At a sold-out BMO Harris Bradley Center on Friday night, neither Jabari Parker nor a rapturous Milwaukee crowd could wait for the popular Bucks player to make his long-awaited season debut against the Knicks. Literally, they couldn’t wait.
With a little more than five minutes left in the first quarter, New York guard Tim Hardaway was fouled on a 3-point attempt, giving him three free throws. Before Hardaway stepped to the line, Bucks head coach Joe Prunty motioned to the bench, and Parker jumped up and jogged to the scorer’s table. As he took off his warmups and stood on the sideline at midcourt, waiting to check-in, the Bucks crowd got to its feet and gave him a full-throated standing ovation.
Then, after Hardaway made the first free throw, an overeager Parker tried to enter the game, again drawing a loud cheer, but was sent back by the referees – he had to wait until Hardaway took the second of his three shots – delaying, if only slightly, the fourth-year forward’s much-anticipated introduction.
Finally, after Hardaway made his second free throw, Parker was able to come into the game, his first NBA action since tearing his left ACL 359 days ago. Finally, his adoring fans – Bucks fans, of course, but many who were there expressly for this moment – could hail his official return. Finally, after nearly a year of recovery and rehab, after watching his team’s previous 87 games from a seat, after months filled equally with hard work and optimism and frustration and focus, after announcing on Monday he would play against the Knicks and electrifying Bucks Nation, and after going through the nerves and excitement of preparation, Jabari – because on Friday night, to everyone, he was just Jabari – was allowed to, as he said, "play the game I love."
Parker replaced beloved superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – who scored a game-high 29 points, including the last-second winning basket – and, for the first time in a long time, he outshined his teammate. But the delight didn’t stop with Parker’s entrance.
Everything he did drew applause, from the trifling to the terrific. Whistled for committing a foul within 30 seconds, his first real play, Parker – upon his name being uttered over the public address – was cheered. When he jumped up to snare a defensive rebound moments later, Parker was cheered. And, two possessions after that, when he hit a midrange jump shot from the right baseline, his first basket in a season, Parker was cheered, the arena brimming with both adulation and affirmation. This was the Jabari people came to see.
Everything Jabari does draws roar from this @BMOHBC @Bucks crowd.
Gets up from bench, huge cheer.
Tries to check in after 1st FT instead of 2nd of 3, huge cheer
Actually checks in, huge cheer
Commits foul, huge cheer
Grabs rebound, huge cheer
Hits jumper, HUGE cheer
This is great — Jimmy Carlton (@jimmycarlton88) February 3, 2018
"It was a great feeling," Antetokounmpo said of seeing Parker play in the Bucks' 92-90 win over the Knicks. "Everybody was really excited about JP coming back tonight. Most importantly, he was just playing, having fun. It's just great to see him out there competing with us again."
Looking leaner and more agile than the strapping, barrel-chested player he was last year following his original return from a knee injury – he tore his left ACL for the first time as a rookie in December 2014 – Parker’s offensive game looked encouragingly familiar. He was comfortable, confident and decisive with the ball, showed a soft, deft touch on his jumper and attacked the basket aggressively. He nearly brought the Bradley Center roof down with a thunderous dunk attempt on Kyle O’Quinn that would have posterized the Knicks center and perhaps broken Twitter.
Parker played almost six minutes in his first-quarter stint and scored seven points. In his subsequent, nearly six-minute stint in the second quarter, Parker added five more points. He finished with 12 points, on 4-of-7 shooting, with three rebounds and a foul in 15 minutes, which was exactly his playing-time expectation. In a quarter-hour showcase that couldn’t really have gone much better, Parker was bouncy, explosive and smooth – and he even appeared competent on the defensive end.
(PHOTO: David Bernacchi)
"I thought he had a very good debut," Prunty said. "I thought there were a lot of positive things that he did out on the floor. One of the things we talked about a lot, there are certain things he does naturally. He can score the ball, he can make plays for himself and other people.
"But I thought defensively he was solid, was in the right spots. Again, there's a rhythm and timing to the game every time you step out there, and it's difficult when you've been off for a while. I thought he did a really nice job of fitting in and helping the team win the game."
Afterward, the understated Parker characteristically downplayed the moment.
"It felt great," Parker said. "But honestly, training myself to think about it as just getting better. It's not going to take just one game, a few games, it’s the whole process. That game didn't really stick out as much as people perceive it to be."
Perhaps for him. But it certainly stuck out to Bucks fans that so treasure the hyper-talented and humble, always-smiling, community-involved and turtle-loving athlete, who published an exquisitely written essay Friday in The Players Tribune entitled "Milwaukee, Let’s Ride."
(PHOTO: David Bernacchi)
It stuck out because of what Parker has been through – two torn ACLs in the same knee in a span of 26 months, a devastating and nearly unprecedented tribulation for a young NBA player – and because of what he could be: a second star and franchise face who, with Antetokounmpo, could make the Bucks the championship contender they aspire to be.
It stuck out because, for a long-suffering but recently revitalized fan base, which hasn’t watched its team win a playoff series since 2001 yet suddenly can see the high-ceiling potential of the current squad, and has experienced exhilarating ups and exasperating downs – just in the past 11 days, it has endured a microcosm of that turbulence: the firing of coach Jason Kidd, followed by four straight wins under Prunty; the announced return of Parker, followed by a blowout loss in Minnesota and a significant injury to guard Malcolm Brogdon – simply getting to watch Parker hoop, on a night when Antetokounmpo dominated and the Bucks won, just felt really good.
So trust us, Jabari, it stuck out. And, his first game back now behind him, the hype and hopefulness and apprehension and uncertainty – like the Knicks on Friday – defeated, it can just be basketball again for Parker, who prefers it that way.
"(The) only way to go here is going up," Parker said. "You can't beat the low of any point that I've been at any stage of these few months. Anything that I do from this point on is just to go up, and that's a blessing."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.