When Parker tipped in a basket with 2.4 seconds left to give City College of San Francisco its first state championship since 1962, he received numerous accolades. After all, he was headed to one of the most prestigious basketball programs in America: UCLA.
But instead of earning a degree in Westwood, and possibly helping the Bruins win a Pac-12 Conference championship, the storybook ride Parker was enjoying was just the start of a downhill spiral for him.
An injury to his knee and the deterioration of health of his mom, Carmen Johnson, led Parker to leave UCLA in January 2012. However, the setback wouldn’t last long, as he returned home and enrolled at USF, and was able to play for the Dons.
Things were going well at USF, as Parker averaged 11.7 points and three rebounds in 29 games, including a West Coast Conference Player of the Week award. Shortly after the season, though, he was dismissed for what USF coach Rex Walters deemed “conduct detrimental to the program.” Parker was devastated, so much so that leaving the game of basketball with a year of eligibility left was a strong possibility.
“When you’re put on this pedestal and you’re not doing what everybody wanted, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to do well,” Parker told The S.F. Examiner. “Growing up and playing this sport with a lot of people looking up to me and saying, ‘Yeah, he’s going to make it.’ It felt like everything collapsed on me and I didn’t want to play anymore.”
With the bright lights of Pauley Pavilion and War Memorial Gym no longer an option for Parker, he got in contact with Jim Saia, the men’s basketball coach at Cal State San Marcos. Mind you, Cal State San Marcos is a NAIA Division I school with only three years of existence.
Still, Parker, now 22, wasn’t sure about Cal State San Marcos, which is just north of San Diego, as his love for basketball had dissipated. Early in the season, Parker found happiness on the court again. He has found joy in a program that practices at a recreational center and plays its home games 25 minutes from campus at MiraCosta College in Oceanside.
“I didn’t know if I was going to [Cal State San Marcos], and I wasn’t rejuvenated or inspired to play again until I got down here,” Parker said. “Honestly, it took the first couple of games to really love playing again.”
Saia moved Parker back to point guard, a position he thrived at while he played at CCSF.
The results have been successful thus far, as Parker has led Cal State San Marcos to a 27-1 record and No. 1 ranking in the NAIA Division I Top 25 coaches poll, while averaging a team-high 17.2 points and 4.3 assists a game. Cal State San Marcos averages over 90 points a game in Saia’s up-tempo system.
“We get a lot of bounce backs from Division I players and I understand the pressures of Division I programs,” said Saia, who’s had assistant coaching stints at USC and UCLA. “We did our homework on De’End, and the research we did on him, we found out he was a good character kid. It’s been a great short-term marriage.”
Homegrown in the Western Addition of San Francisco where kids get lost in the shuffle of life due to drugs or gang violence, Parker has withstood attending three different high schools, three different colleges, including a decommitment from Cal, USF has allowed Parker to finish earning a degree on the Hilltop, where he is on track to graduate with a BA in sociology this summer.
Parker isn’t worried about the future at the moment, as his team prepares for the No. 10 team in the nation, Vanguard University on Thursday. Cal State San Marcos is expected to receive a berth to the 32-team NAIA tournament to be held in Kansas City, Mo., March 19-25.
“After the season, I’ll reevaluate everything and figure out what’s the next step for me in life,” Parker said. “Hopefully it’s basketball, but if not, I’ve opened up plenty of doors in other areas. We have a tough road ahead against some very good teams, some very good competition. However, when I start looking ahead I start to fall off, so I’m just focused on the present.“