Last Thursday evening, long after his team's 59-49 NCAA Southeast Regional semifinal victory of paper Marquette, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sat at the back of his locker room scanning a wrinkled sheet of paper. It was a shot chart, a diagram of a basketball court on which statisticians catalog a game's made and missed field goals. Krzyzewski pointed to where Marquette's layups should have been. "None," he said. "That's never happened before. Sure, it's good team defense, but it's Cherokee."
Junior center Cherokee Parks's own numbers were no less telling: 12 points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots. And two days later, when Duke reached the Final Four with a 69-60 win over Purdue, Parks had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three more blocks. Two of the blocks were on Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson, including a demoralizing first-half spike after the Purdue star had shaken Grant Hill and found a rare patch of daylight. "Actually, I was just standing there getting ready to be dunked on," Parks said.
It's a joke when he says something like that these days, but that wasn't the case two years ago when Parks was a 6'11" freshman, whimpering at the abuse heaped on him by Christian Laettner, then a Duke senior. Derided by teammates for his California-bred cool, his floppy hair and his hippie name (No. 1 on the second-generation Flower Power charts until skier Picabo Street hit Lillehammer), Parks, a high school All-America, was struggling to step up to the next level.
Now he is the inside presence that makes Duke's sweeping perimeter defense a major offensive option. He is averaging 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds this season and has been consistently solid against a succession of opposing big-name centers. Plus a bonus: That was Parks on Saturday, calling his own teammates "Big Dog," right in Robinson's face, 'I don't know if he was trying to get under Glenn's skin or get us pumped up." said freshman guard Jeff Capel, "but it definitely got me pumped up." That Parks would someday help Duke by scoring was expected; that he would both intimidate and talk trash seemed unthinkable. Too much beach in his blood. "I've always been intense, but I've never been able to express it like I have lately," Parks says.
His story starts with his name. When, in 1972, Parks's mother, Debe, was 21 and pregnant with her second child, she learned that her husband's great-grandmother had been a full-blooded Cherokee. "It was serious stuff," says Debe. "I was politically active then, and the name was a tribute."
Parks's entire childhood was remarkable. His father, Larry, was a musician who dreamed of starting a band called Parks and Recreation. His mother fed her children a vegetarian diet from her own garden. The parents divorced when Cherokee was three, and during the next seven years Debe and the two children bounced from California to Colorado to Nevada to Colorado again. Finally, when Cherokee was in sixth grade, they moved back to Huntington Beach, Calif. "I got to do a lot of things with my mom because she was so young," Parks says. "Sailing, camping...she got me involved in sports. I liked the lifestyle. I think I gained a lot."
One of the things he gained was resiliency, which served him well when he found Laettner awaiting him at Duke. "He schooled me every day, verbally abused me," Parks says. "I hated him. I would be first in the locker room and first out. I didn't want to be around him."
Says Krzyzewski, "Christian knew what it took to play at this level. He tried to feed Cherokee solid food when he still should have been on formula." Parks says that he and Laettner are friends now and adds, "I see now that it was the best thing for me." And bad news for anyone looking for an easy layup against Duke.