Commentary

Jabari Parker's big challenge is here

Chicago will test mettle of nation's No. 2 senior, but don't expect him to crumble

Updated: December 11, 2012, 2:51 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPNChicago.com

Jabari ParkerMark L. Baer/US PresswireJabari Parker, the nation's No. 2 senior, will try to lead Simeon to a fourth straight state title.
"I am looking forward to my senior year and winning a fourth state title." -- Simeon Academy's Jabari Parker, on his potential encounter with uncharted destiny.

***

There used to be a time in Jabari Parker's life when everything seemed to just fall in place. State titles, national awards and accolades, international achievements, global respect for his talent and execution of that talent on the court.

He could do no wrong, nothing wrong could be done or said about him, nothing negative came his way. If anyone had something bad or dissentient to say about him, something was wrong with them not him. His too good to be true was too true.

Parker
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHis father believes Jabari Parker can handle the pressure coming his way as a senior because of "his faith, his family, his passion for basketball and because he's been under the microscope so long."

This life of his is no longer what it used to be.

The whispers engulfed the UIC Pavilion on Dec. 1 like news of another Katt Williams arrest. From the time the doors opened at 8 a.m. to inaugurate the Chicago Elite Classic basketball tournament until the time his Simeon team took the court for the first time to defend its back-to-back-to-back state titles 12 hours later, Parker's name came out of people's mouths like family members out of the woodwork once you've won the lottery.

Non-stop.

"Is he going to play?"

"Someone told me he wasn't playing and he's still on crutches and in a cast?"

"Naw, he's out of the cast he just can't run yet. His foot hasn't healed."

"Someone told me that he just got another MRI on Nov. 19 and they still can't figure out what's wrong."

"[Whitney Young freshman] Jahlil Okafor is about to replace him as the best player in the city."

"I heard he's crazy out of shape."

"I saw him on CLTV and he said …"

"I saw him on 'Windy City Live' and he said …"

"They have a sophomore on Simeon [D.J. Williams] that's about to be better than Jabari."

"I heard Jabari hadn't touched a basketball since the state championship."

"I heard his head got big after the Team USA World Championship and his visit to BYU where they were walking around with T-shirts with his name on them."

"I heard he ain't even mad that he's not the No. 1 player in the country anymore."

Parker did play -- all of 11 minutes -- ahead of schedule, after fracturing his right foot while playing with Team USA at the FIBA under-17 World Championships in Lithuania in July. He gave what he called a "D-plus" performance.

People left skeptical. They were happy that he was even on the court to begin the defense of "his" title as not just state champ but as the No. 1 player in the city/state/area. But some left believing that his injury is more problematic than everyone is letting on.

Parker, the No. 2 senior in the nation, has put on weight due to the fact he had yet to (at the time) practice with the team, and it wasn't until an hour before that first game this past Saturday that he was allowed (after constant convincing of his coach and parents and after getting a medical second opinion) to play.

He is out of shape and his attitude seemed a little more demonstrative, but that's normal for a 17-year-old superstar/phenom frustrated with the fact that since he's still recovering from a broken foot he can't immediately do what he used to before the injury. He's on a mission this year to be a greater leader than he is a ballplayer.

But it didn't (still doesn't, if you listen to those around the city) seem like any of this mattered to anyone in the stands while the new ballad of Jabari Parker was being written. No player in the history of the city has ever gone after a fourth state title while simultaneously being the most sought-after recruit in the country. Again, uncharted destiny.

While Parker used to get love unconditionally, this season promises to be something a little different.

It's called "the pressure." But for Parker, his pressure has now officially been infused with adversity. Ben Wilson and Kevin Garnett are honestly the only ones who can truly relate to reaching Parker's "gunning for the overall No. 1 spot" this soon in his basketball life in this city.

Parker He's not worried about all of the other stuff, so I'm not worried about him not being able to handle [the pressure]. He's on a mission this year more than any other year. He said, 'Don't say nothing Dad, I'll show 'em.'

-- Sonny Parker on his son, Jabari Parker

It's Chi's right to the passage of greatness. Our basketball bar mitzvah, of sorts. Basically, it's the period of time that will shape Parker into the man the city hopes he one day becomes. Welcome to your senior year of stardom, kid.

The lines are blurred by truth with a hazy shade of circumstance that in the past has always been taken into consideration when it comes to Parker. Prior to now, anything anti-Parker or any insinuation toward anything negative about him didn't seem to exist. Now there seems to be this somewhat unforgiving "he no longer is going to receive public benefit of the doubt" about his career kind of in existence.

Parker's case wasn't helped during the Chicago Elite Classic when his picture was larger than any of the 13 players on the cover of the program. And he didn't help himself by being the only member of Simeon's team not playing in the same Nike Hyperdunk shoes.

It's the balance of trying to privately live a life in public. Everything Parker does, every move he makes now seems to be scrutinized in ways they weren't before; they are questioned and placed under the media/social criticism microscope that is usually reserved for players who've given us reason to question and judge every step they take.

Parker has given us no reason to question or doubt his ability or authenticity. But this is Chicago; we all knew it was coming.

"This is Chicago so we'll never know," Simeon coach Rob Smith said with a laugh when asked if the city is going to be fair with Parker or if he believes his star pupil will catch the normal hell that most seniors with top billing catch going into their final season.

"That's just how we go about our business on a day-to-day basis. The people that matter know how great he is. The average Joe Blow that doesn't do this every day, we probably won't even listen to [any] of that. Jabari is a great kid. I tell people this all of the time: If he wasn't a basketball player people would still care for him and have love for him just because of how great of a kid he is."

The tell in all of this will be how Parker responds. He's admittedly gained at least "20" pounds, which sparked the Jared Sullinger comparisons instead of the "more athletic Tim Duncan" comparisons that have followed him since eighth grade.

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesJabari Parker, on crutches as he addresses the crowd during the Peace Basketball Tournament in Chicago on Sept. 22, recovered quickly from a fractured right foot in July.

For three years Parker has been almost perfect every time he stepped on the court. Not only does he have the Gatorade National Player of the Year award to throw back in our faces, he also has three state titles to back him up. That's something no other nationally ranked player in the country can claim. Not one.

But the pressure, as it seems to mount, can be somewhat merciless.

When asked if he feels his son is ready for the pressure that's about to come his way this season, Jabari's father, Sonny Parker, simply said "Without question." Then he got more specific.

"What I feel keeps him both motivated and humble and what's going to allow him to deal with the pressure he's going to go through this season is his faith, his family, his passion for basketball and because he's been under the microscope so long," he said. "His demeanor, regardless, stays the same. I'm telling you, he's a different breed of a student-athlete. I've never seen a kid like this before."

His coach believes Parker is about a month away, but the rest of the world (like in most everything else nowadays) pines for "now." And right now Jabari Parker is not the Jabari Parker that we will see in March. But he will be.

He is not the player he will become once he decides where he's going to continue his basketball sojourn. He's honestly not the player (or person) he will be once this senior season is done. Because when you are the "chosen one," when you have earned the target on your back and on your chest that identifies you as the No. 1 (or the de facto No. 2 by technicality and default) high school prospect in the country, the final lap of your high school 4x400 is going to challenge and change you.

"The one thing he said to me and my wife," Sonny Parker said, "'Mom and Dad, don't you all get caught up in all of this.' That's what he tells us. He's not worried about all of the other stuff, so I'm not worried about him not being able to handle [the pressure]. He's on a mission this year more than any other year. He said, 'Don't say nothing Dad, I'll show 'em.'"

It's three days before the official defense of his (and Simeon's) state title and Parker remains unfazed by all of the expectations, hype and doubt that surrounds him. "I am very focused on getting healthy and choosing a college," said Parker, who has made official visits to Duke, Michigan State, Florida and BYU. "The pressure doesn't affect me."

When asked what he meant when he told his father, "I'll show 'em" about this season, he replied, "I'm just trying to be more of a leader this year in showing leadership."

Sonny and Lola Parker's son is about to show us. As much as they try to protect their son from the ugly side of sports, over the next four months he's about to witness it up close, and it might get very personal. He's about to face his first real challenge of his basketball life, Chicago-style. We build people up not to break them down but to actually see how strong they are and how much they can take.

How Parker comes out will tell us all we need to know about who he really is. Unfair and unjust as the questions and doubts about him going into this season are, he's going to have to face, deal with and find answers to them to survive his basketball career.

Everyone just needs to give him time. Let the leader lead. From this city, Jabari Parker deserves and has earned at least that.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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