This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Illinois edition.
In Chicago, word spreads quickly. The city’s reputation for producing basketball talent has everyone on the lookout, as locals are always eager to find the next big thing on the hardwood.
It’s never too early to anoint the next legend, either. That’s why Jabari Parker signed his first autograph in the sixth grade.
“I remember there was an article in the paper about me,” says Parker, now a junior at Simeon. “Someone came up and asked me to sign it. That was interesting.”
Chicago was pumping up Parker as the sport’s next phenom before he even reached middle school, but the rest of the country was in wait-and-see mode. Even after he stepped into Simeon’s starting lineup as a freshman and helped the team win a state title, he wasn’t locked into the top spot.
But as it turns out, the Windy City hype machine was right all along. There’s no need to wait anymore. Parker has proved it — after watching him lead Simeon to another state crown last year, it’s safe to say he’s backed up the hype and then some.
Ranked No. 1 among juniors in the ESPNU 60, Parker is arguably the country’s top player regardless of class.
“Jabari is an exceptional talent,” says Simeon coach Robert Smith. “I think he can be one of the best basketball players that ever lived. Ever.”
Parker’s true position is small forward, where he draws comparisons to NBA All-Stars like Grant hill, Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony, but Smith uses him all over the court.
At 6-foot-8, Parker can legitimately play all five positions at the high school level and dominate at each spot. He’s the perfect combination of skill, size, athletic ability, attitude and intelligence. Last year as a sophomore, he averaged 16 points and eight rebounds per game while flashing the kind of talent that should have pro teams tanking games during the 2013-14 season in order to draft him.
Parker does everything for Simeon. He runs the point, scores on the perimeter, initiates the offense, posts up and crashes the boards. It’s a lot of pressure to put on one player, but if early fame taught Parker anything, it’s the importance of being poised.
That composed presence is one of the biggest reasons Parker has been able to guide Simeon to Class 4A state championships the past two seasons.
"I think poise is my best quality,” says Parker, whose Wolverines open this season as the nation’s No. 1 team in the POWERADE FAB 50. “I always try to have my head about me, and I think that gives my coaches and my teammates confidence in me. They know that no situation is too big for me.”
When it was announced that he would attend Simeon, the Parker buzz got even louder. The school had just seen its previous superstar and most famous alum, Derrick Rose, walk across the stage as the top pick in the NBA draft, and similar expectations were placed on Parker.
“In this city, there’s a lot of expectations and hype,” says Parker. “coming out of eighth grade when i was going to Simeon, it was a lot of talk about Derrick Rose and now, me. But I was OK with it, because I want people to expect the most out of me. I was hungry.”
Parker has always been well equipped to deal with the spotlight. His father, Sonny, is a former NBA player, so Jabari has never been in awe of the glitz and glamour that goes with being a professional athlete.
And his mother, Lola, is a big influence on how he lives his life off the court. Parker credits her for keeping him grounded while at the same time encouraging him to pursue basketball.
“Family is really No. 1 for me,” says Parker. “They are why I’m the person I am today. They taught me to be focused and to have discipline. I try to do things 110 percent and with full effort. I have full gratitude for my parents for teaching me that.”
With his family keeping him humble, Parker is driven to work hard even though he’s been signing autographs since the sixth grade. This offseason, he transformed his body, losing the baby fat and replacing it with lean, explosive muscle.
Parker is moving more suddenly on the perimeter, accelerating better in the open court and finishing more decisively around the rim. Plays that ended with layups last year are now dunks. “You can tell he’s been in the weight room,” says Smith. “We’re just going to let him play. offensively, he’s going to have multiple responsibilities, but he’s always been comfortable with that.
“The biggest difference this season is what we’re asking him to do on defense. He’s working on his footwork and moving his feet defensively, getting better at man-to-man defense. He wants to guard the other team’s best player, and we want to utilize that ability. Getting into such good shape will help, and he understands that.”
So he can play every position on offense, defend the opponents’ best scorers, set an example with his work ethic and lead the nation’s No. 1 team.
Jabari Parker came in with a lot of hype. But in his case, maybe it wasn’t enough.
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