Dick Parsons has had, as they say, a long and distinguished career. A one-time aide to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and a former chair of organizations ranging from Time Warner to Citigroup to the Jazz Foundation of America, he's if anything overly qualified for his current role as CEO of the Los Angeles Clippers.
It wasn't just his aptitude for the cutthroat politics of various boards that made him a good fit for the job, though. At his introductory news conference, he talked about his days playing college basketball, and the NBA's press release on his hiring mentioned his time at the University of Hawaii, "where he played basketball."
This detail suggests that he's more than a connected suit serving as a front for the league, that the 6-foot-4 Parsons brings an intimate knowledge of the game to his new role. It's just the sort of thing the press loves.
The New York Post, for example made sure to mention it: "He attended the University of Hawaii, where he played varsity basketball."
So did Sports Illustrated: "He also played basketball for the University of Hawaii before earning his law degree from Albany Law School in 1971."
Even the Antara News found Parsons's playing days worthy of a mention: "Parsons, yang pernah bermain bola basket untuk Universitas Hawaii, mengaku penggemar berat NBA yang marah terhadap kata-kata Sterling."
And Scott Cacciola of the New York Times highlighted the new Clippers boss's basketball bona fides in both his story about the appointment and a subsequent tweet:
Interesting tidbit: Richard Parsons, former head of Time Warner and Citigroup, played college basketball at Hawaii.
— Scott Cacciola (@ScottCacciola) May 9, 2014
Here's a far more interesting tidbit: Parsons didn't play varsity basketball at Hawaii.
There's absolutely no record of Parsons playing for any sort of varsity team representing the school—not under the name Richard Parsons, or Dick Parsons, or anything Parsons. You won't find his name on a University of Hawaii basketball roster, or his face in a team photo. Hawaii athletic officials can't come up with anything that says he really played for the school.
"Unfortunately we do not have statistics on Dick Parsons," says Neal Iwamoto, sports information director for Hawaii's men's basketball program.
It's not just that Parsons doesn't show up in box scores, photos, rosters, or news stories from 1964 to 1968, the years he says he was at the school. The guys who do show up don't remember ever playing alongside any Dick or Richard Parsons.
"There was nobody on the team with that name," says Harvey Harmon. A three-year letterman at Hawaii in the mid-'60s, he was captain of the varsity squad during his senior year of '67-'68, the same year Parsons says was his senior year at the school.
Parsons has had an impressive run up the corporate ladder, and talk of his college basketball career at Hawaii has gotten lots of press at every rung.
His sporting past was featured in an August 1990 piece in the New York Times shortly after Parsons took over as chief executive of the Dime Savings Bank of New York: "He grew up with few ambitions. At the University of Hawaii, he was a varsity basketball jock and social chairman of his fraternity."
It also came up in 1993 profile in the Times, after newly elected New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tapped Parsons to be a big part of his transition team: "Mr. Parsons, a native of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was a varsity basketball player at the University of Hawaii."
The Times went back to the well yet again in a 2001 story, when he was named CEO of what was then AOL/Time Warner: "His academic career at the University of Hawaii was, by his own genial admission, undistinguished, apart from his time playing varsity basketball."
From the entry on Parsons in the Encyclopedia of African-American Business: "He won a walk-on scholarship to play for the Rainbow Warriors basketball team."
The New Yorker gave Parsons lots of ink in Ken Auletta's 2001 story about the AOL/Time Warner merger, including several grafs about his days at Hawaii. "He was a basketball star," Auletta wrote. (This was in the era when fact checkers looked through copy for inaccuracies the way the TSA looks in your luggage for toothpaste.)
Time regurgitated the hoops history storyline in 2009 when Parsons took a job atop Citigroup: "Instead the 6'4" Parsons enrolled at the University of Hawaii at the age of 16, where he played basketball."
While tales of Parsons's hoops history take up lots of space in newspaper archives, they haven't left any trace in Hawaii. His name, for example, doesn't show up on the Hawaii basketball web site's list of letter winners. "Parsons" should be between Brian Parker, who earned a letter in 1995, and 2013 letter winner Ozrin Pavlovic. It isn't. In last year's media guide for the basketball program, 330 names appear on the Rainbow Warriors all-time roster of players. Parsons's isn't among them. And, again, Hawaii has no record that he ever got into a game.
Could all the records be wrong? Iwamoto, Hawaii's SID, leaves Parsons some wiggle room. "There are holes in the record keeping back then," he says.
Parsons didn't merely fail to leave a mark on Hawaii's basketball records, though. He also didn't leave one on guys whose names did appear on the Hawaii basketball roster during his years there.
"A lot of people asked me this week about this guy who says he played basketball at Hawaii," said Harvey Harmon, in the wake of the Parsons hiring. "I tell them I know two things about it: I was there, and he wasn't."
Harmon was indeed and unquestionably there. He arrived on campus in the fall of 1964 and left to go to medical school in the spring semester of 1968—the same tenure Parsons has always described. (Harmon is now a surgeon in Memphis.) Harmon's name shows up on the list of letter winners for 1966, 1967, and 1968; at that time freshmen were banned from playing varsity sports by NCAA rule, so students were only letter-eligible for three years. He also shows up on Rainbow Warrior basketball rosters of that vintage, and in newspaper stories about Hawaii hoops from the era.
"At that time, everybody who played basketball knew everybody, because there was only one place on campus where you could play indoors," says Harmon. "A black guy who played basketball all the time, I'd know him. I didn't know him. I never heard of this guy."
Steve Brixen, an Idahoan who transferred from a junior college to Hawaii and, according to one writeup of the team from 1965, started at center on the '65-'66 squad, was likewise flummoxed by claims that Parsons played varsity basketball during his era.
"I don't remember a player by that name on our team. I don't know that name at all," says Brixen. "If there was a guy on campus who was good at basketball, I would know it."
Walter Ritte, a rare Hawaii native in the basketball program, played guard on the varsity squad for three seasons beginning in 1966. From his time with the Rainbow Warriors, Ritte remembers plenty. He remembers throwing it up against Elvin Hayes and Houston. He remembers his highest-scoring game. ("I got 24 points at Arizona State," he says.) Was there a Richard or Dick Parsons on the squad?
"I don't remember that person," Ritte says. "I don't remember that name."
Parsons's alleged career isn't just some sort of passive tale that's attached itself to him over the years. In fact, he has made it clear that basketball was more to him than merely a game.
From the 1964 yearbook for John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens.
In a 2009 interview with Long Story Short, a PBS program in Hawaii, Parsons spoke as if the game had defined him during his years on the island. Parsons said that when he left New York for college and found himself far away from friends and family and feeling all sorts of lonely, the support of the school's basketball team was what got him through.
"I did okay in the fall semester, 'cause there was basketball, right?" Parsons said. "The basketball team became my extended family and my friends."
There were also money problems during his college days, Parsons said.
There is no mention of the "walk-on scholarship" that the Encyclopedia of African-American Business says he'd won. But, as Parsons recalled how he worked his way through, he made it clear that neither fiscal woes nor his academic pursuits nor the fear of disappointing his mother would get in the way of playing college ball through his senior year.
A partial transcript of the interview, typed up by PBS Hawaii:
INTERVIEWER: And how did you pay for college?
PARSONS: Uh, I worked. My first year, I worked at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center. I don't even know if it's still out here. Basically, after school, washing test tubes and stuff; and then I had a night job at the Primo Brewery. You know, watching—in those days, they recycled the bottles, and you had to watch 'em on the assembly line to make sure that there was nothing in them as they sort of came through. Pull them off if there was. And then um, my sophomore and junior year, I worked at Mark—a place called Mark's Center Garage, downtown.
PARSONS: I was uh… first, I parked cars, and then I was the night manager. And then my senior year, I worked for Honolulu Gas Company, putting in gas pipes out in Hawaii Kai.
INTERVIEWER: But you were also on the basketball team.
INTERVIEWER: How'd you do all that?
PARSONS: Well, something had to come up short, right?
PARSONS: Turned out— Turned out to be school. So I was not—I was—I was not… I didn't make my mother proud, I'll put it that way, in terms of the grades I got while I was out here.
INTERVIEWER: And you were a history major?
PARSONS: Yeah; I started out as a physics major. But um… but that required more time and attention than… all these other activities afforded me.
PARSONS: So I became a history major.
Parsons didn't always blame basketball for his academic shortcomings. In a profile on Parsons that ran in USA Today in November 1994, writer Janet L. Fix goes over his college years, but does not mention any stint playing basketball for the school. Instead, the story has Parsons copping to having been a lousy student, but attributing his dismal classroom performance to devotion to another, non-athletic game: "For college, he got as far away from home as he could without leaving the USA by attending the University of Hawaii," Fix wrote. "There, [Parsons] says, 'I was the world's worst student' because he was perfecting his bridge game instead of his grades."
Both the Clippers and the NBA are ready to downgrade Parsons's basketball career. In response to phone calls and emails asking what years Parsons played college basketball, Clippers spokesperson Seth Burton said there was no varsity ball in his past. "He played one season on the JV team at Hawaii," Burton said via email. He referred questions about the "specific dates" of his ballplaying days to the NBA communications office. NBA spokesman Michael Bass, in turn, also said that the new Clippers boss play was limited to one non-varsity season, but that was when Parsons "played for the freshman team" at Hawaii in 1964-65.
That means that all prior mentions of Parsons as a varsity player are wrong, as is the encyclopedic reference to his "walk-on scholarship," as is Parsons's assertion that he played basketball and worked all through college, leading to poor academic performance, as is The New Yorker's claim that he enjoyed a stint as a "basketball star" in Hawaii.
Hawaii's basketball office, though, can provide no documents to support claims that Parsons played ball at any level in college. Asked about the absolute absence of school records and/or photographic evidence, Bass points to a 2004 clip from The New York Times. That story, titled "No Use Crying Over Spilled Billions," highlighted Parsons's personal charm and his gift for boardroom politics, both of which he needed during his eventful tenure as chief executive and chairman of Time Warner. His basketball background makes a brief cameo in the story, but he is not credited as a varsity player:
He played on the freshman basketball team, and quickly made friends. "He was a big gangly kid who clearly enjoyed college," said Red Rocha, the coach of the varsity team at the time. "He didn't start on the team, but he was clearly popular with all of the players."
According to Hawaii's athletic department, Rocha never coached the freshman team, so if Parsons had played only as a freshman—as the NBA now asserts—he never would have played for him. The two teams practiced at different times, and Rocha had nothing to do with the freshman squad, which went 6-3 in 1964-65. (Rocha was 81 years old when that New York Times story came out. He died at 87 in 2010.)
To back up the claims that Parsons played college ball, even at this lower level and for only nine games, the NBA's Bass suggested I speak with ... Harvey Harmon. Alas, that didn't help Parsons's case.
I spoke with Harmon several times over the past few days, during which time he'd also received several "desperate" phone messages at home and work from a PR firm called RLM Finsbury, which has ties to Parsons's old shop, Time Warner. Today, Harmon finally connected with a rep for Parsons. The Clippers' interim CEO apparently "remembers playing with ME our freshman year," Harmon tells me in an email, recounting his conversation with the flack, and he "wanted to know if I remembered him."
Harmon was firm in his response. "I told him I didn't," he says, "and he didn't play on the team."
Update, 9 p.m.: There is at least one guy who will vouch that Parsons played freshman ball. Bill Robinson, who describes himself as an attorney from Long Beach, Calif., says he was on the Hawaii frosh team for the 1964-1965 season, and so was Parsons: "Neither one of us were starters," says Robinson, adding that he transferred from the school after that one year, "but we got a fair amount of playing time off the bench." (We got in contact with Robinson via Ed Adler of RLM Finsbury, a public relations firm representing Parsons.)
Also, here's the statement from Adler:
Dick has never claimed that he played varsity. He says he only played on the freshman team and has never claimed he was good or received a letter.