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Playing it forward

October 7, 2014 Claire Theobald, Special to the ATA News

Teacher and coach Andrew Parker is carrying on the legacy of his mentor by passing along his knowledge to his own students and players:  Khalel Abdemalek (holding ball), L-R Siidiq Farah, Saalah Ahmed, Junior Bukuru, Mursal Mohamud and Majid Shariff.

Basketball star Andrew Parker draws inspiration from former teacher and coach

From the hard streets of Edmonton’s north side to a high-flying career playing professional basketball all over the world, Andrew Parker has returned to the place where it all began, hoping to inspire the same positive change in his students that his own coach and mentor Thom Elniski inspired in him.

“There was a lot of hardship, a lot of hard lessons to learn, and now to be a teacher and to be a mentor to these kids, it’s the best thing to happen to me in my life,” Parker says.

Parker’s street ball style mixed with his exceptional talent saw him recruited straight out of M.E. LaZerte High School, playing two years at Concordia University College before playing another two at the University of Alberta, where he was named most valuable player at the 2007 Golden Bears Invitational Tournament.

Parker then brought his signature slam dunks to courts in Germany, Brazil, France and the United States before finishing his pro ball career with the Edmonton Energy.

But life wasn’t always so easy for Parker. Growing up in a single-parent home in a rough part of Edmonton’s north side, Parker came to M.E. LaZerte with a street-hardened attitude and a lack of direction.

Already having lost friends to drugs and violence, Parker entered high school feeling like nobody cared.

“I was on the wrong path,” he says.

Parker first met Elniski at the Londonderry basketball courts, where the teacher would watch through the chain link fence as the neighbourhood kids played street ball.

Parker had already been suspended a handful of times before Elniski pulled him aside and asked a question that would change the course of Parker’s life, “How do you want to be remembered?”

He told Parker that the only thing a man leaves behind after he dies is his reputation. At that moment, Parker realized he wanted to be remembered for “making the best of bad situations.”

“From that one conversation, my whole life changed,” Parker says.

To him, perhaps the most beautiful thing about Elniski—a teacher and basketball coach who started his career at Victoria School for Arts in 1973 before moving to a position at M.E. LaZerte in the northeast community that was always close to his heart—was that he inspired all of the students and young players to achieve their full potential, valuing effort above results.

“He did that for everybody,” Parker says, “and that’s what I want to do.”

It was after Elniski lost his battle with cancer on Oct. 2, 2004 that Parker decided he wanted to create the same positive influence on the kids in his community that Elniski did. He became a teacher.

When Kim Backs—the principal at M.E. LaZerte who has created a close-knit, supportive and engaged community atmosphere at her school—gave newly-graduated teacher Parker a call, asking him if he was ready to come “back home,” Parker was overjoyed.

“No word of a lie, I knelt down and kissed the ground,” Parker said with a smile. “Coming from where I came from and getting the opportunity to come back home, it was emotional.”

Parker now teaches Social Studies 10, Health & Human Services and Phys-Ed 10 at M.E. LaZerte and is eager to start coaching basketball. Backs says Parker’s big personality is a welcome addition to the school community.

“He’s a learner in this situation too, which is really great with him because I think it helps him identify with a lot of these kids in a different way all over again,” said Backs.

Parker hopes to inspire the same values—like respect and kindness—that Elniski inspired in his students. He describes Elniski as a tough but fair father figure to many of his students and players and wants to offer the same kind of support and encouragement that his students need to overcome obstacles and achieve their full potential.

“Every single kid is going to get that from me,” Parker says, “from now until my teaching career is done.”

Before starting a career at M.E. LaZerte, he was an active volunteer at the school and was a big part of the annual Thom Elniski Basketball Tournament.

Parker is also active in the north side community, founding and directing of the annual Pride of the Northside basketball tournament, which promotes the benefits of sport with underprivileged youth.

While Parker navigates the trials of being a new teacher, he leans on fellow teachers and administrators for support. But in quiet moments, Parker still leans on Elniski.

“There are a lot of times I wish I could talk to him because he was that father figure,” says Parker. “Sometimes, I still do.”

If he had the chance to say one thing to Elniski, it would be thank you.

“I just hope I’m making you proud.”  ❚

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