From Athlete To Inmate: The Parish Hickman Story

By Boyce Watkins
Updated: November 6, 2006

NEW YORK — I received another letter from one of the penitentiaries in Michigan. I get a lot of letters from prison these days, and it doesn’t come as a surprise. I learned a long time ago that, for many black men, prison has become a way of life.

If you are not the one doing time, it is your best friend, your brother, your cousin or your father doing time for you. At least that’s been my life, and even though I have never been shot or incarcerated, I connect directly with those who have.

This particular letter was from Parish Hickman, former Michigan State basketball star in the early 90s. He’d seen me on ESPN and felt compelled to share his story with me. I didn’t have the right to judge the man, I simply listened to what he had to say.

Parish was very open with me, telling me about when he was kicked off the Michigan State basketball team after being arrested on a charge for which he was later acquitted (They did not, however, remove Scott Skiles, who was also known for being involved in drugs).

He told me about his youth, when dealing drugs was a means of survival. He told me about his adult life, in which “being deep in the game” forced him to make some tough choices.

It was clear from the letter that Parish, now a Muslim, was no angel. He’d made mistakes, but he seemed sorry for them. His goal of reaching out to me was in large part due to the fact that he didn’t want other young men to repeat the mistakes he’d made in his own past.

It is inevitable, however, that many of them will do it anyway. I thought of my nephew, recently incarcerated for robbery and drug possession. In spite of my years of warning, that advice apparently meant nothing, as he is now begging us to get him out.

But there is another side to this coin that cannot be ignored. The reality is that the experience of the black man is unlike any other in America. All humans are created equal, some good and some bad. The disproportionate representation of black men in the prison system is a clear reflection of systemic bias that has gone ignored by our country.

We sometimes commit the crime, but we almost always do more time for it. According to Human Rights Watch, black men are 13% of the general population, but 49% of the prison population. Even after your debt is paid to society, you are permanently ostracized, unemployable and completely marginalized.

My father, uncle and cousins in prison, along with my best friend who was shot in the head, are testimonials of the challenges that exist for the black male. Not all people who have done time are the worthless deadbeats that we make them out to be.

I enjoyed talking to Parish, and I’ve written him back. My only hope is that other men can learn from his experiences and avoid the same mistakes. Parish was a great player once, and he has found that those who claimed to love him as a player have turned their backs on him now.

Jerry Falwell and Liberty College, for whom he scored 35 points and helped obtain their first major division I victory, have thus far not allowed him to finish his degree, even off campus. I find it ironic that these “good Christians” can’t find it in their heart to help a man who once earned them a great deal of money.

I guess the words “6 foot 9, 250 pound black man” take on a whole new meaning when you are not wearing a pair of sneakers.