Family Ties

Paige, Parker

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On Saturday, North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Duke's Jabari Parker will have one last audition for ACC Player of the Year honors. It was nearly 30 years ago that another Paige-Parker tandem first took the court together, albeit as teammates and best friends.

Ellis Paige, Marcus's father, left Chicago for Colorado to pursue his basketball career at Lamar Community College in 1981-82. After an opportunity to play Division I ball in Texas fell through following his first season, Paige decided to return home.

The 1,000-mile trek from Colorado to Chicago along Interstate 80 runs within 25 miles of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of Mount Mercy University, although it was Mount Mercy College back in the early 1980s. A friend wanted to visit the school, so Paige tagged along. Not long after, the shooting guard enrolled to play basketball for head coach Kevin Touhey beginning in 1982-83.

While Sonny Parker, Jabari's father, was concluding his NBA career in 1982, his younger brother, Michael, was just getting started. After playing at Eastern Washington University for the 1983-84 season, Michael, also a Chicago native, elected to move closer to home. He visited Mount Mercy and was introduced to a handful of players, including Paige. Parker was sold and transferred in for the 1984-85 season.

Parker played his high school ball at Providence St. Mel; Paige was a product of Crane High School. Despite not knowing each other in high school, those Chicago ties translated into an instant connection. It also helped that Paige was accustomed to Touhey's demanding coaching style and was able to serve as a buffer of sorts for his backcourt partner.

Touhey's approach was based in defense, discipline, quality shots and chemistry. At 32, but with a decade of coaching experience under his belt, Touhey had high expectations for his players.

"He was able to explain that to Michael very meticulously and very patiently," Touhey told InsideCarolina.com earlier this week. "Ellis, being the great man that he is, wasn't selfish. He saw the wide-eyed way that Michael looked at me and he took him under his wing."

Touhey built his roster with a mixture of Iowa farm boys and Chicago ballers. Paige and Parker embraced their basketball roots and directed the Mustangs to a 19-10 record after starting 8-8.

"He was more of a slashing type guard who could be the point guard and the off guard and I was more of a scorer," Paige said.

Parker offered a slightly different portrayal.

"I played point guard and Ellis played shooting guard," Parker said. "And when I say shooting guard, he shot all of the balls."

Paige confirmed that he's always been a volume shooter. Touhey described Paige as a "gunslinger." The record book backs up both claims – his 808 field goal attempts in 59 career games rank 18th in Mount Mercy school history.

Paige was inducted into the Mount Mercy Hall of Fame in 1997. He ranks 11th in school history in scoring average (14.8 ppg).

During that 1984-85 season, their personal relationship transcended the basketball court. Parker said they were inseparable; best friends if not brothers.

"When you build that type of relationship with someone, it's just awesome, and then when it's on the court, it's even better," Paige said.

During his time at Mount Mercy, Paige courted Sherryl Gaffney, a basketball player that scored over 1,000 points during her career as a Mustang. She grew up in Lamont, Iowa, a farming community north of Cedar Rapids, which prompted Paige to stay put following graduation.

Parker graduated two years later, and feeling the tug of family, returned to Chicago.

Ellis and Sherryl were married in 1989 and Parker served as the best man. When Parker got married in 1991, Paige reciprocated. Neither had to ask the other to be his best man. As Parker put it, it was inevitable, an unwritten rule.

Despite being separated by roughly 250 miles, Paige and Parker have continued to stay in touch, often talking twice a week. Both men have balanced coaching AAU ball with their law enforcement careers since marriage and kids entered their lives.

Neither expected, though, that their families would cross paths yet again on the basketball court.

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, it became apparent that Paige's son and Parker's nephew had incredible basketball potential.

It was on a trip to Kings Island amusement park in Ohio that tipped Parker off to Jabari's passion for the game. At just nine years old, the younger Parker won a basketball playing a carnival-type game and proceeded to dribble it around the park for the next three days.

"Everything that he did was about basketball," Parker said.

Parker arrived at an opinion about his best friend's son not long thereafter.

"I remember Ellis and Sherryl came to Chicago for a weekend and they stayed with my family," Parker said. "I think Marcus had to have been in fifth or sixth grade, so I had a hoop in my backyard and I'm just watching him. And I was like, ‘wow, this kid is special.' I was watching him dribble and he was in the backyard with older kids, 3-on-3, 2-on-2, 1-on-1, and he was practically unstoppable."

Paige committed to North Carolina on Jan. 8, 2011. Parker, a class behind, wouldn't commit to Duke until Dec. 20, 2012.

Not long after Paige announced his decision, his father called his longtime friend. The question asked was inescapable.

"Mike, do you think there's any chance we can get Jabari?"

It wasn't an isolated phone call.

"That's a discussion that we used to have all of the time," Parker said.

Even after Parker announced his decision shortly before Christmas, the magnitude of what was about to transpire became an obvious talking point.

"Even when they talk on the phone sometimes at home, it's like, ‘who would have thought years ago our families would be playing such a big part of the Duke-Carolina game and sharing basketball on the biggest stage in college?'" the younger Paige said recently. "It's just special for everyone involved since we're all so close."

Duke-Carolina. Eight miles apart. The greatest rivalry in college basketball.

"When you look back in retrospect, you think about Paige and Parker," Parker said. "We played with each other on the same team in college. Even thinking back then, you hope for a family member to do better than you did coming up through the college ranks. We didn't even think in our lifetime that it would be my nephew or his son. Now that we see this happening, it's a great thing."

Parker's emergence as one of the top players in the country during his rookie season falls in line with the hype surrounding him coming out of high school. Paige, on the other hand, has surprised most everyone with his consistently clutch play.

Touhey, who coached against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament as a Penn assistant in 1987, offered a parallel between father and son while discussing the younger Paige's standout sophomore season.

"He's obviously a willing learner, he's very coachable and you can see that by the way that he's improved," said Touhey, who is now an author and motivational speaker. "And that's how his father was. I think that's the indelible line between those two, that somehow father passed down to son to be a very willing learner and that has shown in Marcus's play."

There is a strong likelihood that Saturday's matchup will be the last time the Paige and Parker families share the court in a college setting. Parker is considered a lock for a top-5 pick in June's NBA Draft.

 

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