Chicago's Jabari Parker balances faith, fierceness on the court
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Before Jabari Parker takes the floor to play a basketball game, he sits by himself in the locker room for a couple of minutes of prayer and reflection. "I pray that God keeps me safe on the floor, and that I'm able to have a good attitude towards my teammates," he says. When the game ends, Parker heeds that higher calling by rushing to be first in line to shake hands. "I just want to show the opponents that I'm grateful," he says. "I want to show good sportsmanship."
In between those displays of piety, Parker reveals something that is truly divine: a game as good as his attitude. A 6-foot-8, 220-pound rising junior at Chicago's Simeon High, Parker is a lithe, graceful, intelligent swingman who has the length and athleticism to play power forward, yet dashes and darts with the ball like an expert point guard. He sinks feathery three-pointers as easily as he drops in finger rolls at the rim. One college assistant coach who is recruiting Parker says he reminds him of Grant Hill, "except Jabari is a better shooter." Adds Evan Daniels, the national basketball recruiting analyst for Scout.com, "He has put himself in the conversation as the best player in high school basketball, not just his class. His offensive package has developed to the point where there's not much he can't do."
Parker further cemented that reputation last week, when he averaged 17.7 points over six games while competing for the Mac Irvin Fire at Nike's prestigious Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C. That followed a whirlwind three weeks that began with Parker putting up 27 points and 10 rebounds in Team USA's gold medal win over Brazil at the FIBA Americas Under 16 championships in Cancun, Mexico. He was also a standout performer at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, Ohio, earlier this month. All of that comes on the heels of a sophomore season at Simeon High that saw Parker average 15 points and six rebounds while leading his team to its second consecutive Class 4A state championship.
Parker is so versatile that his position in game programs is often listed as "G/F/C." Throw in a 3.4 grade-point average and it's clear why he'll have his choice of any college in the country. Jabari's recruitment is only just beginning in earnest, but he has already paid unofficial visits to Ohio State, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State, Illinois and Duke. He plans on visiting several more schools (including Stanford) in the next few months.
Parker's assets are indeed heaven-sent. His father, Sonny, is a Chicago native who played for Texas A&M and was a first-round draft pick of the Golden State Warriors in 1976. His mother, Lola, bequeathed Jabari a different kind of glory by raising him as a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lola was born a Mormon in the Polynesian nation of Tonga. She emigrated to Salt Lake City with her family when she was three, and she met Sonny when she was a student at BYU and he was playing for the Warriors. The two of them have raised all four of their children as Mormons on the south side of Chicago. An African-American Mormon is about as rare as a 6-8 point guard, but Jabari moves adeptly in both arenas. "Everyone thinks I'm so different, but it's a good different," he says. "My faith keeps me grounded."
It also commands a great deal of time. Besides going to church every Sunday, Jabari attends an LDS seminary school two mornings a week before beginning his day at Simeon. That would help explain why he is prone to taking three-hour naps, but he and his parents believe it's a worthy sacrifice. "Can you imagine how positive that is?" Lola says. "You start your day thinking about things we don't normally think about. Like gratitude, like how there is a Creator, how we should act toward one another. All those simple principles help mold who we should become."
Jabari has moments where he acts like a silly teenager; he still likes to hide in closets to scare his sisters and cracks up his teammates by blowing bubbles into a water glass. Most of the time, however, he evinces a maturity that is uncommon in a 16-year-old, much less one who has long been a local celebrity. "I'm telling you, this kid is special," Simeon coach Robert Smith says. "When he was a freshman on the varsity, he would go to the junior varsity games and hand water to the guys when they came to the bench. The first time I saw him doing it I figured he was putting on a front, but then he did it all the time. He just has a great heart."
Parker's father is not technically a Mormon convert, but he attends church regularly with the family and hews to the Church's call to community service. Since 1990, Sonny has directed a youth foundation that provides mentoring and life skills for hundreds of kids in and around Chicago. Jabari discovered his love for the game through his dad's basketball leagues. By the time he was in second grade, Jabari was playing against -- and dominating -- kids who were three years older. He played middle school basketball when he was in fifth grade. Simeon used to have a policy forbidding freshmen to play on the varsity (even Derrick Rose, a Simeon grad, had to bide his time on the jayvee), but Smith waived that rule and installed Parker as a starter from Day 1.
Smith learned quickly that Parker's work ethic was commensurate with his talents. Jabari would frequently call his coach on weekends to ask if they could go to the gym to practice. He currently works out regularly with Tim Grover, the Chicago-based guru who has trailed scores of NBA players, including Michael Jordan. Those sessions helped him shed some 15 pounds of baby fat over the last year, which has made Jabari more mobile and less susceptible to injury.
Not surprisingly, Parker works out with his father more than anyone else, but those sessions occur at Jabari's behest, not Sonny's. "I tell Jabari all the time, 'I can't want it more than you do,'" Sonny says. "If he wanted to quit playing now it would be OK. I can't live through my son."
Sonny rarely talks with his kids about his own heyday. The first time Jabari saw video of his dad playing was when he was in fifth grade and attending a basketball camp at the University of Washington, whose coach, Lorenzo Romar, was a teammate of Sonny's with the Warriors. Sonny has never coached one of his son's teams and often has to miss Jabari's weekend games because he is busy running his own program. When Sonny does attend, he sits so quietly in the bleachers you almost don't know he's there.
"He's a modest guy. He doesn't brag about his accomplishments," Jabari says. "He taught me everything I know about basketball, but he doesn't push me as hard as other fathers do. I'm just thankful because I know other kids don't have father figures in their lives at all."
Lola, meanwhile, has prepared Jabari for the ancillary pressures that go along with athletic stardom. "I've talked to him about the importance of having a good image, a good brand," she says. From the time Jabari first demonstrated his prowess, Lola has been putting him through mock media interviews. "I knew he would need to be comfortable when people asked him certain questions. If he didn't know an answer, he would do research and come back."
Those quiz sessions piqued Jabari's interest in the history of basketball. He loves to read about past players and watch classic games on television. (Recent tweet: "Just watched BOS vs HOU NBA Finals 86. They had so much skill and not a lot of bad habits like we young folk have.") He has studied the moves of Pete Maravich, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe. If his trademark finger roll looks like he got it from George Gervin, it's because he did. His favorite player isn't LeBron James or Kevin Durant. "It's Oscar Robertson," Jabari says. "He did it on both ends of the floor, and he had an overall game. That's what I'm trying to work up to."
Parker and his family have already received two movie offers, but they turned them down. "We may eventually be forced to give up our privacy, but right now we're going to enjoy it as much as we can," she says. Lola takes pride in pointing out that Jabari has no tattoos and has never walked around Chicago in saggy pants. While he is close with his teammates, Jabari's best friend is a 5-9 Jewish kid named Corey Dolins, who is a year older and attends a different high school. When he's not watching basketball, Jabari can sometimes be found checking out the Discovery Channel to feed his curiosity in biology and science.
As Jabari's recruitment heats up, Sonny and Lola have made clear his college destination will be his decision. Contrary to some of the chatter making its way around the summer circuit, Parker is not automatically ticketed for BYU because he is Mormon (he has no plans to go on a mission while in college), nor is he certain to wind up at Washington because of Romar's relationship with Sonny. (Though Washington's cause will certainly not be hurt if Jabari's older brother, Chris, enrolls in the fall and joins Romar's team as a manager, which Chris is hoping to do).
If anything, Jabari is the one who has cautioned his parents not to get caught up in the burgeoning hype. When he was in sixth grade, Jabari asked that they never use the word "good" to describe his game. In Jabari's mind, the word connotes that he is some kind of finished product, and he insists he will never stop seeking ways to ascend to higher ground. "That's why we never say Jabari is a 'good' player in our house," Lola says. "We just say he's improving."