the NBA. Smush also had strained relationships with his teammates, particularly guard Adrian “Whole Lotta Game” Walton, whose claim to fame was having once matched Vince Carter shot-for-shot in a Rucker League scoring duel. And so even though Fordham coach Bob Hill advised against it, Smush declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.

Before the 2002 draft, the New York media reported that Smush might be a late first-round pick. Instead, he wasn’t selected at all, and Smush accused Hill, a longtime NBA assistant and former head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, of bad-mouthing him to the league’s GMs. So far, Smush’s career had gone wrong in high school, at junior college, and at Fordham. There was no way to look at his résumé and conclude, “Here’s a guy who’s done everything the right way.”2

Given everything Smush did to torpedo his shot at making the NBA, it could be considered a minor miracle that the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him as an undrafted free agent for the 2002-03 season. This was the beginning of a professional career in which Smush bounced between various teams and countries and found himself a bystander to some of the most memorable events in the past 10 years of NBA history. It started with that futile 17-65 Cavs team, led by Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, the season before they drafted LeBron James. Then Smush was out of the league for a year, but he returned to play the first half of the 2004-05 season with the Detroit Pistons. He was on the floor in Auburn Hills when a scuffle between Ben Wallace and Ron Artest erupted into the Malice at the Palace. Later that season, after Detroit waived him, Smush took a 10-day contract to back up Steve Nash in his first MVP campaign with the Phoenix Suns. The next two seasons he was in Los Angeles, where he logged 34 minutes in Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors (he was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer, with 13). Even after he washed out of the league, Smush was playing in China in 2010 when Stephon Marbury made his headline-grabbing debut for the Shanxi Brave Dragons.

I remember the giddy feeling of disbelief when I looked at the box score of Smush’s first 20-point game, a 140-133 Cleveland overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on December 9, 2002. I remember jumping out of my seat when he dunked over Andre Miller on national television on the opening night of the 2005-06 season. It was Smush’s first game in Lakers purple and gold, and when he scored 20 or more points in three of his first four games that year, I remember thinking he might actually become the player I dreamed he’d be back when we were playing together. And then, slowly, things unraveled. Midway through Smush’s second season with the Lakers, Phil Jackson replaced Smush in the starting lineup with Jordan Farmar. I remember the disdain on Smush’s face when Jackson would yank him after a turnover or bad shot: eyes narrowed, lips pursed, like he wanted to spit on the floor. It was the same look he’d summon whenever our youth league coaches would sub him out of games. Except that our youth league coach was the stepfather of one of our teammates whose lone qualification was his willingness to ride around with us. When he wasn’t available, a maintenance man at the recreation center named Papo took over. Smush was treating Phil Jackson like he was Papo.

The Lakers didn’t offer Smush a contract extension when his deal expired in 2007. Instead, he signed for two years with the Heat and took his talents to South Beach. After just nine games in a Miami uniform, Smush quarreled with a female parking lot attendant. The Heat put him on a shelf until they could buy out his contract. Smush hasn’t played a meaningful NBA minute since.

The happy version of Smush’s story goes like this: He’s an undrafted player from New York who gets cut by several teams and left behind again and again by the numbers game of NBA guaranteed contracts. But he keeps playing, endures stints in Greece and the NBA D-League, until finally, he enjoys a surprisingly good first season in Los Angeles, capped off by his steal on Steve Nash in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 4 of the Lakers-Suns first-round series in 2006.

That steal, and Smush’s ensuing tip to Kobe at midcourt, which kept the play alive, led to Kobe’s game-tying layup and game-winning jumper in overtime. After the steal, Kobe embraced Smush in what appears to have been one of their few moments of genuine camaraderie. Or was it? Watch the video of Kobe’s game-winner and you’ll notice that Smush might be the only Laker who doesn’t run to join the massive group hug around Kobe after his buzzer-beater passes through the net. Instead, Smush simply rises from his seat on the bench and hoists his yellow Lakers towel like a flag. Perhaps their relationship had already soured by then, or perhaps Smush was sulking because he wasn’t on the court for the final play.

And because last week Kobe decided to call out Smush for no apparent reason,3 many basketball fans will forget this 2006 series and Smush’s role in it — and indeed, his entire underdog career. Instead, they will recall that Kobe called him “the worst,” and that Smush fired back to say a mixture of what most basketball fans already know or probably assume — that Kobe is a creepy weirdo with few friends. Then Kobe posted a passive-aggressive Facebook message (“Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain?”), and then the NBA season started and everyone moved on. That is Smush’s legacy, until the next time Kobe decides to drag his name through the dirt.

For me, the most striking part of Smush’s 40-minute interview on the Hard 2 Guard podcast was the very beginning, when he says, “It makes me blush — for my name to still come out of that man’s mouth?” Incredulous, frustrated, Smush has a weary air that says “Can’t Kobe just let me move on with my career?” Of course, the answer is no, and Smush seems to know by now that whatever he says to defend himself, the deck of public opinion is stacked in Kobe’s favor. Kobe is the NBA legend. He’s the player who’ll likely be competing for an NBA championship this season. He’s the guy to whom reporters can’t afford to lose access. Kobe’s mouthpiece is ESPN, Lakers.com, and the Los Angeles Times. Smush’s mouthpiece is Hard 2 Guard. It doesn’t matter if Smush is right, because Kobe is bigger than him, and Kobe is better than him, and the NBA needs Kobe.

But Smush is right. Kobe’s record as a teammate is not a pretty one, and it grows out of a mind-set that Smush described on the podcast: “Basketball is a team sport … It’s not tennis or golf, it is a team sport. When you are the star of the team, you have to make your teammates feel comfortable. You have to make them feel welcome. And he did not do that at all.”

Not only did he make them feel unwelcome, but over the years Kobe has joyfully attacked lesser teammates and treated fellow Lakers stars like rivals instead of allies. There’s the Smush smear campaign, the recent clowning of Jodie Meeks, and the way Kobe mocked DJ Mbenga’s English4 on Jimmy Kimmel Live after the 2010 championship. Kobe also drove Shaq out of town and, in the midst of Kobe’s 2003 rape trial, outed Shaq’s marital infidelities. Kobe has publicly questioned nearly every basketball decision-gone-wrong that Pau Gasol has made in a Lakers jersey, including making last year’s “Pau’s got to be more assertive” speech after the Lakers fell into a 3-1 series hole against the Thunder.

Smush was able to respond comfortably and — as it seems to me — honestly to Kobe’s insults because he no longer has anything to lose by helping Kobe preserve his image. The NBA is done with Smush and he knows it, so he might as well speak his mind. Smush’s stories about Kobe separating himself from the other Lakers at team dinners, the anecdotes about being instructed that he was not allowed to speak to Kobe because he hadn’t accomplished enough, foreshadow the arrival of what could be a dark chapter in Kobe Bryant’s legacy — the stories of all the lesser teammates he gleefully hounded and bullied during his record-breaking career.

Eventually, Kobe and his teammates will retire from basketball. Eventually, the people he stepped on will have nothing to lose by sharing a few stories about his behavior. And eventually, some of them will decide to tell those stories. Will those stories change the way we look at one of the greatest basketball players of all time? It depends how bad, how ugly, how craven they are. But if that happens, then maybe Smush Parker won’t just go down in history as the also-ran on whom Kobe shat whenever he had the chance. Maybe Smush will go down as one of Kobe’s first ex-teammates to speak out.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Kobe Bryant, NBA, People, Rafe Bartholomew, Sports

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