Cherokee Parks rolls into a parking lot in Sunset Beach, and unlimbers his 6-foot-11 frame from his Range Rover. He looks like virtually any of the other twentysomethings who live in the houses and apartments near the sand: backward baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy shorts, sunglasses and a wisp of a goatee.
But Parks isn't quite like the others.
For the last three years, he has been paid $1.1 million a season to play basketball in the NBA.
Parks, who played at Marina High, can't be sure when he'll be back on the court. Nobody in the NBA knows for certain because of the contract dispute between the owners and the players' association over the collective bargaining agreement.
For Parks, it is all the more unsettling because his three-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves expired July 1, and the lockout has left his future even deeper in limbo.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Parks decided to come back to a place he trusts. A place where he can relax, breathe the ocean air and feel comfortable. And just be Cherokee Parks.
"You have to love it here," he said. "I don't think this place has changed since I was growing up. You wake up in the morning, the sun is shining and everything feels great. You have to feel good."
Parks can visit his Pacific Coast Highway haunts like Mother's, Captain Jack's or the Harbor House. Or, if he wants, he can just spend a big chunk of any day listening to the music of Subhumans and Gorilla Biscuits on his CDs.
"My kind of bands," he says. "The old school."
Parks also added a couple of new tattoos recently. He had a Mayan sun put on an ankle during his first year at Duke. A green apple core with a skeleton's face and a totem-type image on his right leg were added later. One of the most recent additions is a dragon that stretches across his stomach.
He says none of the images has any special significance. "Just body art," he says. "I like it."
Parks hasn't been back to spend much time in the area since he left Marina High seven years ago for Duke.
At Marina, he built a reputation as one of the best centers to play high school basketball in Southern California. In one memorable game his senior year, he scored 30 points, 16 on dunks, to help Marina defeat Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division I-A semifinals.
UCLA wanted him badly, but Parks chose Duke.
He played on two teams there that reached the national championship game--as a freshman in 1992 with Christian Laettner when the Blue Devils won against Michigan, and as a junior in 1994 with Grant Hill when Duke was beaten by Arkansas.
A year later, he was the 12th player picked in the draft by the Dallas Mavericks.
Parks might have been chosen earlier had Duke's season not been something of a disappointment. The Blue Devils went from national prominence to an 11-18 record while Coach Mike Krzyzewski was out with a back injury. Despite that, Parks averaged 19 points and nine rebounds his senior season.
Parks still had a lot going for him with the NBA: a good shooting touch as well as size, along with that charismatic first name.
A son of free spirits with a hippie lifestyle in the early 1970s, Parks was named after the Native American tribe of his great grandmother. His mother, Debe, fed him a formula of juices from beets, spinach, carrots and brewer's yeast. "I still remember it," Parks says. "It was a nasty concoction."
Those genes produced height, but not weight.
Parks isn't as physical as many NBA centers, and that's been an adjustment for him in his three years in the league.
Parks also has been going through the transition of a separation from his wife, Anne-Marie, whom he met at Duke. Parks spent the last two off-seasons living in Greenwich Village while his wife studied for a master's degree at New York University. After the separation, he decided to return to Southern California for the summer.
The last several weeks have given Parks time to reflect.
He's still disappointed by the way his NBA career started in Dallas. "It was a nightmare," he said. "I don't whine about things, but it was a joke. We were locked out all summer and couldn't do anything with the team. We showed up about five or six days before the season started. And when it did get started, I'm getting the first DNPs I've ever had in my life. It wasn't a good situation for a rookie.
"We started out pretty well that season, but we had a bunch of injuries around all-star game time and the whole thing went south. It was a bad way to get started. It could have been phenomenal in Dallas, but it wasn't."
After the season was over, Parks went back to Dallas for a meeting with the team's new owners and learned that he had been traded to Minnesota. "The whole conversation took about 25 seconds," Parks said. "I couldn't help but wonder: Is this what this league is like?"
The last two years in Minnesota have been an improvement but Parks still hasn't played as well as he hoped. He averaged 7.1 points and 5.5 rebounds last season in 21 minutes a game.