Sky's top pick Parker puts troubles behind her
Trouble rarely found Cheyenne Parker when she was a little kid.
She has two older -- and very protective -- brothers who were constantly looking after her.
"I was very sheltered. Even into high school," Parker said. "I wasn't exposed to anything."
That changed in college. Parker, the Chicago Sky's top pick in Thursday's WNBA draft and the No. 5 pick overall, met up with all kinds of trouble there.
In fact, that trouble almost ruined Parker's life, and her dreams of playing in the WNBA.
"I had never seen or even smelled weed before I got to college," said Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward. "It was everywhere there. Drinking was everywhere. My teammates were doing it, my friends were doing it. It became normal, it was like it was OK."
Pretty soon, Parker was smoking marijuana. Her habit began at High Point University in North Carolina, a small college about 15 minutes from her family's home.
But Parker still managed to put up big numbers on the basketball court. A monster rebounder and shot-blocker, she was twice named the Big South's defensive player of the year. She became only the fifth player in Big South history to roll up more than 1,000 points and rebounds.
But when High Point's head coach left for another job prior to Parker's senior year there, she wanted to leave, too. She transferred to Middle Tennessee State, where she played out her final year of eligibility last season.
At Middle Tennessee State, athletes are tested randomly for drugs. At High Point, they aren't tested at all.
"I knew they tested (at Middle Tennessee State), but I really didn't take the testing seriously," Parker said.
Parker failed a drug test just before the season was to start last fall. She had marijuana in her system. She was suspended for the first five games.
She came back with a vengeance and ranked among the top 20 in Division I in offensive rebounds (firyt), triple-doubles (second), blocks (sixth), field goal percentage (seventh), rebounds (16th) and double-doubles (20th). She also notched the first triple-double in school history with 18 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks against UTEP.
But then trouble found Parker again.
Three days before her senior night game, Parker failed another drug test. Again for marijuana.
She was immediately dismissed from the team.
"After failing that first test, I stopped doing it, and I was really trying," Parker said. "But then, towards the end of the season, I was around it again and I was weak and I made a terrible decision. And I tested positive. It was awful. It was devastating to me and my family. They were all coming for senior night.
"I was so discouraged because I felt like I had just ruined my entire life and everything I worked for. Basketball is my life. The WNBA was my dream. That's what I cared so much about, but it didn't seem like it at all because I kept making these bad decisions. I knew I needed to take this seriously and get myself back on track."
No longer having to follow NCAA rules since she was officially off the team, Parker hired agent Michael Perez, who was aggressive in his approach with her. He made sure Parker received drug counseling. He made sure that she was working out hard to keep up her skills.
When Parker's invitation to the WNBA draft combine was rescinded because of her drug problems, Perez worked hard to get the invitation back. He then worked the phones like crazy, trying to talk up Parker and the fact that she was working overtime to rehabilitate herself.
"The group I went to is a church-based organization called 'Celebrate Recovery,' " Parker said. "You sing and read scriptures and the gospel and then you talk about things like self-control and making good choices. It's all very encouraging and it really helped me a lot."
Just as Parker would keep a count on how many days she was sober, she was counting down the days until the WNBA Draft Combine, which was held April 4 in Tampa in conjunction with the Women's Final Four.
"I was a month-and-a-half sober, with no toxins in my body at all, when I went to the combine," Parker said. "I was so proud of that."
Parker, whose name was nowhere to be found on the mock drafts heading into the combine, was also proud of the way she played there. The one-day combine involved nothing but rigorous scrimmages that were watched closely by WNBA coaches and general managers. At the end of the day, they voted on the top 20 players they wanted to see in an all-star game.
"My name was the first name to be called for the all-star game," Parker said. "It was such an honor. I was so happy."
Parker was even happier on draft day, rising through the ashes of her drug issues and tarnished reputation, to hear her name called fifth overall. Most potential first-round picks are invited to attend the draft in person. Because of her history, Parker did not receive such an invitation. She was at school with friends, family and teammates.
"It was such an unbelievable feeling," Parker said. "I just dropped to my knees when I heard my name. I was so emotional. This is like a Cinderella story. I was in shock that it was real."
Parker did have an inkling that Sky head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman had a strong interest in her. Chatman and Parker had many conversations in the days leading up to the draft.
"Some teams had totally written me off because they thought I am a bad apple," Parker said. "With Pokey, I developed a great relationship with her right away. "She was just so positive about everything. I couldn't believe how much she believed in me and how much confidence she had in me. It was kind of shocking."
Parker, who is competing for the one open spot on the Sky's roster, may not shock anyone in the WNBA with her skills. She is clearly talented and versatile and naturally gifted. But her success story is certainly unlikely, and she is anxious to put a bow on it with a spot on the team.
"I've been on quite a journey, haven't I?" Parker asked. "I never thought I'd be able to make all this happen, given my history. But I'm working through it. It's part of the reason I've wanted to talk about it. Owning it is important to getting past it, but I also want people who are battling something bad, an addiction of any kind, to know that they can get past it and that it doesn't have to ruin them."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw.