Commentary

Simeon follows Parker's lead to top

Nation's top junior and top team bent on state domination in quest for third-straight title

Updated: December 9, 2011, 3:54 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The word on South Vincennes Avenue is that all-everything Simeon superstar Jabari Parker, the sweet-shooting, baby-faced teenage phenom, is working on his scowl.

"He'll dunk now and make a mean face," Simeon assistant coach Maurice Brown said, emulating Parker's reactions. "That's what everybody has been waiting for."

And it's not just a look.

"He's getting more physical. A little dog in him. Mean," Simeon teammate Kendrick Nunn said with a grin. "I've noticed."

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.comJabari Parker and No. 1 Simeon eye their third-straight state title this season.

"He ain't got no choice but to get a little bit of dog in him," Simeon forward Steve Taylor said. "Because he's on my team, and you've got to be tough to play on my team."

Parker, a lithe 6-foot-8 junior with a burgeoning NBA game, won't admit to mean mugging and canine tendencies, but with some prompting, he will admit to setting some boastful ambitions.

"We want to destroy teams," he said in his deep, but shaky, teenage voice. "We're not holding grudges against anybody. We just hold goals for ourselves."

Parker, the heir apparent to Simeon legend Derrick Rose and perhaps the top amateur basketball player in the country, is a do-everything forward for the two-time defending state champion Simeon Wolverines.

Parker's national stock, already high, got another boost over the summer as he led the U16 men's team to a gold medal in the FIBA Americas Championships in June. He was the MVP of the tournament -- Nunn was also on the team -- and was just named USA Basketball's Male Athlete of the Year.

Locally, Parker wants a four-peat in state titles before he goes to college and then the NBA. He's off to a good start. Simeon won its first two games last weekend by 18 and 20 points, respectively, over decent competition in Hillcrest and Notre Dame as Parker combined for 48 points (26 and 22). The Wolverines were sloppy in the opener -- 18 turnovers -- but that's to be expected. They are still a high school team, after all.

Before the NBA reached an accord in the owners' lockout, the running joke was that the Simeon Wolverines were the best team in Chicagoland, including the local colleges. Simeon, ranked first in ESPNHS rankings and fourth in the USA Today preseason poll, is certainly a team to watch. They will play five games at Simeon Career Academy, highlighted by a Jan. 13 game against archrival Morgan Park.

Otherwise, you can catch them at North Park College on Friday against Farragut, at the UIC Pavilion (Dec. 22 against Whitney Young, a must-see game, and Feb. 18 against De La Salle), the Pontiac Holiday Tournament (Dec. 28-30) and in places like North Carolina; Wheeling, W.Va.; Springfield, Mass.; and Memphis, Tenn. Comcast SportsNet Chicago is doing a documentary-style series on the team during the season.

It's not just about Simeon either. There are great teams all over the city for basketball junkies. Yes, the Bulls are back, but city basketball is authentic Chicago. And if you're looking to catch a future star, Simeon will give you a show.

Unlike Rose, Parker played varsity as a freshman. He's already matched Rose's two state titles, and he's coming into his own as an upperclassman. Just like Rose, he wants to take his teammates with him.

"I want us to be the billboard, the front of the city of Chicago when you talk about high school basketball," Parker said. "We want to be the face of Chicago."

The Wolverines look up to Rose, who practiced alongside them before the Bulls training facility was unlocked for players. With Rose in Chicago, it's easier for the players to want to emulate him.

"He's my role model," Nunn said.

Parker I want us to be the billboard, the front of the city of Chicago when you talk about high school basketball. We want to be the face of Chicago.

Jabari Parker on Simeon

People love Rose in Chicago because he represents more than just baskets. He's a nice person off the court, as his touching MVP speech last season showed.

Parker has talked to Rose about dealing with stardom, and he said the one piece of advice Rose gave was "to stay grounded."

What does Parker want people to think when they hear his name?

"Just a people person," he said. "I want to be a man of the people. I just want to represent the city of Chicago."

The Wolverines are playing a more national schedule, facing powers such as Miller Grove (Ga.) (No. 2 in ESPNHS poll) and No. 7 Findlay Prep (Las Vegas) at neutral sites. Simeon badly wants to see how it matches up against those schools. Players said they wish they could face Oak Hill Academy too. They want the world, as most teenagers do.

"It's huge," coach Robert Smith said. "We're the pride of Illinois right now. It's huge for us in the city, and we carry it like that. We want everybody to understand it's not about us. We're representing the whole state of Illinois when we go out of state. Just like Whitney Young. I think those two programs, us and Whitney Young, are the pride of Illinois. Morgan Park is in there a little bit, too."

Of course, there are plenty of schools that don't care for the Simeon exceptionalism going on right now.

"Not a lot," Smith said of detractors in the city. "There's some. When you wake up every morning and you're hearing about Simeon, Simeon, Simeon, of course, it's a little jealousy there. And like I tell some of the people in (CPS) administration, some of the games on TV, maybe they should let some of the lower teams play them, so they can get notoriety too."

During their championship run last season, several Wolverines said Morgan Park did the most trash talking. But it was all in good fun. Because of club ties, most players stay close, even as schools fight over transfers.

"The last thing I remember from them talking is [coach] Nick [Irvin] saying he runs Vincennes," Taylor said. "Because their school is on Vincennes too. So our thing last year was we run the town, we run the state. Y'all can run the street. We run the state."

Parker's presence is giving Simeon notoriety, and as his star climbs, the pitfalls to fame open up. His father, ex-NBA player and local legend Sonny Parker, is adamant about keeping his son's recruiting open until his senior year. The constant questions, though, are having an effect on the younger Parker, as he struggles to maintain composure as a public figure.

"Sometimes it gets overwhelming for him," Sonny Parker said. "He's still a kid. He's 16 years old. He still watches cartoons. So sometimes it's too much."

By the time school started, Parker was the top-ranked non-senior in the nation and perhaps the best prospect in the country. He is undecided on college and has mentioned every major program out there. They all want him. There's a reason Simeon was invited to play at Cameron Indoor this month, though that game has since been moved. Parker said one benefit to keeping his options open is that it attracts more looks for his teammates. Around 40 coaches came to watch the team practice in September.

He has his own website (jabariparker22.com), which was designed by a teammate's father on a whim. It's updated regularly with links to new articles. He tweets too (@jabariparker22); his profile picture is one of a chubby, younger Parker with Rose.

While he built up his international résumé over the summer, Parker is back to reality now.

His teammates also have some real-life decisions to make. Nunn, a 6-1 shooting guard, decommitted from Texas A&M this summer and is drawing interest from a number of big-time programs.

"I rushed my decision," he said. "I'm wide open pretty much, going through my recruiting process."

Taylor, a lean, long-limbed 6-8 forward with a strong personality, has committed to Marquette. He's presumably the top senior in the state in a down year. And everyone says watch out for junior guards Kendall Pollard and point guard Jaylon Tate, a De La Salle transfer.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker, Steve Taylor
Scott Powers for ESPN.comJabari Parker, left, has plenty of star power alongside him, such as Marquette-bound Steve Taylor, perhaps the top senior in the state.

While Parker and Nunn matured over the summer during their time with the national team, Simeon practices aren't a walk in the park. There are no fouls called, and everyone is hungry for playing time.

"We don't even have whistles," said Brown, the assistant coach.

"People look forward to practice because we go at each other so hard," Nunn said. "Then we talk about it off the court. It's fun."

As the Wolverines eased into practice last week, coach Smith stopped the layup lines with his voice from the sidelines.

"Hey Kendrick Nunn, with your cool [behind], you going to play hard today?" he said.

Like a teenager trying to sneak in after curfew, Nunn quietly offered an excuse about his foot bothering him.

"Oh, your foot hurts," Smith said. "I guess you're not playing tomorrow."

Nunn smiled. He was caught. He ramped up the intensity.

Simeon started practice a little early that day because they were trekking to a Chili's on 119th Street that evening for a ceremony and framing of Parker's jersey. It was meant to honor the team, not the player, but Sonny Parker was a little annoyed at the attention.

When Jabari Parker walked into the athletic department office after the school day ended Friday, happy but in need of a haircut, his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones were thumping. I asked him what he was listening to.

"Jay-Z," he said.

Did he go to the Jay-Z/Kanye West concert, I asked. The duo had just put on two big shows in the city.

He did. While Parker was sitting in the 200 level with his brother in the United Center, Rose was standing near the stage, on the floor where he won the MVP award last season.

"Derrick Rose, I see you," Kanye West said during the show.

Asked if he got a similar shoutout, Parker laughed.

"I'm not that big," he said.

Not yet.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.