By Ryan Divish
Nobody ever said that dreams follow the most uninterrupted of paths.
Nope, dreams test you. They'll lead you in one direction one moment, and another in the next moment. It's never a straight line. Hell, half of the time it's never on the same path.
Still, if you truly believe, and you are willing to sacrifice all that is comfortable and all that is familiar, the right direction and the right path will appear to those who are genuinely looking.
But, here's the catch: These opportunities don't appear often and when they do, you can't be afraid to risk it all to reach that dream.
Ask Raymond "Jazz" Parker about dreams.
Before Wednesday night, the last time he sprinted the length of the MSU-Northern gymnasium floor in an organized basketball game was in 1997 as a member of the Rocky Boy Stars.
A senior standout on the team, Jazz can still name off who he played and his exact stat line.
"It was the District 9C championship game and we lost to Blue Sky," he said with a forlorned look. "I had 25 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, but we still lost. It's crazy. I can still remember my stats. But losing was tough."
Any person that sported a high school uniform can probably name the stats of their last game. It is like a rite of passage - that last competitive burst in high school. It doesn't matter if it's football, basketball, track, whatever. A person who competed for a school will always remember the last time they got to do so.
Unfortunately, only a select few get to carry that feeling on to college. Even though Jazz's future directly out of high school would be one of rifles and regiments in the U.S. Army, he still knew, someday, somehow, he would be back on the floor representing a team the only way he knew best: hustling, rebounding, playing defense and putting the ball in the basket.
"I told the people that really helped me in high school like Mona Sunchild and Zella Nault that I would be back, someday playing for a college team," he said.
There was one catch. Colleges weren't breaking down his door in high school. There are at least 300 6-4 skinny forwards playing in the state of Montana in one year. Jazz wasn't headed for a year of books and dorms; he was headed for a year of battalions and discipline in the army.
Military service cannot help but leave lasting effects on those who served. Some are positive, some are negative, regardless the effects are still there.
"You grow up fast and learn discipline quick," he said. "You have to make adjustment to the lifestyle. You learn to stay disciplined and how to handle to things."
That maturity showed when it came time to re-up into active duty. Jazz was given a choice: Be done with it all and move on, or stay in and work toward the early retirement that so many military branches brag about.
He chose the first, with a little help from the 2000 election.
"I don't know if I should say this, but I was (Al) Gore supporter," he said. "When Bush got elected, I figured it was time to get out. I just thought it was the thing to do."
With the conflict in Iraq now, the choice seems to have been for the best. The decision was something more than a coincidence, and something less than a premonitition. But for Jazz, it was only right.
He had other concerns besides presidential ramifications. His grandfather, Raymond, whom he was named for and who raised him, was sick and nearing the end. There was no other place for Jazz to be than by his side.
"I was very close to my grandfather and he was near the end of his journey," he said. "I wanted to be with him at the end."
After four years of military service and two years of staying with his grandfather, Jazz found himself at the ripe old age of 25 and looking for the next chapter in his life. He did everyone does at that age - chase his college basketball dreams.
Excuse me? OK, not everyone gets to do that. In fact, very few people could practice with a college basketball team for one day at age 25, let alone compete in a whole season.
However in the six years he was out of high school, Jazz not only matured emotionally, he also matured physically. He was no longer rail thin. Instead, his frame was more than suited to handle the rigors of college basketball. He just had to find a school. Haskell Indian Nations University offered that opportunity.
"It was a great opportunity for me," he said. "I knew that it was something that I needed to do."
Haskell made his dreams come true Wednesday night when he stepped back on the floor at the MSU-Northern gymnasium in front of 1,500 fans, most of whom were cheering for him.
"I was surprised by how many people were there to support us," Parker said. "I was a little nervous at first. I knew that there were some people coming from Rocky Boy to watch, but I couldn't believe how many showed up. It was amazing."
He didn't disappoint, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds, keeping his team in a very close game. Unfortunately, like that 9C championship game, Jazz walked off the floor, with 2.1 seconds remaining, on the losing end. But the standing ovation from his family and friends certainly soothed the pain of a loss.
"I feel like I'm so blessed," he said. "I just feel so grateful. I go to school 1,500 miles away and I end up playing here at home."
Playing for Haskell provided him that opportunity and so much more. He hopes it's something that other good Indian players from Montana look into. Harlem's Ben Carrywater, a top player last year, made the same decision and is redshirting at Haskell.
"We're building a program here," he said. "We're starting to bring in good players. We got Ben and he was being recruited by Northern. It's just a great opportunity to leave Montana and meet new people and experience new things. You have to take advantage of your college years and not let an opportunity pass you by."
Jazz didn't let his opportunity pass him by, and he was rewarded.
As he walked out of the gym Wednesday night, he was surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers. The loss won't be his last memory of the MSU-Northern gym, instead that moment will linger.
It wasn't the straightest of paths, but it still led Jazz Parker back to the realization of something he had hoped for so long ago.
"It really was a dream come true to come home and play in front of my people," he said. "It was just ... just a dream come true."