Family keeps Jabari Parker grounded
Following in the footsteps of Derrick Rose, Simeon star stays humble in spotlight
CHICAGO -- Lola Parker was stunned.
For two weeks, she had been trying to get her son Jabari Parker, a soft-spoken, 6-foot-8 basketball star-in-the-making, to talk to a coach on the phone. She couldn't understand his reticence, but he's just a kid.
This coach hails from Chicago and coaches a quaint, little private university in North Carolina. His name is Mike Krzyzewski.
So when she got them connected, on her husband's cell phone because Jabari didn't have one, she couldn't believe how quickly the conversation ended.
Jabari spoke genially and respectfully to the famed coach, she recalls, but the conversation "lasted less two minutes." And he didn't even leave his sister's bedroom to take it.
Lola was nervous and confused. Why didn't he seem more excited? Didn't they raise him to treat elders with deference and respect?
"Do you know who this man is?" she remembers asking him. "I want you to give him respect. It's like you're interviewing him."
Do you know what Jabari Parker said back to her?
"He said, 'Mom, don't get caught up in this stuff. Coach K is not Jesus. He's just another human being.'"
Lola Parker told me this. I was speechless. She was laughing. I mean, who says that?
After getting over her shock, Lola was so proud of her son's response, she said she told Coach K the story, sending an early salvo on how things work.
"I told him facilities can't buy my son, money can't buy my son," she recounted. "That's the way we raised him."
I asked Jabari to verify this story, because parents sometimes have a way of remembering things. He remembered it just like his mom told me.
"People look at him like he's some kind of guru," Jabari Parker said to me in a phone conversation. "I looked at him as an ordinary human being. Nobody is different from anyone else, no matter what the situation. We're all equal. He's just a regular person."
He's just a regular person.
Remember that if you go to Duke, Jabari, and Coach K is wearing you out in a hot, sweaty practice at Cameron. He won't seem like a regular person then, I'm guessing.
Duke is just one of the schools on Jabari's current "list," along with Michigan State, Kansas, Illinois and Washington. Jabari and his father Sonny, a former NBA player who runs a youth foundation and a summer league in the city, said he won't give his commitment until he signs his official letter of intent during his senior year.
That's a long way away. Jabari Parker is still a baby-faced teenager, a month from turning 16. But he is the kind of 15 that makes middle-aged coaches sweat through their sport coats, the kind that can be forced to grow up too early. He is one of the best players in the city on one of the best teams in the city. In truth, he is probably one of the best underclassmen basketball players in the world and the successor to Derrick Rose as the humble son of Simeon Career Academy.
While Rose prepares to start his first NBA All-Star Game this Sunday in Los Angeles, Parker is getting ready for Saturday's City-Suburban Showdown at the UIC Pavilion, with current No. 1 Simeon taking on No. 2 Benet.
What Rose has matured into -- a first-class person and an MVP-caliber player -- is what Parker is being developed to become.
Parker is already sturdy at 6-8 and close to 225 pounds, with thick legs and a backside made for the low block. He has a sweet outside shot, good post moves and a burgeoning basketball IQ. He is thicker than the average high school forward, a product of his genes, Sonny said.
Lola is Tongan and has several cousins who play in the NFL, including Bears reserve running back Harvey Unga and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki.
Jabari gets his girth from her side of the family. Jabari has two older brothers (he has six siblings in all) who have played college basketball, but none with his size or skill.
"We done bred us one," Sonny said, laughing.
Parker has led his team in scoring 14 times this season, his coach, Robert Smith, said, which is quite good considering Smith often makes five-for-five substitutions on his absurdly deep team.
Simeon, which was battling for the "national championship," lost for the first time in 23 games Wednesday night, falling 64-50 to Whitney Young in the semifinals of the Chicago Public League tournament. Parker led his team with 14 points. Sonny lamented that Jabari didn't get the ball much until late in the game.
But the loss could be worthwhile, Smith said. More importantly, the state tournament is up next and Simeon is the defending champion.
Parker is the No. 2 sophomore in the country according to ESPN Recruiting, and is getting the requisite attention. I was at a game in late December, a Simeon blowout, and Illinois coach Bruce Weber sat courtside in his orange sweater vest, staring admiringly at Parker. Parker is said to be the Illini's top target in his class.
Despite what he said about Coach K, he's still a 15-year-old kid. When Parker sees college coaches, he gets excited.
"Sometimes when I'm playing and they're at a game, I'm wondering what they're thinking about or how what I'm doing is affecting if they want me for their college," he said.
After this season ends, Parker is joining Dwyane Wade's AAU team this summer and will be trying out for the U16 national team in Colorado Springs, Colo., to play in the FIBA Americas tournament in Mexico in late June.
Well, "trying out" is how Parker described it. A college assistant coach told me he heard the team is being "built around Parker."
"I don't tell him a lot of that stuff," Sonny said.
Parker is fortunate. Sonny was drafted 17th overall out of Texas A&M by the Golden State Warriors in 1976. He played six years in the NBA and knows all the right people. Parker's mother seems quite sharp. Before I was allowed to talk to Jabari, I had to go through her.
"She's like his manager," Sonny said. "I think she knows more about basketball now than I do."
It's good, because being a young basketball star in Chicago, especially in the Public League, isn't easy. From the rabid crowds to the provincial infighting to the street agents, there are a lot of potholes to dodge. Rose and Parker are lucky. Rose had his older brothers and his mom. Jabari has his parents and his coaches.
Both groups worked hard to protect their talented kids. In Rose's case, they did a fabulous job. Parker seems to be developing at a similar pace. He goes to church before school most days (he is being raised in the Mormon church, which is his mother's religion) and eats lunch with a teacher while he studies. He has an ACT tutor.
Sonny said they try to give Jabari space to grow. They want him to have a social life. He got his first cell phone recently, a hand-me-down from his sister. They keep track of his Facebook page. (He has 2,686 friends at last count and his profile picture is of him politely signing autographs for kids. We share one mutual friend and a love of A Tribe Called Quest.) His parents teach him to save meal money he gets for traveling team expenses.
"People are probably intimidated by me," Sonny Parker said. "They're definitely intimidated by my wife."
Derrick's older brother, and closest adviser, Reggie Rose, only knows Sonny Parker through basketball, but he said his only advice to him on raising a city superstar is simple.
"No matter what, stick to your guns and do whatever you feel is right," Reggie said. "Don't let anybody else choose your son's destiny."
Simeon is big on discipline, but it can only go so far.
"It's real tough," Smith said. "It's tougher than anybody can imagine. When you're that good, everyone wants to touch you, everyone wants to be around you.
"Both Derrick and Jabari had families keeping them grounded. Because it happens to so many high school players, street agents or other guys get a hold of them and they don't get their chance to make it."
Naturally, Ronnie Fields, the former high-flying Farragut star who peaked in high school, comes to mind as the can't-miss star who missed, the victim of his own mistakes and bad advice. Rose is the anti-Fields. His ascendance from city star to worldwide star has been fast but, to those who know him best, predictable.
"We might have helped with structure," Smith said of Simeon. "But this kid's game is from God and family. He could've played for the worst high school in Illinois and he'd still be a pro."
Rose said the high-profile nature of his Simeon teams, which won two state titles, helped strengthen him for his future. Chicago is a good place to learn to be a pro, if you can handle it. Rose's demeanor is legendary by now.
"It's terrible man," Rose said before a recent game. "It's hard, where every game you play you've got packed crowds. You're getting everybody's best game.
"You have to play your best game when you play everybody, because Chicago is a hard place to play. There's a lot of good ballers here."
Rose supports his alma mater, but he doesn't get back to Simeon too often. He's a little busy with his MVP season for an Eastern Conference contender. But he did speak to the team before a game against rival Hillcrest, and Smith uses Rose as his hammer whenever his team lags.
"The kids are still watching him every day," Smith said. "So I dole out comparisons, how he came to the gym when he was sick, when he was hurt, giving 110 percent. When guys dog it on me, I let them know how Derrick made it to the NBA."
Rose said he likes what he's seen from Parker and fellow sophomore Kendrick Nunn.
"Jabari is Jabari," Rose said. "But I love Kendrick's game. Parker's playing well. He's a guy who can control the game without scoring, by rebounding and playing defense. He's young. He doesn't even know the game, really, but he's going to be a monster in this city."
Smith went one step further.
"When all is said and done, he could be a dominant player like LeBron or Amare Stoudemire," he said. "He has the potential to be one of those dominant individual players."
Parker said he models his game after Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, but he admires Rose, of course. He doesn't know him that well, but I hope they make a connection. After all, is there a better role model in all of sports?
"He's very humble," Jabari said of Rose. "When you're around him he treats you same as everyone else. I look up to him. I'm at Simeon going through something similar to what he went through."
I caught up with Reggie Rose at a Simeon game in December. We talked about Parker and how Derrick used his high school experience to build up his mental game, going from Simeon to Memphis to an NBA All-Star.
"When you're playing all these games, you've got a bull's-eye on your back," Reggie Rose said. "When he got to Memphis, Derrick probably felt less pressure than the guys who had already been there, even now in the NBA. I think his whole life, with the bull's-eye of people watching him it's not pressure to him."
For now, the Parkers are happy Jabari is getting recognition as he develops into an adult. Sonny, for one, can talk for hours about his son. Trust me.
"We take it as a blessing that Jabari gets this kind of attention," Lola Parker said. "We have raised Jabari blue-collar. He gets a lot of discipline and a lot of structure. Everything he receives he has to work for. Nothing is given to him."
In that vein, Lola has another story about Jabari.
"When Jabari was in fifth grade he came home from a tournament and he said, 'I want to ask something from the whole family.' He said, 'I want to take the word 'good' out of the vocabulary of the house.' He said he never wanted us to say he had a 'good' game or whatever. So we took out that word after fifth grade."
It's just as well, because Jabari isn't just good anymore. The word has probably lost meaning.
In truth, Jabari is a lot like Rose, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that comparison.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.