The entry-wound scar behind his right knee, now faded to a purplish oval the size of a stretched quarter, is out of Kevin Parrom's line of sight. He can't feel the .22 bullet fragments buried high in his hamstring; he's not even sure how many there are. The scars on his left hand are tiny and white, and as for his surgically repaired foot? "There's barely anything visible there," he says. "I don't think about any of that anymore." The only outward reminder of a harrowing junior year marked by grief, terror and pain is worn on Parrom's left wrist: a pink rubber band printed with the word STRENGTH that his mom, Lisa, used to wear.
This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2013 issue
Otherwise, Parrom, a 6'6", 220-pound swingman for Arizona, has put that dark and tragic stretch behind him and moved on. "I'm fine now," he says, smiling broadly. "Everything is going great."
How great? The No. 12--ranked Wildcats were tied at week's end for second with UCLA (behind Oregon) in a refreshingly competitive Pac-12. As the first player off the bench, Parrom ranked fourth on the team in points (8.0), rebounds (4.9), assists (2.0) and minutes (22.9) per game. But his stats only hint at the ways he sees cracks and fills them, grabbing the ball after a teammate's game-sealing swat (68--67 over San Diego State); taking the charge that gets an opponent's star in foul trouble (71--54 over Arizona State); hunting down and blocking a fast break layup (80--70 over Oregon State). His fearless competitiveness sometimes gets him into trouble—midway through Arizona's 79--65 win against Washington State on Feb. 2, Parrom was ejected for throwing an elbow—but it is more often a force for good. "Kevin seems to have a healthy measure of self-confidence that rubs off on his team," says Herb Sendek, coach of Arizona State. "Whether it's a big three or a rebound, a big play on defense, he delivers it."
Parrom has been named the Pac-12's Sixth Man of the Week three times and runner-up once by statsheet.com, but these honors don't fully capture his achievements. "Kevin's not just the comeback player of the year, he's the most courageous player," says Wildcats assistant Emanuel (Book) Richardson. "What he went through would have broken a lot of other players."
GROWING UP near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Kevin Parrom carried a basketball with him everywhere he went—on the subway, to the movie theater, on the 10-minute walk between the apartments of his dad, Kenny Parrom, and his mom, Lisa Williams. (The two, who never married, sometimes lived apart, but "we were always a family," says Kenny.) He was 4½ when he joined the weekend program of the New York Gauchos, the AAU club for which he would play through 10th grade. He rarely had a game that wasn't attended by one or more members of his family, including Lisa, who was fiercely devoted to her two sons (Kenny Jr. is 31); Lisa's mother, Edith Williams, known as Coach Edith for her constant reminders to Kevin to "be aggressive and get to the free throw line!"; and Kenny, a former guard at Arizona Western who encouraged his son to develop the versatility of his hero, Oscar Robertson.
Arizona coach Sean Miller, who signed Parrom to Xavier in the fall of 2008, liked that versatility as well as Parrom's physicality and his boldness in big moments. "He isn't nervous in those situations," says Miller. "He has a fearlessness, even a recklessness in how he plays." When Miller was hired by Arizona in April 2009, Parrom reopened his recruiting and followed him to the desert.
Parrom was hampered by homesickness and a stress fracture in his left foot his freshman year but started to blossom as a sophomore in 2010--11, averaging 7.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.1 minutes. That March the young Wildcats came within a three-point basket of beating eventual champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight. Star Derrick Williams left for the NBA, but '11--12 looked promising, with a top 10 recruiting class coming in and a solid group of veterans returning, including Parrom. "I was getting ready for a breakout season," he says.
Then the first blow: On July 2, 2011, Richardson called the player into his office. Coach Edith had died, of colorectal cancer. Parrom collapsed in a chair and broke into tears. His grandfather Walter Williams had died of cancer the summer before, and Parrom had had a hard time getting over that loss. Watching Parrom sob, Richardson called his wife, Erin, to tell her they might have a guest. "I didn't want him staying by himself," says Richardson.
"No one had told me my grandmother was that sick," Parrom says. "My family had wanted to protect me."
Parrom was also in the dark about the gravity of his mother's health. The summer before, Lisa had discovered a lump in her breast. The prognosis was grim. "I thought she should bring Kevin home that summer, but she wouldn't hear of it," says Lisa's cousin Michelle Jones. "She'd say, 'This is an important summer for Kevin!' She wanted him to pursue his dreams."
Parrom knew his mom had cancer but had no idea how serious her situation was. "She said once you do the chemo, it'll all be gone, and I believed it," says Parrom. "My mother was so good at hiding stuff." On Sept. 19, Lisa texted Miller to say her cancer had taken a bad turn. Could Kevin come back to New York City for a visit?
He arrived at JFK early on the morning of Sept. 23 and rode with his father to Einstein Hospital in the Bronx. After 10 hours at the hospital, he promised his mom he'd return the next morning.
Parrom left the hospital in anguish. He retreated to his dad's apartment, desperate to talk to somebody. Kenny had to leave for the night shift at Con Ed, where he worked as a cable rigger. Kenny Jr. was in an upstate prison serving a five-year term for drug possession. So Parrom called a woman he had known since childhood and invited her over to talk. "She was one of the few friends from around there that I could connect to," says Parrom. "But she had a jealous boyfriend."
Parrom and the woman had been talking for about 30 minutes in the living room when two men he didn't know kicked open the front door. Parrom ran into his father's bedroom and tried to lock the door, but they kicked that in too. When one of the intruders pulled out a pistol, Parrom grabbed at it and pointed it down. The assailant fired five or six shots. One bullet grazed the inside of Parrom's left hand, leaving a path of shredded flesh across his palm and fingers. Another entered the lower side of his right thigh, above and to the side of his knee, before shattering into fragments that traveled into his hamstring. "I didn't feel anything," says Parrom. "My leg went straight into shock." The two men fled. The woman had already escaped. Parrom stumbled to the phone and called 911.
Paramedics took him to Lincoln Hospital, where he stayed for two days before hobbling out on crutches and getting on a plane for Arizona. His morning appointment with his mother had come and gone. When she had called his cellphone, Parrom let it ring. It was his turn to lie to protect her; he asked family members to tell Lisa he had to return to school for an urgent team meeting.
Back in Tucson team trainer Justin Kokoskie faced a number of concerns with Parrom, including the possibility of infection and of nerve damage in both the right leg and the left hand. "If the bullet had been a millimeter lower he wouldn't have had any function in his hand," says Kokoskie, who gathered a team of medical experts, from trauma surgeons to a pedorthist who designs leg braces, to help in Parrom's recovery. "You can never put a time frame on nerve pain and damage. Will the feeling return in weeks, months, years?"
After the wound healed and feeling started to return to Parrom's upper leg, he walked on an underwater treadmill and did exercises with weights. Feeling in his foot was much slower to return, but with the help of braces he was able to jog and practice his shooting.
A few weeks after the shooting, Parrom was called back to New York to identify his assailant and testify before a grand jury. (On Feb. 1 of this year, Jason Gonzalez, 21, whom Parrom identified as the man accompanying the jealous boyfriend, pleaded guilty to attempted murder; sentencing is scheduled for March 8.) The trip gave him one more chance to see Lisa, who still didn't know he had been shot—and would never know. Lying in a hospital bed in a morphine fog, the cancer having spread to her lungs and brain, she was incoherent but for three screamed words that seared themselves into Parrom's memory: "Pray for me!"
Distraught, Parrom initially refused to fly back to Arizona. Jones, who had been at Lisa's side through all 36 of her chemotherapy treatments, told him his mother would want him to go back to school. Parrom got on the plane.
After his mom's death on Oct. 16, 2011, Parrom says, he had days when he didn't want to get out of bed. He wore a picture of Lisa on a chain around his neck and listened to saved phone messages from her, including ones where she yelled at him to "Stop procrastinating on that essay!" or "Pick up the damn phone!"
But most of the time he was desperate for distraction from his grief. One outlet was his studies; offered extra time to complete his assignments, Parrom declined, telling academic advisor Marisol Quiroz, "I just want things to be normal again." The other was basketball. As his leg started to improve, Miller and his staff put aside thoughts of redshirting him for his junior year. "After all he had been through, we couldn't take away the carrot of playing, too," says Miller.
While practice could be challenging—occasionally a nerve in Parrom's leg would suddenly fire, making him yowl in pain—it was also a relief. "I needed to play ball to get over my mom, my grandmother, my leg," he says.
Seven weeks after the shooting and just four weeks after Lisa's death, Parrom, a fan favorite even under normal circumstances, checked into a Nov. 13, 2011, game against Ball State. In 18 minutes he scored six points, including a critical three-pointer, took a charge, grabbed four rebounds, made two assists—and got two standing ovations.
He wasn't as explosive, mobile or confident as he had been the year before, and sometimes, says Miller, "he was mentally checked out." But Parrom found more strength in his leg every week. By late January of last season his functionality, he says, was around 85%. During a nationally televised home game against Washington he had seven points, three rebounds and two assists in 10 minutes. Then, near the end of the first half, he made a cut and felt a wrenching pain in his right foot. In the training room Kokoskie told Parrom that his fifth metatarsal was broken. Parrom broke down in tears again. "I thought, Why is this happening to me?"
The despair soon gave way to resolve. This is the end of the bad luck, he told himself. On Feb. 3, 2012, Parrom had surgery on his foot, and he soon started another round of rehab. "It wasn't easy," says Kokoskie. "Kevin had to devote himself to living in the training room. And he really worked hard."
Parrom got support from family, friends and the Wildcats. "A lot of people helped me through all this," he says. Eventually he focused on his future the way his mother would have wanted. During the off-season he allowed no interruptions to school and workouts. He didn't go home. When he was named a recipient of the Wilma Rudolph Award, which honors student athletes who have overcome great personal odds, he declined the opportunity to go to Buffalo to receive the honor in person.
Parrom examined the roster and figured out how he could best help the Wildcats: Another top 10 recruiting class was coming in, but the team still needed shooters. Over the summer he tried to sharpen his three-point shot (he was making 36.1% through Sunday), a weapon he'll need to succeed at the pro level. "One big goal is to finish—finish my degree, finish the season—for me, for my mom and grandma, for my family," he says. "I knew if I stayed healthy, everything would take care of itself."
So much is falling into place for Parrom now. Kenny Jr., who was released from prison in November, visited Tucson in late January and finally saw his little brother in action. Last semester was one of Parrom's best academically, and with just two classes left to complete for his degree in social behavior and human understanding, he should breeze to graduation in May. Meanwhile, he's doing an internship with Kokoskie, using his experience with rehab techniques to help his teammates.
Throughout his ordeal there were the expected lessons—life is short; don't take your gifts for granted—and some surprising ones. Until strangers started approaching him recently, Parrom never realized his experience as a member of a family hard-hit by cancer could be of value to others. When people facing the disease in their own families have asked him, "How do you get through it?" he has passed on the message from his mother's pink wristband, telling them, "All you can do is stay strong."
It's what he tries to do every day. He still thinks of Coach Edith every time he goes to the free throw line. And when he has a bad day, he hears his mom in his head: C'mon Kevin, tomorrow is going to be better. "And you know what?" he says. "She's always right."