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Sitting on Top of the World : Marina's Cherokee Parks Has Name, Game, Fame

February 18, 1988|ANN KILLION | Time Staff Writer

With a name like Cherokee Parks, one would seem to be destined for greatness. A person born with such a name surely wouldn't grow into some nondescript fellow in a business suit. No, such a name undoubtedly would produce someone special.

Parks' mother, Debe, expected him to grow into someone special--perhaps a poet, a philosopher, or, at the very least, a social activist. After all, isn't that what children of the late 1960s and early '70s, groomed to be spiritual, socially conscious and environmentally correct, were supposed to become?

Instead, Parks, Marina High School's 6-foot 9-inch-and-still-growing freshman center, has turned out to be the All-American jock. He gets good grades, is popular in school, likes punk rock music and can swat or dunk a basketball just as cleanly as you like. He's a well-rounded, freshly scrubbed 1950s kid in a high-tech, turbo-charged 1980s body.

Whereas Debe Parks might be a little surprised to have this tall, talented athlete on her hands, Marina High School is more than a little excited.

Though a 15-year-old freshman can't carry the burden for a team dominated by seniors, when Marina begins the playoffs at home tonight at 7:30 against St. Bernard, Parks' play may well determine how the Vikings fare. Parks, who began playing basketball barely two years ago, already has developed into the kind of player who can change the direction of a game, a team or a season.

"If he progresses like he has and continues to work as hard as he is working, his potential is unlimited," Marina Coach Steve Popovich said. "He gets better every day. When you look at the skills he has naturally, it's awesome."

But before anyone gets to the basketball player, the ability on the court and the nice, good-natured kid who lies behind that ability, they stop at the name. Always the name.

And, here it comes, the inevitable question: "How did you get a name like Cherokee?"

In 1972, the year Parks was born, the unusual was the norm. The country was still embroiled in the Vietnam war, the Watergate break-in was making headlines, and young people were rejecting the artificial and searching for a simpler, more healthful way of life. And trying to find names for their children that reflected those values.

Debe and Larry Parks had already named their first child, a girl, Coreyshanee. They decided to name the child they were expecting, before they knew whether it was a boy or a girl, Cherokee. After all, their friends were giving their kids names such as Heaven-Bliss. Cherokee sounded almost conventional.

And the name had roots. Generations back on his father's side, a Parks had married a Cherokee princess, making Cherokee Parks 1/16th Cherokee Indian.

When he was a young boy, and trends were reverting back to the more traditional, Debe gave her son the option of changing his name to something less noticeable. He decided to stick with Cherokee.

"I like my name," Parks said. "No one gets me confused with anyone else. No one has to say, 'Cherokee who?' "

Parks' rich heritage not only includes American Indian ancestry, but a direct Sunset League bloodline. His father--who is now divorced from Debe and lives in Florida--was the Sunset League player of the year in 1967. Then a 6-7 center for Western High School, when Western was in the Sunset League, Larry Parks led the team to victory over Sunset League champion Marina, coached by Lute Olson, now head coach at the University of Arizona.

Parks' height came from his parents (Debe is 5-11), and his present physical stature may also be attributed to his parents' 'don't panic, it's organic' mentality. Debe pumped herself full of vitamins and nutrients while she was pregnant with Cherokee and protected her children from the evils of preservatives and junk food.

"We were kind of hippies," Cherokee said. "We have pictures of our family and we're all in tie-dyed shirts and hippie clothes. It's pretty funny."

Healthful living and tall genes took their effect, and Cherokee grew and grew and grew. By the time he was in the second grade, he was 5-2 and taller than his teacher. By the time he was in sixth grade he was 5-9, and a year later, he was 6-4 and getting tired of this whole process.

"I wanted to stop growing," said Parks, who would measure himself every day. "I didn't like it."

In reaction to his unusual height, Parks developed a decided distaste for the sport he would seem naturally inclined to play.

"People were always asking me, 'Do you play basketball?' " he said. "I hated it."

But he was a gifted athlete, playing tight end in football and pitcher in baseball. Basketball coaches kept coming to him and asking him to play, and Parks kept refusing. Until, one day at Harbour View School in Huntington Beach, he gave in. A smart coach had called Debe and persuaded her that basketball might be a good idea.

"My mom just said, why didn't I give it a chance?" Parks said. "She said it might be worth it."

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