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