PORTLAND, Ore. – Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker didn’t know Frank Johnson when the team hired him as an assistant coach in August. As a student of the game, Parker knew of Johnson, having seen clips of Johnson from the latter stages of his NBA playing days in the early 1990s.
But the two didn’t know each other.
Fast forward a few months and the two are obviously close. Johnson has essentially been assigned to Parker, sticking with and pushing the 22-year-old as he works toward returning from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time in three years.
“Frank is an extreme, extreme blessing in my life,” Parker said. “He’s a person that I need, a person that stays with me and sticks with me. It gets lonely at times, but he’s always supporting and he makes sure that I get better.”
Getting to this point after being strangers just a few months ago wasn’t easy. Naturally, Parker was apprehensive about immediately trusting this new person in his life. He admits that at the beginning he wasn’t always responsive to Johnson’s coaching and didn’t always listen to what the 59-year-old assistant coach had to say, often questioning why they were doing things a certain way.
Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who played four years with the Suns when Johnson was an assistant there, knew firsthand that Johnson had a knack for relating to younger players. That’s part of the reason why he pulled Johnson back into the NBA after a nearly 14-year absence after being fired as the head coach of the Suns in 2003.
The two had been in touch since Kidd’s tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, and this summer he approached Johnson about returning to the NBA. Johnson had been spending his time living in the Phoenix area and running some businesses he continues to operate, but also stayed close to basketball by working out players, including some from the NBA.
“Frank has dealt with younger players, in Phoenix with Amar’e (Stoudemire) and Joe (Johnson), highly-skilled guys,” Kidd said. I thought he could be a guy that could help us develop Jabari.”
So, Johnson stuck with it. He drew on his 13-year career as a player and eight seasons of coaching experience in Phoenix — including parts of three seasons as the Suns’ head coach — to help him ultimately forge a connection with Parker.
Johnson credits that to putting in time with Parker and talking to him about all sorts of things — not just basketball. During those conversations, he helped Parker understand that he can empathize with his situation.
Johnson recognizes the lonely feeling that can set in when rehabbing from an injury because he’s felt it before. During a two-year stretch of his career, Johnson broke his foot four times.
“(Parker) was like, ‘Oh, OK. So now you know what it’s like; it’s lonely,’” Johnson said. “He knows how lonely it is for him at times. I know that.”
Everyone, injured or not, has their good and bad days. Parker is not immune to pain building up, feeling bored by monotonous rehab exercises or the loneliness of being separated from the team either literally or symbolically.
That’s when Johnson’s impact is most needed.
“I have bad days; a lot of times I’m not as strong as it seems to be,” Parker said. “I have struggles, but Coach Johnson makes sure that my well-being is fine and he’s always uplifting me on my bad days.”
In those times, Johnson reminds Parker how fortunate he is. During Johnson’s playing days, he didn’t have much of a support staff around him. Often there was just one person — more often no one — around as he fought back from injury. When the team went on the road, he wasn’t part of the travel party.
Even still, Parker constantly battles his own deferential disposition, fighting between being part of the team and staying out of the way of the active members of the roster. Sometimes he’s waited until after a practice or shootaround was over to get his work in, trying to stay out of the way of the team.
There’s usually plenty of room at the team’s Sports Science Center, but at shootarounds where there’s only one court, Parker can be more conflicted. In San Antonio, he spent a good portion of one practice session running the arena stairs. Johnson joined him and later some other players, who didn’t play much the night before in Cleveland, started going up and down the steps.
Part of Johnson’s job is reminding Parker that he’s part of the team.
“Certainly trying to make sure that he feels part of the team,” Johnson said. “Jabari’s a kid that he wants to stay out of everyone’s way. He thinks he’s in everyone’s way. I have to constantly tell him, ‘No, you’re not in everyone’s way. You have to believe you’re part of this.’ ”
It’s been easier to clearly see Parker as part of the team of late. He’s spent time playing three-on-three with some of the team’s younger, more inexperienced players, throwing down dunks and looking like his former self. He’s also been able to get back into practice, testing himself and his teammates while offering another body amidst multiple other injuries.
None of that means Parker will get back to game action sooner than his projected return window in February, but it’s a step forward.
“He’ll be back better for sure,” guard Rashad Vaughn said. “He’s just built different, man. He’s built to survive and come back from these things.”
As much as Parker may be built differently, it’s helped to have Johnson in his corner. And for Johnson, after all those years out of the NBA, this opportunity has been a learning, growing experience for him as well.
“It’s been a fun experience for me to have such a young talent and to see how he’s handling adversity at a young age,” Johnson said. “I think he’s showing a lot of patience through it all. I’m very proud of that, very happy for him.”
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