Teen hoops star Jabari Parker leans on family, God

CHICAGO -- This is what it's like to be Jabari Parker, the nation's top high school basketball player.

One day he's presenting a project in his Spanish class, turns around and sees Alonzo Mourning. Parker takes a seat and grins. The former Miami Heat star is making a surprise visit to give him the Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year award.

And there are nights like this.

Parker and his teammates from Simeon Career Academy are holed up in a classroom after beating Whitney Young in the Illinois state playoffs.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State's Tom Izzo were in the stands. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife were there, too, sitting next to Parker's mom, Lola.

As Simeon holds its postgame meeting, a crowd gathers in the hallway, waiting to get a glimpse of the team and its 17-year-old star. Parker slips out a back entrance, trying to make a quiet exit.

Nice try, but no luck. It's hard to hide when you're 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds.

The young fans see him and run down the street, with one screaming "Jabari!" and begging for an autograph. The thing is, they're not even from Simeon. They're from other schools, but they've seen Parker on YouTube or TV and want a brush with fame, with the latest phenom from the South Side school that produced Derrick Rose.

Parker slumps down in a car as it pulls away. This is one of those occasional nights when he's just not in the mood, when he's weary of the attention and can't make himself face it.

He is, after all, a teen in unusual circumstances. Parker is a prodigy, and that can be dicey in any era.

Before he was Kareem, Lew Alcindor led his Manhattan high school team on a 71-game winning streak and went on to become the leading NBA scorer of all time. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett all made successful jumps from high school to the NBA when the league allowed it. But for every safe landing, there are plenty of players who never became one of the game's best -- JaRon Rush and Sebastian Telfair, to name just two.

Parker is determined to follow his own path, keeping all the adulation in perspective. Most nights, he tries to accommodate his young fans. He poses for pictures and signs autographs to show his appreciation.

"I can see myself as a role model," Parker says.

Good thing, too. In a world fueled by social media, where every move is caught on camera or dissected in 140 characters, the lights are shining brighter than ever on sports' youngest stars.

"I used to hear all this stuff about Kareem, Lew Alcindor, all the players having hundreds of letters," says Jabari's father, Sonny Parker, who played six seasons with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA after starring at Chicago's Farragut Career Academy, where Garnett played as a senior. "Now, he can't go to the bathroom without it (being posted) on Twitter." It wasn't like that during Sonny's NBA career, which ended in 1982. Or even when Rose was finishing high school, just five years ago.

"The media has definitely changed where it's even crazier," Rose says. "I can only imagine." What it means is that Parker, a soft-spoken young man who likes old "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" reruns and NBA matchups on ESPN Classic, feels a lot of pressure to be perfect.

"You can't really mess up," he says. "There's always going to be a camera on you everywhere you go." So how does he cope? Answer: faith and family.

A devout Mormon like his mother, Jabari worships at a church near the University of Chicago and the Parker home, a simple brick bungalow in a working-class section of the city's largely African-American South Shore neighborhood.

It is not a flashy place, but it is, like Parker and his family, solid.

"I take for granted having two parents and a good inner circle," he says. "And I know that a lot of people that are superstars in the sports world right now didn't have a lot of the resources that I have." Few have the talent he has.

Lola Parker could see it when Jabari, the youngest of seven children, was in the second grade and going against fourth and fifth-graders in a league set up by Sonny, who established a foundation to help inner city youth in Chicago after he retired.

Sonny, by the way, isn't the only professional athlete in the family. Lola has four relatives with pro football experience: Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki; Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata; Philadelphia Eagles fullback Stanley Havili; and, running back Harvey Unga, a 2010 supplemental draft pick by the Chicago Bears.

Jabari might be the best of the bunch.

Scholarship offers started when he was in the sixth grade. Back then, they came from Illinois, Brigham Young, Washington, Purdue and Kansas, the Parkers say. UCLA started showing interest, too, and pretty much everyone was offering one by the time he hit high school.

To get an idea how big Parker is now, go back to an evening in September, when Simeon hosted an open gym. Not even a practice, mind you, but an open gym.

A who's who of coaches jammed the court from baseline to baseline.

Krzyzewski was there. So were Izzo and Roy Williams (North Carolina), Thad Matta (Ohio State) and Bill Self (Kansas). In all, some 40 coaches looked on, and as word spread that this was no ordinary session, that something special was happening, fans started packing the place, too.

"It was like the movie 'Blue Chips' -- and this was open gym," Sonny says. "The school had been in session a couple days. They closed down the barber shop, they came over to the school. It was packed in the gym. The coaches were coming in limos. It was unbelievable." It's easier to understand why once you've seen Parker, who played varsity as a freshman -- something not even Rose did.

Parker might grab a rebound, bring the ball up the court and try to set up his teammates as he runs the offense. The next possession, he might bury one from the outside. He averaged about 20 points last season and could probably score 35 a game, but he makes a concerted effort to play within his team's system and take over only when needed.

"He knows we have a good team, so he passes the ball," guard Reggie Norris says. "When it's time for him to step up, he scores." Parker takes pride in getting his teammates chances to shine for college scouts. It's one reason why he's waited to narrow his own list of finalists. You see, he figures that'll keep the scouts coming and give his teammates exposure.

"He's good, a polished player to be so young," says Rose, who gets to keep an eye on Parker while he leads the hometown Chicago Bulls. "Has the will to win, and that's all you need." Yet, it's about more than honors and accolades, fame and fortune, to the Parkers. It's about the impact, on and off the court.

Lola Parker mentions what happened at the De La Salle game in February, when Jabari led his Wolverines to an easy victory over a talented squad just one night after winning the city championship.

The crowd included Louisville coach Rick Pitino and then-Illinois coach Bruce Weber. Southern California's Kevin O'Neill was there, too, but it was a father sitting in front of Lola with his three young sons that stood out to her. They kept asking Parker for autographs and pictures as he was warming up. When Lola told the dad she was Jabari's mother, and would set up the boys after the game, the man was overcome with gratitude.

He said one of his boys was doing terrible in school. So he collected all the articles he could find on Jabari and made his sons read them, hoping they'd be an inspiration. The child with bad grades had turned things around, Lola recalls.

"He said, 'You don't know what impact Jabari has done for my three boys, but it has changed their whole character, their grades, the way they're thinking and their attitudes,"' she recalls.

After last year's state championship win, Jabari gave his medal to the son of a former bishop from his church because the boy's family had traveled all the way from California to see him play.

"That little piece (of metal) doesn't really mean that much to me, but the memory means a lot," he says.

The family's faith is a respite for Jabari, who rises at 5 a.m. three days a week to attend a Bible study at his church before school. On one particular morning, he is the first to arrive, taking the rare moment of quiet to gather his thoughts and pray.

When the others join him, they sing a hymn and hear lessons based on the Old Testament, about avoiding the temptations teens face, valuing parents and giving back. Parker says he would come to this Bible study five days a week if he didn't have to trouble someone that early in the morning for a ride.

"It gives me a better view of life," he says.

On his bedroom door is a reminder to "put the Lord first" along with several sheets of 8-by-10 white paper. One lists the Ten Commandments. The other shows his "Always Remember" list, with his own personal rules: "Don't be quick to judge" and "Think positive things," among them.

Amid all the trophies is a Kobe Bryant Team USA jersey, hanging where Sonny had put Jabari's U.S. team jersey after he returned from the FIBA Americas U16 Championship last summer. Within about 10 minutes the teen had replaced it.

Why? "I don't look up to myself," he told Lola.

He does look up to his older brother Christian, which explains why their old bunk bed -- or the remaining bottom half -- is still in the room. Jabari had the top part and, well, he grew out of it.

Yet for sentimental reasons, he won't get rid of the bed. He also keeps a drawing and poem Christian, who now lives in Seattle, gave him. In it, big brother praises Jabari's athletic talent -- "heart, love for the game, commitment and a future to be the one." "He's my biggest fan," Parker says.

His father is there, too, to offer sports advice. His mom, who works as a nanny, has found herself playing the role of agent, taking calls from media and helping her son set up visits to prospective schools.

At the start of each week, they sit down and go through their calendars and requests.

Often, it is Jabari who is asking for less -- fewer interviews, fewer obligations, more time to rest and focus on his game. His ability to set limits has quickly become a survival skill.

"He tells us, 'Mom and dad, don't you guys get caught up into this,"' his dad says. "He tries to keep US grounded from all this." It's not easy when he's penciled in as an All-American and All-Star, and he wonders: "What if I don't make it one day? What am I going to do with my life?" For now, he plans to narrow his list of colleges down to five later this spring. A Mormon mission is a possibility for him at some point, too.

Before he does that, he talks about needing to "polish up the little things before I step into the real world." An ability to express himself more smoothly, even when he's tired, is among the items on his to-do list. Playing to his ability is another.

"I just want to prove to myself every time I'm on the court that I'm able to live up to those expectations," he says.

Whatever happens, though, he and his parents insist that being famous, and even making a lot of money, isn't the focus. They all vow that Jabari will earn a college degree, one way or another, in a world where the starting five for national champion Kentucky all left school just weeks after claiming the title.

It may seem old school. But that's just fine with the Parkers.

"The ultimate for us and our children is being a good example and being a good person, giving back," Lola says. "That's really very dear and precious to Jabari and also to us."

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