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Song for My Father

Bobby Ray Parks Jr. is on a quest to become the first born-and-raised Filipino to make the NBA and live up to his late father’s basketball legacy.

When Ray Parks Jr. checked in for the Dallas Mavericks, with 7:27 remaining in the second quarter of the team’s first NBA summer league game this July, it had been almost five months since he had played organized basketball. His last game was at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City, Metro Manila, where Ray started at off-guard in the Philippine Basketball Association D-League finals. In that game, Ray had been matched up with a player named Don Trollano; when Ray subbed in for the first time at summer league, he was guarding Seth Curry, the NBA D-League’s second-leading scorer and Steph Curry’s younger brother.

From the PBA D-League to NBA summer league, from Trollano to Curry, the difference in level of play is not a leap. It’s a chasm. Before traveling to Las Vegas for the 10-day tournament, Ray acknowledged how far-fetched it felt to be on the doorstep of the NBA. “I went from playing La Salle or Ateneo to playing the Pelicans,” he said. “That doesn’t even sound right. It feels weird to say.”

It could sound even weirder: Ray mentioned the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles and the De La Salle Green Archers, two college powerhouses he competed against while playing for Manila-based National University. He could have referenced former PBA D-League opponents the Bread Story Smashing Bakers, the Jumbo Plastic Linoleum Giants, the Wangs Basketball Couriers that sound as if they were named in fits of corporate-backed lunacy. In fact, the line on Dallas’s roster that listed Ray’s most recent team as the toothpaste-company-sponsored Hapee Fresh Fighters was the clearest giveaway that his path to summer league had been so circuitous.

For Ray, a 6-foot-4, 22-year-old lefty combo guard, that journey has been a lifelong game of Snakes and Ladders, marked by success on the court and heartbreak in his personal life. Ray was born and raised in Metro Manila, the son of legendary PBA import Bobby Ray Parks and Marifer Celine Barbosa. Over the past 10 years, circumstances have batted him back and forth between continents and basketball teams like a pingpong ball, and each new turn seemed to drive him further from his dream of playing in the NBA. He has walked away from a Division I scholarship, endured the death of his father, and spent the prime developmental years of his basketball career in the Philippines, a country that loves basketball more than any other in the world, but which has never produced an NBA player.

Given what Ray had been through, just making it to summer league was a remarkable feat something no other Philippine-born player has done.1 But “first Filipino to play in NBA summer league” is a backhanded compliment of a career achievement, and Ray, driven by the memory of his father and the support of millions of Filipinos, said he’s aiming even higher: “It’s something that I really, really want to make it to the NBA. It started off as just me and my dad with a dream. Now it’s the whole country behind me.”


1.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Clarkson and Atlanta Hawks summer league player Stephen Holt are both Filipino American, as is Raymond Townsend, who played for the Golden State Warriors in the late 1970s, but no born-and-bred Filipino has made it to the NBA yet.

But Ray’s first game in Vegas exposed an unforgiving reality. His first possession guarding Curry, Ray ran into a bulldozer of a pin-down screen that stopped him dead in his tracks and forced a costly defensive switch. A couple of possessions later, Curry beat Ray with a crossover in transition and earned two foul shots. After three minutes, one foul, and one turnover, Ray didn’t play the rest of the game. His first chance to adjust to the speed, size, and skill of NBA basketball to show that he belonged had passed. There wouldn’t be many more.

Ray getting ready to sub in for the first time at NBA Summer League.

Mo Twister Ray getting ready to sub in for the first time at NBA summer league.

When Ray says his father was Bobby Parks, the name probably doesn’t mean much to NBA fans — unless they’re from Memphis or the Philippines, in which case it means everything. Start in Tennessee, where Parks Sr. was a key member of one of the most revered teams in Memphis State (now University of Memphis) history.

Parks Sr. arrived at the school in 1980, and along with bank-shot specialist Phillip “Doom” Haynes and transcendent big men Keith Lee and William Bedford, he led Tigers basketball to a half-decade of success that hasn’t been matched since. Memphis State went to consecutive Sweet 16s in ’83 and ’84, where they fell short against the Clyde Drexler–Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Cougars in back-to-back years.2 Memphis State finally reached the Final Four in ’85, after Parks Sr. had finished his college career, but he is still remembered as a core member of a team that vies for the title of the city’s best.


2.

Drexler was a member of Houston’s national runner-up team in 1983, but he had already moved on to the NBA by 1984.

The ’80s teams were particularly beloved because almost the entire roster hailed from Memphis. Parks Sr., who was raised 60 miles away in Grand Junction, was graciously lumped in with this group, even though, according to then–assistant coach Lee Fowler, his teammates called him “Big Country.” Grand Junction, with a population of 360 in 1980, was “basically just a wide spot in the road,” Fowler said, and the 6-43 Parks Sr. had played center in high school.


3.

At Memphis State, he was listed at 6-5. In the Philippines, Parks Sr. was supposedly 6-3. Let’s split the difference.

If we hadn’t thought he could make the transition to second guard or small forward,” Fowler said, “we probably wouldn’t have recruited him.” He was rangy, agile, and tireless. Those who watched him up close said he was as quick off his feet as any player they’d ever seen. “He wasn’t a great jump shooter, but he could do everything else,” Fowler said. “Man, he could flat score inside and drive … and as long and quick as he was, he could guard anywhere from a center to a point guard.”

Parks Sr. wound up being the Tigers’ ultimate glue guy, a player who could smother the opponent’s best scorer and then pour in 18 points without having a play called for him. The greatest highlight of his career came in the 1982 Metro Conference tournament semifinal, when Parks Sr. streaked in from the weak side for a last-second, game-winning putback against Virginia Tech. A partial ligament tear in his right knee meant the premature end of Parks Sr.’s senior season, but it also gave Memphis State fans a unique way to honor his career. As Parks Sr. watched the Tigers’ final games from the sideline, the home crowd would cheer for him to sub in even though he couldn’t possibly play. “He was in full cast, but they loved him so much,” said Rick Spell, a longtime Memphis basketball booster who serves on the university’s board of visitors. “They just wanted to see him.”

“For people like me, he occupies a special place,” said Zack McMillin, who covered Memphis State basketball during his 20-year career at the Commercial Appeal. “He wasn’t as awesomely talented as Penny Hardaway, he didn’t dominate the way Keith Lee did, and he certainly wasn’t a one-and-done, rent-a-player like you saw in the [John] Calipari era. But those who know the basketball understand him as having a versatility and athleticism that, in some ways, is unique in Tiger history. You just don’t see that kind of guy anymore.”

Those are the shoes Ray is trying to fill.

Bobby Parks pushes the ball up court with Clyde Drexler close behind in the 1983 Sweet Sixteen.

University of Memphis Athletics Communications Bobby Parks Sr. pushes the ball up court with Clyde Drexler close behind in the 1983 Sweet 16.

It took Norman Black one game of two-on-two to know that Parks Sr. would dominate in the Philippines. This was back in 1987, when Black, who was in the middle of his own hall of fame PBA career,4 arranged a tryout for Parks Sr. and two other potential imports in Los Angeles. (At the time, Black was serving as the resident import and head coach for the San Miguel Beermen. The PBA season is divided into conferences,5 each with its own height restrictions for foreign players. Black could play under a 6-foot-5 limit, but when the ceiling was set lower, he needed to hire another reinforcement.) Parks Sr., who had been chosen in the third round of the 1984 NBA draft but never made it past the preseason, had spent his post-college years toiling in the Continental Basketball Association, and by ’87 he was “in the mode to move on and earn some money playing basketball,” Black said.


4.

Black was the first American player inducted in 2008. A year later, Parks Sr. became the second.

5.

These conferences are like mini-seasons, each with their own import restrictions and playoffs, that together make up a full season.

In that two-on-two game, Black teamed with Parks Sr. against the other prospective imports. “There was one play where he took off from the dotted line and dunked on the other two guys, both of them at the same time,” Black recalled. “I just said to myself, ‘Whoa.’” Not long after that, Parks Sr. was in Manila, averaging 40 points and 18.9 rebounds while leading the Beermen to a PBA championship.

It was the beginning of a 12-year career in the Philippines for Parks Sr., who transferred to Shell Rimula-X (owned by the gas company) and became the team’s regular import, teaming with locals Ronnie Magsanoc and Benjie Paras to form the PBA’s “Awesome Threesome.”6 He won the league’s Best Import award a record seven times, and he won all seven in a row. He posted the gargantuan numbers that were expected of PBA imports in that era: Averages of 43 points and 16 rebounds during his Best Import streak and a career-high scoring average of 52.6 points per game in 1989. He set the bar for himself so high that in 1992, the PBA yearbook lamented that Parks Sr. “averaged a mere 39.9 points per game.”


6.

Along with Ray, Paras’s son Kobe is considered the Philippines’ next best hope to make the NBA.

Guarding Parks Sr. was all but impossible. “It took two or three guys to try to stop him, and that wasn’t successful a lot of the time,” said Jeff Cariaso, one of the PBA’s top defenders during a 15-year career that began in 1995. Tim Cone, the winningest coach in PBA history, never managed to cook up a defense that could contain Parks Sr. “First of all, you couldn’t guard him [one-on-one] with an import,” Cone recalled. “He was just too active. Your import would foul out in 15 minutes.” But asking opposing imports to play help defense wasn’t much better. “He was so quick to the explosive move that you couldn’t get from the weak side to the help side,” Cone said. “He’d just blow by you, and in the blink of an eye, dunk it. So you’d end up doubling him everywhere. Anything you threw at him, he’d figure it out.”

But in a league that’s known for calling underperforming imports “lemons” and swapping them out like bad appliances, Parks Sr. was even more remarkable for his staying power. Many Americans who play in the PBA don’t last more than a couple of weeks. Most imports would be fortunate to play an entire conference. The really good ones return a couple of times. Only three players have made their careers as PBA “resident imports” — Norman Black at San Miguel, Parks Sr. with Shell, and Sean Chambers for Alaska.

Parks Sr. accomplished this with his play, of course, but also with a humble personality that made teammates, coaches, and fans want to see him return year after year. “He was never a jerk, he was never demonstrative on the floor, he was only respectful,” Cone said. “It was kind of frustrating because he was a super nice guy and he still beat your ass all the time.” Even rival players seemed reverent of Parks Sr., who was known for calmly tolerating the chicanery that local “import stoppers” would use against foreign players. These dark arts ranged from simple intimidation, like undercutting an import to make him think twice about attacking the rim, to kinky psychological warfare, like tickling an import’s gooch from behind to make him lose his composure. Parks Sr. weathered it all until opposing teams just stopped messing with him, either out of respect or because the strategy never worked.

“He never reacted,” said Chambers, the former Alaska import. “Filipino fans love players that can stay cool in tight situations. The fact that you don’t get emotional or show some ugliness to your game, people respect that so much. And your teammates respect that, and then they’ll stick up for you. That’s what I learned from Bobby.”

“You talk about guys posthumously and you have a tendency to overstate them, and that’s just not the case with Bobby,” Cone said. “I feel like I’m not giving you the real story because I’m not able to really explain how good he was, how unique he was.”

And that’s the kind of legacy that Ray hopes to surpass.

Bobby Parks, left, playing for Shell in the mid-'90s, with Robert Jaworski, one of the most famous players in PBA history.

Courtesy of Rafe Bartholomew Bobby Parks, left, playing for Shell in the mid-’90s, and Robert Jaworski, one of the most famous players in PBA history.

Ray was born in Metro Manila in 1993, near the height of his father’s fame. Former national team coach Chot Reyes, who was coaching in the PBA back then, remembered seeing Ray as a toddler, tagging along with his dad to practice: “I’d always yell at Bobby — ‘Hey, you better make sure he eats a lot because that’s gonna be the future of Philippine basketball.’” Later in his childhood, Ray would dread the swarm of fans that would form around his father whenever they walked in public. “I hated going out with him,” he said. “Everybody would just be mobbing him, asking for autographs. One thing you know, I’m holding his hand, and then for the next five minutes I’m gone in the crowd.”

Ray didn’t play organized ball growing up. He attended a small Christian international school and joined informal neighborhood tournaments. Ray’s parents, who separated, wound up migrating to the States before their children, with Marifer moving to L.A. in 2003 and Parks Sr. heading back to Memphis in 2005. Ray and his younger sister, Celine, joined them the following year, but until then, Ray became the 12-year-old man of the house, responsible for looking after Celine and paying bills with remittances his parents sent home. Meanwhile, Parks Sr. and Marifer tried to make regular visits home, and the family retained live-in household workers who helped watch the children. Still, there was a time in Ray’s adolescence when he was “just a random black kid from Parañaque,”7 he said. “You wouldn’t know [who I was] until I say my name. Me and my friends would take a bus all the way to Araneta, sit in nosebleed seats, and just watch PBA games.”


7.

A city in Southern Metro Manila.

When they finally moved to the States in 2006, Celine went to live with their mother in California and Ray joined his dad and his stepfamily — also Filipino — in Tennessee.8 Ray, who grew up speaking English and Tagalog, learned to wipe the Filipino lilt from his accent and became serious about basketball. He joined AAU programs, and his father’s connections helped Ray receive a scholarship to play at St. George’s, a private high school in suburban Memphis.


8.

Although he hasn’t lived with his mother and sister since 2006, Ray has remained close with them, and after summer league he visited Los Angeles to see them and celebrate Celine’s 20th birthday.

By his sophomore year, Ray had developed into a big, bruising, attacking point guard, capable of finishing at the rim, pulling up for lefty jumpers, and setting up his teammates. He averaged more than 20 points that season and was named Tennessee’s private school Mr. Basketball. As a junior, Ray transferred to Melrose, a public high school in Memphis whose basketball team went 10-deep with Division I talent and was led by Chris Jones and Adonis Thomas, two of the best prospects in the state. Melrose won the 2010 Tennessee state championship that season and finished in the top 10 of national rankings. The team’s coach, Jermaine Johnson, credited their success to Ray’s willingness to sacrifice his scoring. “That dude was selfless,” Johnson said. “He could’ve went in and been aggressive on the ball, but he knew that was Chris Jones’s mojo. He knew that Adonis came to Melrose as a ninth-grader and this was his team. [Ray] was that smart of a kid that he didn’t try to take their spotlight.” Instead, he averaged 8.5 points per game and recast himself as the team’s toughest defender. “He became the chemistry guy,” Johnson added. “And not the C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y, but the C-H-E-M-I-S-TREE. See, he was the roots. My tree was so strong and healthy at the bottom because of a guy like him.”

But even as Ray found success on the court, his family hit on hard times. It’s unclear how Parks Sr. spent the nest egg he’d built up over his PBA career. Perhaps it was the burden of helping to support two families — Ray and Celine, as well as their stepfamily in Memphis. Perhaps he used the savings on medical expenses after he was first diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 2008 (even though Parks Sr. initially hid this from Ray). “I don’t know how it happened or what was happening behind the scenes,” said Ray, who was a teenager at the time. “Of course he wouldn’t tell me that.” Years later, when Ray had to posthumously settle his father’s estate, he found that his father had been “quite in debt” in the States.

In the meantime, however, Parks Sr. drove a bread truck during Ray’s high school years, delivering baked goods to grocery stores. Whenever his schedule permitted, Ray would join him. “We’d be in supermarkets at three, four in the morning, stacking bread,” Ray said. “That’s when I began to think, Damn, my pops is a future PBA Hall of Famer, and now he’s stacking bread. … It was humble beginnings for us.”

About a month after his father’s 2008 diagnosis, Ray finally learned his father was fighting throat cancer — not because Parks Sr. decided to tell him, but because the radiation marks on Parks Sr.’s neck made his illness plain to see. “He’s that type of guy that would just hide things from us,” Ray said. “He doesn’t want us to see his pain.” Although the revelation was jarring, it came so late in Parks Sr.’s treatment that Ray barely had time to fear for his father’s life before doctors told Parks Sr. that the cancer was in remission.

After his dad’s illness, Ray said, “that’s when he started struggling financially and when he started thinking seriously about going to the Philippines.” Then, when Parks Sr. traveled to Manila for his PBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony in October 2009 — the beginning of Ray’s junior year at Melrose — a more secure job opportunity presented itself. The Sy family (according to Forbes, the richest in the Philippines) had recently bought a majority stake in National University (NU). They planned to rebuild the school’s academic and athletic reputations, and they wanted to hire Parks Sr. as an assistant athletic director.

It was an impossible decision. When Parks Sr. had moved back to Memphis in 2005 and eventually had Ray join him, it was with his son’s basketball future in mind. “The dream was always for Ray Ray to play in the U.S. NCAA and eventually the NBA,” said Ronnie Magsanoc, Parks Sr.’s friend and former PBA teammate. Relocating to Manila would limit Ray’s exposure to other athletes with NBA-caliber size and athleticism, and perhaps make it impossible for Ray to return to elite U.S. basketball. At the same time, Parks Sr. had a family to support, and the opportunity in the Philippines would allow him to do that. Not to mention that forging close ties with the Sy family could benefit his family for decades to come.

“Ideally, I believe that if Bobby had a choice, he would have had Ray Ray stay in the U.S.,” Magsanoc said. “But probably because of things that happened, economic situations, he made the decision to bring Ray Ray back to Manila.” When word got out that Ray would spend his college career at National, rumors whistled through Manila’s tight-knit basketball community: That Ray playing for the NU Bulldogs was a condition of Parks Sr.’s job offer; that the Sy family would pay for Parks Sr.’s ongoing medical treatments; that Ray would receive a share of the revenue from a Sy-owned supermarket.

This was all innuendo, Ray said. He was 17 when Parks Sr. accepted the NU job — he had little choice but to follow his dad to Manila. There were no side deals, no SM Hypermarkets. Ray said his father was cancer-free when they moved to the Philippines in 2010, but that the illness factored into Ray’s willingness to join Parks Sr. “It was just a good opportunity for my family and also for me, too,” Ray said. “It wouldn’t really make sense for me, being away — especially knowing he was just sick.”

And with that, Ray walked away from his senior year at Melrose, away from U.S. basketball as a whole, and away from the conventional path to the NBA. Sports Illustrated called him “the lost boy of the Class of 2011.”

Ray playing for National University in the Philippines.

KC Cruz/GMA News Online Ray playing for National University in the Philippines.

Yet even after Parks Sr. took the NU job and Ray committed to the school, they continued to explore opportunities for Ray to play Division I ball. Not long after returning to Manila, Ray was invited to play at the 2010 Nike Global Challenge in Oregon. It was there, leading the All-Asia team against top amateur talent from Europe and North America — including future top-three picks Anthony Davis, Andrew Wiggins, and Bradley Beal — that Ray put his name on the recruiting map. He averaged 22 points and shot 44.4 percent on 3s during the event, good enough to be named to the International All-Tournament team and good enough for some of the American prospects to call him a ringer while watching him play. “Guys in the crowd were yelling, ‘You’re not supposed to be with that All-Asia side!’” Ray recalled. “‘You don’t even look Asian. You’re supposed to be with us!’”

Robert McCullum, then an assistant coach on Paul Hewitt’s staff at Georgia Tech, didn’t attend the tournament, but when he checked the results, Ray’s numbers caught his eye. “I began calling some scouts I know that work internationally and were familiar with him,” said McCullum, now in basketball operations at the University of Oregon. “Everyone I talked to thought that he was a high-major prospect.” McCullum convinced Hewitt to approve a scouting trip to Manila in October 2010, and once the coach saw Ray play, he called the decision to offer him a scholarship a “no-brainer.”

“He was a 6-foot-3 combo guard who could really score the ball, had good size, and he was a really, really sharp kid,” McCullum recalled. “Just sharp all the way around.” That fall, Georgia Tech flew Ray to Atlanta for a recruiting visit, and he continued to impress the Yellow Jackets coaching staff. “He was still a 17-year-old at the time, but he was really mature,” McCullum said. “Extremely humble, great people skills, and really had a great deal of respect and admiration for his dad.” On November 22, Georgia Tech announced that Ray had signed a letter of intent to join the Yellow Jackets’ 2011-12 freshman class.

At this time, Ray had not yet played college basketball in the Philippines. He was serving a residency period (similar to a redshirt season) required for Filipino players who attended high school outside the country. But he was already committed to National University, whose coaching staff was shocked by the Georgia Tech announcement. “We found out not from him but from the news,” said NU coach Eric Altamirano. The coaching staff and team managers then met with Ray and Parks Sr. to discuss their future plans. “I understand where Ray Ray’s coming from,” Altamirano said. “He has this dream of playing in the NBA. So I said, ‘I won’t try to persuade you. What I want is for your own good, and you’re already man enough to make that decision.’ … And finally, he decided to stay and play for NU.”

The choice to remain at National was a sacrifice Ray made for the good of his family. “I signed at Georgia Tech, but it was better for my family for me to go back home to the Philippines,” Ray said. “It pulled me away further from the NBA dream, but it really helped us in the long run. … Family is the most important thing — my father instilled that in me.”

During Ray’s recruitment, the Georgia Tech staff had heard that they might have trouble getting Ray to return from the Philippines. “There were people in the know who suggested that we wouldn’t get very far,” McCullum said. “They painted a very pessimistic picture.” Those predictions came true at the end of Georgia Tech’s 2010-11 season, after the Yellow Jackets finished 13-18 and Hewitt had been fired. Brian Gregory, the new coach, found it nearly impossible to reach Ray and Parks Sr. in Manila. “It was a two-week odyssey of trying to get ahold of somebody on that end,” Gregory said. Eventually, he did manage to connect with them, but by then Gregory could tell it was too late. “I got the feeling at that particular point that their plan was to stay in the Philippines,” Gregory said. “We had maybe three conversations, and then I really never heard from them again. It was one of the strangest two weeks of recruiting that I’ve ever been associated with.”

parks-rayKC Cruz/GMA News Online

By the time Ray made his NU debut in July 2011, his first game was national news. Filipino fans had followed the back-and-forth saga with Georgia Tech, and many believed that adding an ACC-caliber guard to the local college league would be like setting an apex predator loose in a petting zoo. Even though NU’s basketball program was rebuilding and hadn’t won a University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) championship since 1954, there was pressure on the Bulldogs to compete for a title. “When you have Bobby Ray, it’s a shoo-in,” Altamirano said, describing the expectations his team faced. “You should get to the finals.”

If only it were that easy. First, Ray had to learn to carry a team. “There was a time when Ray was telling me, ‘Coach, I need to give up the ball,’” Altamirano recalled. “I kept telling him, ‘No, you have to be aggressive. Your role for us is to score, then to create shots and be the facilitator. We don’t have the players yet that could give you a breather.’” With NU’s smaller lineup, Ray had to move from point guard to small forward, but his role on the court was almost omnipositional. He was a primary ball handler and playmaker as well as the team’s main scoring option. On defense, he’d harass opposing point guards at half court and outjump rival big men for rebounds — sometimes on the same possession. “I didn’t really know how to handle it,” Ray said. “I had to be like mini-LeBron: You have to score, you have to make everybody happy, you have to rebound, you have to defend.”

Then there were the referees. “My first six months or so, even if I would speak to the refs in Tagalog, they’ll still look at me like I’m a foreigner,” Ray said. “Like they think I’m stronger than everybody — like how they see an import.” His drives to the rim were impeded by grabs, shoves, and hip-checks that often went uncalled. Whether or not it’s intentional, half-black, biracial Filipino basketball players are often treated as if they’re more black than Pinoy — at least on the court. It’s a reality that Ray had grown up with and accepted, but which still upset him when it meant begging referees to treat him like the Manileño he is. “They had to understand: I’m one of you!” he said. “I grew up here, spent most of my life here. I was playing in tsinelas9 since I was a kid.”


9.

Tsinelas are flip-flops, and the image of Filipinos playing in the flimsy rubber sandals has become a symbol of the country’s deep love for basketball.

Despite the challenges of readjusting to the Philippine game, Ray became the best player in the league from the moment his first UAAP game tipped off. He scored 30 points, with nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals in his second career game. Ray went on to lead the league in scoring while making the top five in rebounds, steals, and minutes per game. He was named MVP in his first season, then again in his second. Opponents couldn’t contend with his size, strength, or speed. The most reliable defense against Ray was to overload his side when he had the ball and then foul.

But the way Ray was visibly superior to UAAP competition is also why many fans consider his college career an overall disappointment. Even though Ray was the most important piece in NU’s rapid development into a championship contender, the Bulldogs never reached the finals and never won a playoff game with him in the lineup. Then, the year after Ray left, NU finally won a championship. “The knock on him is always going to be [that he was] the great, great player who never won,” said Chot Reyes, the former national team coach. “But that doesn’t take away from what he’s done. There’s so many great players who’ve never won anything.”

By the time Ray had finished playing for NU, however, he had survived more heartbreak than criticism of his basketball intangibles could ever hope to cause.

Ray stretching before a summer league game in Las Vegas.

Mo Twister Ray stretching before a summer league game in Las Vegas.

“It was fast, man,” Ray said. “It was quick.”

It was the first time he saw a loved one die of cancer.

He met her, a TV personality and former UAAP sideline reporter named Maan Panganiban, in October 2010. She was almost seven years older than Ray, but they just felt right together. They’d been dating a little over a year when she called him in Indonesia, where Ray was playing in the 2011 Southeast Asian Games: She was worried about a heavy cough. When Ray returned to Manila, she told him that she’d started coughing up blood. He took her from specialist to specialist in search of a diagnosis, until finally one came: lymphoma. Panganiban was 25 at the time.

She spent the final months of 2011 in the hospital. When she was first confined to the hospital, Ray tried to be with her constantly. He left the basketball team for two weeks. He slept in her room. The only time he spent away from Panganiban was at class. “Maan loved me more than she loved herself,” Ray said. “She wanted me by her side all the time.” Eventually, though, Ray broke down. It was too much: the stress of serving as a caretaker, of witnessing Panganiban grow weaker.

“He was still a young kid, you know?” Altamirano said. “It came to a point where he was already suffocated, where [he said], ‘Coach, I cannot take it anymore.’ He was a wreck, so we had to remove him from the situation. There was a time that he didn’t visit Maan anymore. He would give her space, and also give himself space.”

They didn’t expect the end to come so soon. One night in January, less than three months after Panganiban’s diagnosis, Ray got a call from her younger brother: “I think you need to come here.” By the time Ray arrived at her room, she had already died. “I got to the ICU and she was just laying there, dead,” Ray said. “I couldn’t even believe it. It took me five minutes to shed a tear.” At the hospital, some members of Panganiban’s extended family accused Ray of abandoning her. “‘The reason she died is because of you,’” he recalled them saying. “At that point, I was just crying in a corner.”

At Panganiban’s wake a family vigil that traditionally lasts five to seven nights in the Philippines her family saw how deeply Ray cared for her. Typically, well-wishers visit for a short period of time to pay their respects and say a prayer for the deceased. But Ray wouldn’t leave. “I was there all the way,” he said. “I didn’t sleep for like three days. Her family had to tell me to go home just to get some rest.”

Things got better. Ray mended his relationship with Panganiban’s family. He attended church regularly with Altamirano’s family. He made time to visit his father and stepfamily more often, even though he regularly saw Parks Sr. at NU games and practices. “It helped me focus,” Ray said of the tragedy. “It showed that life is short and you just have to value everything so much more.” Six months after Panganiban’s death, Ray warmed up for the opening game of his second UAAP season while wearing a T-shirt that read “I [heart] Maan” and announced that he was dedicating the season to her. That year, Ray led the Bulldogs to their first playoff appearance in a decade and won his second straight MVP.

Then, on the afternoon of his MVP award ceremony, Ray received a text message from his father, explaining why he hadn’t been able to attend. “Ray, I apologize I won’t be able to make it,” Ray said, paraphrasing the message. “I’m staying here in Pampanga.10 I just got a diagnosis from a doctor that my cancer is back.”


10.

A province about two hours north of Manila.

Ray left immediately and drove to see his father. “I just didn’t want to believe it,” he said. “It was like a nightmare — again?” Parks Sr.’s laryngeal cancer had returned, and this time it spread to his lungs. Ray watched as the disease reduced his father to a shell of himself. “Really seeing it in front of you is different,” Ray said. “Seeing your dad get weak. Seeing your dad lose weight.” He recalled a time when Parks Sr. woke in the middle of the night, and Ray, who’d been sleeping beside him, asked what he needed. Parks Sr. had a searching look on his face. He pointed at Ray with one hand, and with the other snapped his fingers like he was trying to remember something. “For your own father to forget your name,” Ray said. “I broke down in tears that night. I was like, ‘Lord, what’s happening? This is just getting worse and worse.’”

On March 30, 2013, not quite six months into his father’s second bout with cancer, Ray took his two younger stepbrothers on a day trip about four hours outside of Manila. Almost as soon as they arrived, Ray got a call. Earlier that day, Parks Sr. had died. He was 51 years old. “I broke down in the car with my little stepbrothers behind me,” Ray said. He spoke to an uncle who told him: “Cry this out one time and be done with it, because you’re the man of the house. You can’t cry in front of your sister, your mom, your stepfamily.” Ray had just turned 20.

So there, in the car, Ray wept himself numb. “From there, I felt more like I can deal with this,” he said. “Once you have no more tears, you’re just dry.” When he got back to Manila, Parks Sr.’s body had already been transferred to the morgue. “It was a cold room,” he said. “I was just thinking it’s crazy how I can say, ‘I don’t have no father.’”

As difficult as it was to say, however, the responsibility fell on Ray to break the news to the Philippine basketball community. Much like Parks Sr. had waited to tell Ray about his first cancer diagnosis in 2008, he had chosen to keep the news of his relapse private. Close friends like Magsanoc had heard that Parks Sr.’s condition had turned grave, but many of them never got to see him before his death. “My dad is the type that he wouldn’t want anybody to know,” Ray said. “If he’s feeling any pain he just doesn’t say anything.”

So there was Ray, holding himself together at his father’s wake or even just on the street or in a mall somewhere in Manila, accepting the condolences of everyone from PBA commissioner Chito Salud to NU teammates to everyday fans he’d never met. Ray submitted himself to the blunt-force trauma of Philippine talk show interviews, the kind that begin with a host saying, “Ang sad ng life niya, his dad just died.” He did it to give fans a chance to mourn Parks Sr. “With stuff like that I’m just doing it for my dad,” Ray said. “Like, ‘OK, I’m trying to get your story across and let people pay their respects to you.’”

Three months after his father’s death, Ray’s third UAAP season began. His scoring average dipped below 20 points for the first time, but he led an improved NU team to a no. 1 playoff seed before the Bulldogs were upset. He’d already completed his degree in information technology, and so even though he was eligible to keep playing for National, Ray decided to finish his college career and chase the NBA dream that he and Parks Sr. had shared for the 19 years they were together.

“Other people, if they experienced the same thing, maybe they would just break down,” Altamirano said. “But it’s different with Ray. I think he even used the death of his dad as motivation — to be able to continue his legacy. He’s using that now to fuel his passion, his drive to achieve something. Maybe now it’s the NBA.”

Ray draws a foul on Portland's Pat Connaughton before scoring his first summer league point at the free throw line.

Mo Twister Ray draws a foul on Portland’s Pat Connaughton before scoring his first summer league point at the free throw line.

Sure, Ray wanted to fulfill that dream, but he’d just spent four years outside of the American mainstream, playing against lesser competition than he would have faced at Georgia Tech. Getting back on the NBA radar was going to be a struggle. He tried for the first time before the 2014 draft, but the agency he signed with failed to file Ray’s early entry paperwork. He had to return to Manila and play in the PBA D-League while waiting to turn 22, at which point he’d become automatically eligible for the 2015 NBA draft as an international player.

Meanwhile, Ray’s Manila-based agent reached out to East-West Private LLC, a Cincinnati-based brand management firm that helped broker the deal that landed former Nets forward Andray Blatche on the Philippine national team. East-West also worked to organize a pair of exhibition games that brought Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and other NBA stars to Manila during the 2011 NBA lockout. When East-West heard Ray’s story, they offered to help him take a second shot at the NBA, and the Sy family agreed to pay for Ray’s travel, lodging, and training in the States.

Without the Sys’ backing, Ray would have been forced to give up on the NBA and turn pro in the Philippines to help support his mom and sister in L.A. “Left alone by ourselves I probably would have been in the PBA by now — like, working,” Ray said. The Sy family’s generosity helped Ray see the wisdom in his father’s decision to take the NU job in Manila and his own choice not to attend Georgia Tech. “It made me sit back and think,” Ray said. “This is the longer route. This is the tougher route. But maybe this truly is a blessing.”

This May, a little more than a month before draft night, Ray flew from Manila to Indianapolis. East-West had arranged to have him evaluated by Indy-based trainer Chris Thomas, who has prepared several college players for the draft, including former All-Americans Gary Harris and Luke Hancock. “The clear expectation was that you’ve got to get through C.T. first,” said East-West CEO Maria Espaldon. “We can’t do anything if he says [Ray]’s just not up to muster.”

Thomas had turned away the last player that East-West had brought him, but Ray was different. “He packed not to go back,” the coach said. “That was the first indicator that he’s serious.” And on the court, Thomas said, “[Ray] just had enough of the skill sets and athletic ability and knowledge of the game to know you’re looking at a pro.” He accepted Ray as a client, and East-West set out to find him an agent.

Ray wound up signing with Excel Sports Management, which in a few weeks’ time managed to book him five predraft workouts. He performed particularly well in Dallas and Boston, and the Mavs indicated that Ray was among a handful of players they were considering with the 52nd pick. But Ray never heard his name called on draft night, and Dallas wound up selecting 19-year-old Indian center Satnam Singh. Ray went to sleep after the pick was announced, and he woke up the next morning to a text message from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson, welcoming him to the Mavericks’ summer league team.

What convinced Dallas to give Ray a chance? It probably didn’t hurt that Mavs scout Jim Kelly is one of his godfathers. Before working as an international scout for NBA teams, Kelly had spent much of the ’90s as a coaching consultant for PBA teams.11 In Manila, he became close friends with the small group of Americans who made their lives in Philippine basketball, including Bobby Parks. But Kelly said he didn’t have to call in any favors on Ray’s behalf. “When he worked out for us, he showed a good level of maturity, he made a lot of shots, and without me pushing him on anybody, the team said, ‘He’s not bad,’” Kelly explained. “On top of that, he had a great interview. He came in humble, he answered questions well — the maturity factor helped a lot.”


11.

In 1992, Kelly tried to bring a Filipino American point guard from the University of Portland to the PBA. His name: Erik Spoelstra.

And while no franchise would sign a player just to gain access to a foreign market, East-West eagerly sold NBA front offices on the business benefits of Ray’s quest to make history for the Philippines. “It’s an amazing opportunity for any team as far as global partnerships are concerned,” Espaldon said. “There are teams that get it, and there are teams that just don’t see it yet.” The Mavs did consider how adding Ray might establish a new fan base in Asia. “It came up in a conversation,” Kelly said, “because we also drafted the kid from India.” After Dallas’s first summer league game, when team owner Mark Cuban was asked about Ray’s chances, Cuban practically gushed to reporters about Filipinos’ love for basketball: “I don’t think people here really realize the impact of basketball on the Philippines and that’s important. I would love to be the team of the Philippines.

“I’m excited for Bobby,” Cuban said. “If he keeps on working he really could be the first [Philippine-born] NBA player.”

Ray goes for a layup against the Atlanta Hawks in the summer league semifinals.

Jack Arent/NBAE/Getty Images Ray goes for a layup against the Atlanta Hawks in the summer league semifinals.

In his first three summer league games, Ray played 13 minutes and four seconds combined. A media conference call the Mavs organized between him and Manila-based reporters lasted roughly twice as long. The writers of the Mavs Moneyball blog began referring to him as “Bobby ‘Pageview’ Parks” after their story about him went viral among Filipino readers. The highlights of his first five days in Las Vegas were a made free throw and an offensive rebound. Besides that, he seemed indecisive on the court, turning down corner 3s and declining chances to attack the paint. In practice, Ray had impressed Dallas summer league coach Kaleb Canales — “he’s so active and he’s silky-smooth with the ball” — but during game action, the jump from semipro Philippine hoops to the doorstep of the NBA appeared too great to overcome.

Hans Sy, a scion of the Sy business empire, had even flown to Vegas to sit courtside at Ray’s first game. “I guess this is how it is,” Sy said after watching Ray play three minutes against the Pelicans. “I promised the father that no matter what, I would support [Ray] in his career. That’s why I’m here.”

As Ray sat near the end of the bench and watched the second half tick away, he could hardly bring himself to look across the court at Sy. “This guy’s been supporting me and he came all the way from the Philippines,” Ray said later in the week. “It does bother me a little, but what can I do? It’s not in my hands. It’s not like they know who Sir Hans is and they’ll say, ‘We gotta play Ray.’”

During his predraft training with Thomas, Ray had worked on NBA point guard skills — making reads off high screens, throwing pocket passes, “goofy foot” finishes in the paint. But the Mavs were playing Ray at shooting guard behind NBA veterans Jordan Crawford and Darius Miller, and he now looked lost as a 3-and-D wing in Dallas’s sets. During his limited minutes, he’d mostly just sprint to the corner and wait for passes that never came.

When Ray was waiting to play, every second felt like a missed opportunity to prove he belonged in the NBA, a grain of sand passing through his career hourglass. “It’s mentally draining,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of training, pushing my body to the edge, but this is different. Sitting on that bench — each second you look up at the clock, it’s pounding your head.” Thomas said Ray needed something drastic to get playing time: “At this point, [it’ll take either] an injury or a blowout.” Altamirano, who was watching from Manila, called Ray after the third game and challenged him to do better.

“Let me ask you one thing,” Altamirano said. “If I’m the coach what will I expect from a 2-guard? Do I expect you to pass? No. I expect you to score. If I’m the coach and for three minutes you did not do anything, I would take you out, too. Because I did not see a positive thing that you did. Be aggressive. If you’re given the opportunity, go grab it.”

Ray did eventually catch a break when Miller, who’d been Dallas’s first shooting guard off the bench, left the team to attend his wedding. Ray inherited Miller’s playing time and averaged almost 17 minutes over the team’s final three games. Against the Lakers, Ray’s defense helped force no. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell and all-rookie guard Jordan Clarkson into several difficult shots and a couple of turnovers. When Dallas faced the D-League Select team, Ray was all over the floor, collecting four steals and five rebounds and scoring 10 points, including a tip dunk and a twisting baseline finish over 7-3 center Hasheem Thabeet.

“Every day he’s getting better,” Altamirano said. “He’s more relaxed, he’s more assertive. I think, down the line, you can see that he can play in the NBA.” And for now, that remains Ray’s plan. He kept his name out of this year’s PBA draft, which means he’ll hope for an invite to an NBA training camp, and if he can’t make a team outright, then he’ll look to gain further seasoning in the D-League or in Europe. Because he showed the ability to compete with world-class talent at the high school level, there’s reason to hope that Ray’s game might blossom as he acclimates to elite professional basketball.

And if he spends a season or two in the D-League and never lands on an NBA roster? Plan B isn’t too bad. “The life and career he could have in Manila? It’s not Seth Curry, it’s Steph Curry,” Tim Cone said. Chot Reyes added that even if Ray falls short of his ultimate goal, he’ll be remembered as a trailblazer who made Filipinos believe their homegrown players can make it to the NBA. “Now people can say kaya naman pala!” Reyes said. We can do it after all.

What more could a proud father ask for?