Beyond Preps: Parker parlays City success into scholarship at UCLA
By Bonta Hill
The Western Addition, known better to locals as the “Fillmore,” can be rigorous, as many families are surviving off government assistance.
In a ’hood that has seen its share of drug addictions, broken homes and teens dropping six-feet under before the age of 18, seeing the walls of a college classroom seem bleak.
Having both parents around is as common as a baseball player hitting for the cycle, but that’s what makes De’End Parker’s story amazing.
Parker has overcome living in foster care since he was two years old, not knowing his dad’s name, and going through three different City high schools, to earn a scholarship to one of the most prestigious college basketball programs in the country — UCLA.
On March 13, Parker helped the City College of San Francisco win its first state championship since 1962, scoring on a tip-in basket with 2.4 seconds left to give the Rams a 83-81 victory over Citrus College.
He also won Co-MVP in the Coast Conference with City College teammate Jonathon Williams and was selected as Northern California Player of the Year.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to attend a school like UCLA,” Parker said. “I’ve had a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I had to do it for my family and for the community.”
Parker, the youngest of seven children got the name De’End because his biological mom said that he was the was the end — the end of her having kids.
His foster mom Carmen Johnson, who is currently recovering from heart surgery, took in Parker and his two sisters, Lydia Nunley and Davida Young, after their biological mother was the victim of drug addiction and psychiatric problems.
Parker insists his relationship with his biological mother isn’t strained, but contact has been minimal between the two.
“My biological mom had a drug problem and needed psychiatric help,” Parker said. “My mom Carmen was one of her good friends … It was tough going to a new home, and [there] was some back-and-forth troubles with Carmen and my biological family over custody, but everything worked out for the best.”
As Parker went through the adjustment of foster care, he was a big kid for his size and developed a passion for basketball, after admittedly showing a love for baseball.
With Hamilton Recreation Center, or “Ham” to the locals, only a few blocks from his home, Parker started gravitating to the gym despite the drugs and violence that surrounded him.
“In my area, I saw what was going on. I saw the drugs, the violence. I saw the gangs, and I saw that everyone was going down that route,” Parker said. “Not one person I grew up with is successful, and many [are] dead or on their way to being dead, but I started walking to the gym by myself and would just dribble the ball and do anything with it.”
Victor “Creech” Jones, one of Parker’s older brothers, helped him carve his aggressive game at Hamilton.
Parker soared through the AAU ranks, thriving while playing for the Boys and Girls Club’s San Francisco Rebels under coach Nate Ford, one of his mentors growing up. One of the things Ford had to deal with was Parker’s inability to attain a birth certificate, which had Ford running in and out of the Social Services department trying to retrieve it.
“They could never find his birth certificate and it kind of made [De’End] wonder where he came from,” Ford said. “We had to get letters, documents, all sorts of paperwork to prove who he was.”
That didn’t stop Parker from making a name for himself on the court, as he traveled across the country with the Rebels, winning numerous awards.
“He always stood out. If you saw him play basketball, you wouldn’t think that he’d be as humbled as he is,” Ford said. “There were some rough roads, and we had to show him some tough love to get the big picture. Carmen would call whenever De’End would get in trouble, and there were times where we didn’t let him play due to his academics, but as we traveled, he really saw what he wanted.”
What Parker wanted was greatness, but the start of a treacherous high school journey was just beginning.
Parker’s high school career started at Sacred Heart Cathedral, only to leave after a year to attend Stuart Hall, and end up at Lincoln to play for late head coach Mike Gragnani.
At Sacred Heart, Parker didn’t feel wanted, and while he went to Stuart Hall for a year, strongly because his best friend Stephen Powell was attending school there, he left because he felt he didn’t fit in with the culture there.
But Powell got into some trouble and was kicked out, and was later killed in a shooting
in the Fillmore.
Parker would take the Mustangs to new heights, winning the Academic Athletic Association’s Player of the Year award, averaging over 23 points a game as a senior.
He led the Mustangs to the championship game and had Division I colleges hovering over him, but due to academics, Parker had to go to community college.
“My grades were actually good up to my last semester, but after taking the SATs a number of times, I didn’t do well,” Parker said. “I wanted to go Division I, but I kind of stopped going to classes because I was sad about not going to Division I out of high school.”
After the disappointment of not going to a four-year university, Howard Smith Jr. was there steer him back into the right direction. Smith is the Executive Director at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, which is also in the heart of the Fillmore.
The idea of him leaving the Bay Area and attending a National Junior College in either Texas or Arizona was floated around, but Parker eventually chose to stay home and attend City College, a decision Smith stood behind.
“I’ve [known] De’End pretty much all his life. I felt like at the end of the day, it’s his decision where he goes. I’m there to support whatever he does,” Smith said.
When he arrived on campus, Parker had to sacrifice some of his offensive game under City College head coach Justin Labagh.
It took Parker a while to adjust, but he became a team leader, helping City College win their first state title in 49 years.
But his biggest challenge, as it was in his final semester at Lincoln, was to buckle down in the classroom.
“We talked to De’End about how it was important it was to come to school in the summer, because walking in the door, he was already a Division I player,” Labagh said. “He outworked everybody on the team, he studied the game and he was as big competitor.”
Knowing that Parker was talented enough to play Division I basketball, Labagh challenged him to raise his grades and improve in the classroom.
“[De’End] totally turned it around in the classroom and his academics really put him in position to go to a big school,” Labagh said. “I’m most proud of the fact that he’s eligible to go to a UC. He took the challenge of taking hard classes, and now he’s going to a premier college.”
During the final stages of this past season, Parker had to deal with another obstacle — making a choice to attend UCLA, Cal or Arizona State.
And after initially giving a verbal commitment to Cal, a week later Parker had second thoughts, changing his mind and deciding to play his final two years of college basketball in Westwood.
“I really liked Arizona State, I really liked Cal, but when I committed to Cal, I really didn’t have all the information from UCLA,” Parker said. “UCLA called, and I had a heart-to-heart conversation with them, and it was a no-brainer after that.”
From not knowing his dad, to having minimal contact with his biological mother, Parker now has kids in his community looking up to him as a role model.
Parker plans to eventually come back home after graduating from UCLA, and give back to the Fillmore, emphasizing that he wants to help the youth in foster care.
After a journey that started in the ‘hood, Parker has already persevered through the struggles. Now he’s on his way to leaving home for the first time, and is looking forward to the challenge that awaits him at the school John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton made famous.
“I’m appreciative of everybody who’s helped me along the way, I love all of them,” Parker said. “People say don’t fall into the distractions of L.A., but I’m not worried about it. I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time and I’ve come too far to turn back.”