All-State Player of the Year: Jabari Parker
By CODY WESTERLUND
PEORIA — It's fast approaching midnight.
Just more than an hour removed from helping his Chicago Simeon Wolverines go down in the record books with their sixth state title and third in a row, Jabari Parker casually plops down on the corner of the bed nearest the door in Room 208 at the Four Points Sheraton. The hotel is two blocks from the arena where he paused and pointed upward to thank a higher power after a final buzzer that sealed his legacy as one of the greatest prep players to ever play in this state.
Seemingly, a thousand thoughts have been running through the mind of the nation's top junior prospect on this day. It started with a bad dream, one in which he saw his top-ranked Wolverines losing to the second-ranked Proviso East Pirates, a team that wanted to win the state title more, Simeon coach Robert Smith had said the night before.
In the paradox that is the mind of someone who turned 17 years old just two days prior, Parker says, "I don't put much into dreams," but also admits the thought had worried him throughout the day. The minutes had seemed like hours waiting for the late-evening tipoff.
So maybe that's why a sense of relief finally settled in Room 208, which nestled in near the end of an east wing that the Wolverines family completely filled, plush with home decorating of more than 100 photos and signs taped on the hallway walls.
Finally, Jabari Parker was just Jabari Parker again, not Jabari Parker the basketball star. To his left sat best friend Cory Dolins, a senior at Niles West High. The two had been good buddies since their elementary school days, and really, that represented the most important part of their friendship.
"That's one of my true friends. He was with me before all the hype came, before all the media came. He never changed," Parker says.
Parker's affinity for shopping at a certain mall in the city is now brought up, and the two laugh a couple hearty laughs. He helps Dolins buy shoes, and Dolins gives him pointers on clothes (Parker's a fan of Polo attire).
It feels good for Parker to laugh, to talk about something other than basketball. It's a measure of normalcy. There's not as many of those moments as Parker would like, because when you're him, whether you like it or not, life changes.
And when life changes, you change.
"He's changed for the greater, for the best. But in a way, he's stayed the same," Dolins says.
Other-worldly basketball talent aside, there was always something different about the youngest of the Parker children, the 2012 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year.
It's intriguing, even to only scratch the surface. Jeff Duncan, a Simeon assistant who is a self-described "uncle" and has known Parker since he was 6, reminds of a time not long ago that he asked Parker what he'd be if he wasn't a basketball player.
"I'd just be Jabari," Parker responded.
One of the nation's biggest phenoms — he was named USA Basketball's Male Athlete of the Year in 2011 — cares not a minute for the fame that comes along with being one of the nation's biggest phenoms.
"If it was up to him, he'd be in the back," Smith says.
Parker doesn't feel like he deserves such a spotlight for bouncing a leather ball on the hardwood, which is why individual award ceremonies make him feel uncomfortable. In most every way, he'd rather be just regular ol' Jabari.
Yet Parker's not wired to be normal, even if he would usually rather blend in. When brother Chris and sisters Iman and Tilah turned 16, all they could do was talk about getting their driver's licenses, recalls their mother, Lola.
As for Parker? He turned 17 on March 15 and remained license-less, without a second thought as his mom and dad, Sonny, continued to take him to and from school and practice.
"What typical teenage kid wants their parents to drive them? That's just the way he is," Lola says. "Jabari's really just old soul. He doesn't look at things like the typical teenager's perspective on how they see things."
Another notable mom-and-pop anecdote: Rarely has Parker gotten into disagreements with his parents as he's grown older. Lola never recalls grounding him as punishment, adding on the few occasions there's been an argument, threatening to take his phone away puts a quick end to it.
School's never been a problem either; Parker earned all A's and one B last term, has never received a detention and actually was annoyed when Simeon's national schedule forced him to miss some classes.
Listen to those around Parker and you soon realize the greatest thing to ever happen to him wasn't being blessed with the skills to play basketball. It was being born to Sonny and Lola Parker.
"The reason he's handled (stardom) so well is because his mom and dad do a tremendous job with him," says Smith, the Simeon coach. "They'd been basically grooming him for this already per se, just in case this was going to happen. They had him grounded enough and talked to him about a lot of things. His family is a tremendous group."
"He has great family support," adds legendary Westchester St. Joseph coach Gene Pingatore, a friend of Sonny's. "That's why, when you have that kind of thing, the prospects for his future are unlimited."
It was Mom who first realized her son would be a special basketball player. While Sonny, who had a six-year career with the Golden State Warriors, says he saw the "it" factor sometime early in junior high, Lola had the realization when Parker was in second grade, playing against kids 2 and 3 years older. Maybe it was a mother's intuition, or maybe it was her experience of being the wife of a former NBA player, but Lola was confident in what she saw.
"The technique of the game, the fundamentals, it was just unbelievable — his footwork, handling the ball. Those little things were amazing to me," she says.
The attention started coming soon after. A story here or a mention there in the papers, but most notably an endless chorus ringing throughout gyms by the time Parker was in fourth and fifth grade.
"Oh, that's Sonny Parker's son," they would say.
Lola Parker is a no-nonsense woman, the type of mother you appreciate even more as you get older.
Just ask Sonny, who gets the look from his wife when he tries to talk on his phone during family time, which is set aside many nights from 8 to 9:30. It's when Parker's cellphone is turned off or ignored, in an effort to keep life simpler for a youngster heaped with attention, and the talk usually centers on anything but basketball.
Or ask Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo or Kansas' Bill Self. A self-described non-basketball fan, Lola tabs three of the nation's premier college coaches as "normal, average people," then adds she sometimes goes one or two weeks before returning calls from recruiters.
It's here you see why keeping Parker grounded is "very natural," says Lola, who handles her son's recruiting process because Sonny has so many relationships with people in basketball circles. Parker is part of a family that has long strived to help the greater good, to take on what Lola terms a "greater responsibility."
That belief finds its roots in their Mormon faith, which the Parkers practice devoutly. Parker, whose middle name is Ali, wakes at 5 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the school year, carpooling to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 52nd and University to study Scripture with his peers. And on the night of Simeon's most recent title, Parker had plans to rise before 6 a.m. to make it back to the city with his family for 9 a.m. service, just as they'd done after winning state in 2010 and 2011.
"For Jabari and us as our family, it's a greater responsibility," Lola says of the spotlight that follows the Parkers. "That's how we look at it ... It's our responsibility, as our family, to do good with it — that we are not prideful. That's the responsibility that comes along with it. We tend to shy away from the glory and glitz of it."
How, exactly, to go about fulfilling this greater good, Parker doesn't know yet. Seeing a real-life example, he's proud of his father for running the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation that provides social and educational enrichment for at-risk youths. But then, Parker sees himself being honored alongside Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick and Honorable Judge Greg Mathis by the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago later this month and wonders why he should be mentioned in the same breath, let alone be honored with them.
Those are judges and governors, after all.
"I just want to be a good example, for people generally," Parker says. "Not just athletes, but people. I just want to make change in everyone's life. I know a lot of athletes out here, they're making wrong decisions. I know there's going to be a light on me everywhere I go, and there's going to be eyes everywhere. I want to have good behavior.
"I always want to be a good person."
In that way, Parker is the same kid he's always been, still not too old at 17 to hide in a closet to scare his sisters. Yet in subtle ways, Parker has adjusted and planted the seeds to do good with the spotlight. For one, he understands the platform he has now, and he's accepting of it, even though it means sacrificing the right to wear college apparel anymore, so as not to send message boards into a fury. He's also become a better communicator, more of a team leader, his coaches say, and that's going to help him on and off the court.
"You used to couldn't even get him to say two or three words when he came (to Simeon)," Smith says. "Now he's more adjusted to everyone ... He's definitely grown up since he's gotten here and everything. That's a good thing. He's about to go off to college in a year, so he's going to need that to relate to everybody on a college campus."
That Parker is focused on trying to find a way to do more with his stardom is what makes one wise man smile most.
"It's unlimited what he's going to accomplish in the future as far as basketball, but not just basketball, but in his life. It goes beyond basketball," Pingatore says. "That's what's neat about the whole thing. He's not just a basketball player.
"If there was a headline, that's what I'd use — 'More than just basketball.' "
By the time Parker was in sixth grade at Robert A. Black Magnet School on the South Side, he already knew all the sets Simeon ran, says Duncan, who's been a Wolverines assistant for the past six years. That he knew those intricacies was a testament to his superb basketball IQ and maturity to pay attention at such a young age, both factors that help him on the court today.
With that in mind, it also comes as no surprise that Parker knew plenty about Derrick Rose, the Bulls' star point guard who led Simeon to state titles in 2006 and 2007. When Parker was in eighth grade, Duncan remembers what he views as a seminal moment for a budding player who was oozing talent but not yet proven.
"He knew about the tradition," Duncan says. "He wanted to be a winner. He told me, 'I got to win one more championship than Derrick.' He told me that — 'I got to win one more than Derrick. Derrick won two, I got to win three or more.' "
Parker has topped Rose in that regard, with Simeon winning its third straight championship March 17 with a 50-48 win against previously undefeated Proviso East. As a varsity starter since his freshman year and the first junior in state history to win Mr. Basketball after averaging 19.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists this season, Parker has already left his mark as one of the state's greatest players.
"He's got to be ranked as one of the top few," Pingatore says.
"It's hard to do that with a year still left," says veteran talent evaluator Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops. "But, I mean, if I go back 30 years, he's pushing that top-five status with a year left. He can be at least thrown into the conversation with Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose and those types of guys. But he's got another full year left to show and prove that."
Simeon assistant Marlo Finner credits a mental maturation for helping push Parker to greater success. Parker's "competitive edge has really taken off," Finner says, since he began playing for Team USA at a camp in October 2010. Smith saw the attitude when Parker scored a game-high 24 points but was "so upset" after Simeon's lone loss this past season, to Nevada's Findlay Prep in January.
That state of mind, combined with his off-the-court values, a skill set of an elite guard and an athletic 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame, have set Parker apart and made him the golden child of an often-maligned Chicago Public League.
"The Public League image, the stereotype of the Public League, he supersedes all that," Finner says. "He's the poster kid, if you ask me, for the Public League. How we've been thought of as just basketball players and no grades, he supersedes all that. He's one of a kind."
As great as it seems to be Jabari Parker, there is a burden that comes with being Jabari Parker, of taking on that greater responsibility.
Even as those around him say he doesn't show the effects of being weighed down, in his humble, quiet manner Parker admits there's pressure "just showing up every day."
"It's the pressure. It's always expected. They're putting stuff on me that I think I don't deserve," Parker says of what bothers him.
With Parker's junior season now complete, his college decision looms larger than ever, the burden intensifying as the NBA's minimum age-limit rule of 19 continues to require players must be a year out of high school to be drafted. Four months behind on opening his mail, sifting through offers from dozens of programs, Parker would like to narrow his list down this spring before a decision that will likely come next fall.
By any measure, it's a difficult process, with Parker saying he's "getting a lot of things emotionally" to consider. His college options run from the likes of blue bloods in Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina, to Big Ten powers in Michigan State and Ohio State, to as far West as Washington, right back to the homestate schools, which he recently expressed an affinity for, saying he'd like to stay in-state if he finds the right fit.
Unlike with past stars out of Chicago, you don't get the sense Parker is wasting your time when he talks about the meaning of an in-state school, notably Illinois. Hard to explain in some ways, but it's the same reason his recruiting circle is about as small as they come — really just Sonny, Lola and Smith. It's the same reason Parker wept and then wrapped Fattie the guinea pig in his first basketball jersey when his favorite pet died and had to be buried in eighth grade.
It's the same reason Sonny says this: "He wants to be remembered as, 'Hey, he's the one who led his home state or home city, who represented.' And I think every kid wants that."
Jabari Parker has an attachment to home, in the sense he wants to do right by those who have been close and loyal to him. And this state has been good to him.
"He likes the idea that he can do something for his community, in this state, in this city," Sonny says. "That's the thing he wants to experience and share."
For now, Parker remains a typical 17-year-old in this sense: He's not sure the turns life will take, the challenges that lie ahead, how he will get to where he's going or what his greater calling will be. He only knows that he will go forth, with the principles that have been ingrained in him. Meet him, and that has a way of making you feel confident about this thing called life.
"I know it's a journey and it's expected for me to be a good person as well," Parker says. "I'm ready for the expectations."
"The torch has been passed and to carry it with such grace, such integrity, is what makes me proud to say, 'I coach Jabari Parker,' " Finner adds.