Jabari Parker's homecoming to Chicago was supposed to be a feel-good story. When the 23-year-old preps legend inked a two-year, $40 million with the team he grew up cheering for, the prevailing thought was that Parker was an odd fit but someone with the offensive versatility to make it work. It helped, too, that the Bulls were rebuilding, giving Parker a low-expectation chance to turn around his career after an unceremonious exit in Milwaukee.
Instead Parker's time with the Bulls was a mess on both ends from the moment he arrived at training camp overweight to Wednesday, when the Bulls shipped him to Washington after 28 painful, inconsistent games. Parker was back at the United Center for the first time as a visitor this season and gave a glimpse – both on and off the court – of what could have been in Chicago.
"I'm happy, I would say," Parker said prior to the Wizards' 134-125 win over the Bulls. "I haven't smiled in a while, but it's great."
An upbeat Parker was a rarity during his nearly seven-month stay in his hometown. It was ironic that Parker was playing arguably his best basketball when the Bulls dealt him and Bobby Portis to Washington for small forward Otto Porter Jr. In eight games leading up to his eventual trade he was averaging 13.8 points on 62 percent shooting and 4.4 rebounds in just 17.6 minutes.
But those minutes were more of a result to continued Bulls injuries and an attempt to improve his draft stock than his standing with the team. His removal from the rotation just four games into Jim Boylen's tenure was just the beginning of what became a strained relationship between someone Parker had previously gotten along with.
"It was a total 180," Parker said of his relationship with Boylen the head coach. "At that point (with Boylen the assistant), we never had controversy. I always had his back, you know, with things that we had in-house problems with. Always had his back, always had everybody's back.
"Just to see that relationship go sour, not from my end but from his end, was just bad. Because you trust the guy. He says all the things. I understand it's his decisions and whatever. But it was just hard because of the relationship that we had going into it when he was a head coach."
Parker said he doesn't regret the time he spent in Chicago this season for more reasons than the $20 million they gave him without much competition for his services in July. He cited a group of teammates he enjoyed playing with – and the sentiment in the Bulls locker room has been reciprocated – and inner growth and development during the trying times he experienced for most of his stay. Parker said "of course" he would sign with the Bulls if he were able to do it all over again and that the sour ending won't change his roots.
"I'm still from the city. I'm still from Chicago. So I'm always going to come back," he said. "That doesn't change as much. I'm rooted here. I don't forget where I come from. If it was meant to be, it was meant to be. If it wasn't meant to be, then, hey, that's OK. No love lost."
He's hoping his tryout in Washington fares better. It's an almost guarantee the Wizards won't pick up his $20 million player option next season, so Parker's final 28 minutes are just as much an audition for 29 other teams looking at the free agent-to-be.
And he's off to a good start. After a near triple-double on Friday a clearly motivated Parker lived at the rim, dunking a career-high six times, including a thunderous left-handed slam over Lauri Markkanen in the second quarter.
He pushed the ball in transition – the one thing he consistently did well in Chicago – and dished out four more assists; it was his second straight game with six or more assists for the Wizards, something he accomplished twice in 40 games for the Bulls.
He hit a turnaround jumper early in the fourth quarter and shouted at the Bulls bench while backpedaling down the court. For the usually reserved Parker it was a rare show of emotion, something clearly made easier on a 20-point night against your former team. A rejuvenated Parker looked good playing long stretches, something he also struggled with in Chicago, and even made a few nice defensive stops
Parker was everything on Saturday night that he could have been in Chicago. Both parties were certainly at fault in a marriage that was doomed from the moment he arrived. But for one night the hometown kid was back in Chicago and smiling, ready for a fresh start after turbulent endings in Milwaukee and Chicago.
"I'm looking forward to it," Parker said of his opportunity in Washington. "That's all I can do right now and that's how I've been doing it so far with the situation, just looking forward and keep improving. That's where I'm at."