BANGOR, Maine — Tom Knight rose from the rural western Maine town of Dixfield to the highest level of NCAA Division I basketball.
And while Knight recently graduated from Notre Dame after being a contributing factor for coach Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish, the 6-foot-10-inch forward is nowhere near finished with the sport.
Maine’s 2009 Mr. Basketball from Dirigo High School will play professionally in England next season while pursuing a master’s degree in management and hopes to extend his athletic career well beyond that.
Numerous coaches facilitated Knight’s rare ascension from the Mountain Valley Conference in small-town Maine to the big-time atmosphere of the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences.
But it takes Knight barely a breath to identify his most significant coaching influence — his AAU mentor, Carl Parker.
“Minus my parents I’d say coach Parker probably has been the most important,” said Knight. “Coach Parker really gave me a certain confidence about the game. When I started playing for him I was unsure as to what I wanted to do and I didn’t know how good I could be, but from Day 1 he told me I could be as good as I wanted to be, I just had to work for it.
“I’ve never wanted to work for a coach as much as I wanted to work for him.”
Parker long has been a fixture in the state’s basketball world. He’s currently the boys varsity coach at Nokomis of Newport and also has coached at Bangor High School, Foxcroft Academy and with the Lee Academy postgraduates as well as serving as an assistant postgraduate coach at Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield.
But it’s on the AAU scene where the Bangor resident has had his biggest influence since helping establish that program in Maine in 1991. He’s been credited with aiding many of the state’s top college basketball prospects while molding such individual talent into teams capable of playing competitively in regional and national tournaments for more than two decades.
“He’s very connected, not just in the small world of basketball but in the big world,” said Marty Bouchard of Houlton, whose son Kyle has played under Parker for the last three years. “When you’re following him along as he’s walking into the national tournament to coach a game, all kinds of people come up to him and say, ‘Hey coach.’
“They’re people from all over and from all facets of the game — referees, scorekeepers, club coaches, event directors. He’s developed those relationships out of respect and trust and sticktoitiveness.”
Bouchard’s son, a first-team Bangor Daily News All-Maine forward who led Houlton High School to the 2014 Class C state championship, and emerging center Nick Mayo of Messalonskee of Oakland helped Parker’s 2014 Maine Athletic Club team place 11th among 99 entries in the AAU Division I 11th-Grade National Championships at Louisville, Kentucky.
“He is a very upfront person,” said Kyle Bouchard, whose teams under Parker have gone a combined 20-7 at national tournaments the last two summers. “He’ll tell you exactly how he feels, which makes it really makes it easy for players to know where he’s coming from even if he knows what he’s going to say isn’t always going to be what you want to hear.”
Knight said there are no favorites on Parker’s AAU teams.
“I’ve had games for him when I’ve played terrible,” said Knight, ‘and while some coaches would say, ‘It’s all right, you did fine,’ I needed someone to tell it to me straight and coach Parker would say, ‘You sucked today, but you’re going to be better tomorrow.’ That’s what I needed.
“And it doesn’t matter if you’re me who went and played at Notre Dame or some guy who maybe didn’t play college basketball. Every person is equally important to coach Parker. Every player he wants to see grow up and become a man, and you don’t see it like that everywhere else.”
This year’s run by Parker’s MAC squad marked the second time in seven years he has guided a team to an 11th-place place finish at the nationals. A roster featuring Knight and guard Sam Leclerc of Winthrop achieved a similar result in 2007.
“You want kids to be competitive in every game,” said Parker, whose teams also have won numerous state AAU championships. “If you’re competitive in every game you’ll come to the realization that there are going to be some teams that are better than you. But if you go into it knowing that, then if you win a fair share of those games that maybe you shouldn’t win and you win a majority of the games that you should win, you’d call that a pretty good season.”
Success at the Division I 11th-Grade Nationals is a badge of honor for many AAU coaches and players. That event serves as fertile recruiting grounds for many college coaches — Mayo reportedly received several Division I scholarship offers there this year while Bouchard also has drawn considerable interest.
That’s another part of what Parker sees as his mission as an AAU coach, providing accessibility to potential opportunities for his players to pursue their passion for basketball beyond high school.
“The real reason I started with AAU was in looking at high school basketball in Maine and kids and their opportunities, we had some Division I’s but I thought we had a number of kids who would be good Division II players and should be able to get scholarships,” he said.
“There had been some players who played at (Division II) Bentley at the time, primarily from southern Maine. But there weren’t as many as I thought were probably capable of being successful at that level, so that was part of the impetus. Plus I like coaching and being around kids, and it gave me something to do in the summer.”
The perennial task for Parker is to convince star high school players that being successful within the team concept in AAU competition usually is just as important as individual accomplishments to college recruiters.
“I think creating a pathway (for individual opportunities) is very important, but I also believe that unless you develop a cohesive team and win games you’re probably not going to provide that opportunity,” said Parker. “It’s important to provide a vehicle where kids blend together and play for a common goal, which is to win games, and the more you win and the more success they have winning will provide more opportunities for those kids whether it’s Division I or Division II or Division III.”
Most players begin the AAU season already familiar with some of their new teammates, at least enough to recognize the common denominators that have brought them together.
“We understood that individually we were all striving for the same thing,” said Dayne Savage, a guard from Caribou who played for Parker this year. “We all wanted to impress the college coaches but we knew the only way for that to happen was for us all to play together because when we played together as a team it made us all look better than maybe we really were because everyone was thriving off each other.
“Coach is the one who really focused us on that.”
Often it’s not the players who require the bulk of such reinforcement.
“I think where the rub may come is that I’m not sure all the parents look at it that way,” said Parker. “We have a tendency to be afraid to say that, and even though I believe it I don’t think it’s necessarily something malicious, but how parents look at it probably can affect their young person adversely.
“Hopefully with AAU it’s a little different. Parents have to bring their sons to play so they’re here and we try to create kind of a family situation. When we go away to the nationals we live together, so to speak, so there are parents and coaches and players in the house. Sometimes the air can get a little thick, but I think most of them understand the boundaries and do a pretty good job with it.”
Such direct parental involvement — all but one player on Parker’s MAC team this year was accompanied by a parent at the nationals — is one difference between coaching AAU basketball and the same job at the high school level, he said.
“Parents in AAU often bring their kids to practice so they sit in practice, they listen to what you’re saying and there’s an opportunity for them to buy in or not buy in,” Parker said. “They’re not going to go to the principal and complain or to the school board and complain. What typically will happen if they don’t like what is going on is that their son will retire and that’s about the end of it.
“You’re not looking for that to happen, but when it does it usually happens in a congenial way whereas in high school there’s constant backstabbing that undermines things. All you have to do is go look at the coaching openings and see how many people apply now compared to 30 years ago.”
Another significant difference is the amount of practice time available, particularly since Parker often draws his AAU players from around the state. This year’s team ranged geographically from Falmouth’s Jack Simonds and Ben Malloy of Bonny Eagle of Standish to Aroostook County standouts Bouchard, Savage and Chris Hudson of Hodgdon.
Parker tries to bundle practices on weekends his AAU team isn’t in a tournament, and players generally are willing to do what they can to help bridge the geographic divide — both during their time on his teams and even in subsequent years in some cases.
“Going into my junior year and senior year of high school I played on his team, and then every year when I came home for the summer from college I’d call him up and say, ‘coach, you want to work me out?’” said Knight. “He’d say, ‘absolutely,’ and he’d come work me out three times a week anywhere we could find a gym.
“He’ll bend over backwards for any player he’s ever had whether it’s his players now or his players 10 years ago.”
Many of Parker’s AAU alumni remain connected with their coach long after they have graduated to college or the working world.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had a lot of tremendous kids,” he said, “not just as players but as people. When they come back and are in the gym we try to have some younger players there, too, so you could come to a practice and there’d be kids from (ages) 15 to 22 in the gym and we may have 20 of them there.
“They help each other and share their experiences. We’ve had a host of kids come back and speak. They do a tremendous job with that aspect of it and that’s ultimately what it’s all about — it’s about those young people having opportunities. Hopefully they have a great experience and share it with other young people so it’s kind of self-perpetuating.”