- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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Basketball always ranked as the backup plan for Jabari Parker.
Education and his faith came first. They still do.
"Basketball is going to end," Parker said.
Strange talk from a kid who turned 17 in March and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, labeled as the best high school player since LeBron James, who took his game straight from the Ohio prep courts to NBA stardom in 2003.
But that's Parker, a three-time 4A state champion at Chicago's Simeon Career Academy and the No. 1-ranked prospect in the newly released ESPN 100 for the Class of 2013.
As uncommon as his talent and promise rate in basketball, Parker's attitude toward the sport and perspective on life are perhaps just as rare.
Parker cried when John Wooden died in 2010.
His basketball idol? Oscar Robertson, same as his father, Sonny Parker, a former first-round draft pick of Golden State who played six seasons in the NBA.
When the hype around Jabari began to mount early in his high school career and outsiders compared his impact to Derrick Rose, who led Simeon to state titles in 2006 and 2007, Sonny and his wife, Lola, grew concerned. Jabari, though, told his parents not to get caught up in the attention.
"Even when he was 14, it was just amazing," Sonny said. "He's a throwback in how he holds it all in."
When people talk trash, he'll listen. He won't say a word, but he'll listen. It's like they woke him up. They shouldn't have said anything. Now, he's awake. Now, he'll let his game do the talking.
”-- Sonny Parker, Jabari's dad
Every day at school, in the morning or over lunch, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound small forward visits Simeon coach Robert Smith, usually in his office. They talk about basketball or movies. Maybe they'll discuss what Parker did last night, or Parker will ask Smith about what's happening with the coach away from school.
Parker "checks up" on him, Smith said. And it's been that way since Parker arrived at Simeon.
Two years ago, halfway through his freshman year, Parker gave the coach's 4-year-old daughter, Yahri, a set of board games for Christmas. No player of Smith's had ever done that, he said.
"This is some genuine stuff," Smith said. "This is really how he feels."
There's more. When Parker started immediately at Simeon on the varsity, he stayed after games to serve water behind the bench for his friends on the junior varsity team. Later, he did it for the freshmen squad.
He gave away two of his state-championship medals to classmates who attended many of his games.
Parker, after winning his first title in 2010, lined up right away to shake hands as many teammates celebrated on the court. When he won a third championship this spring, Parker said he gave himself three hours to savor it, then he started thinking about a fourth -- never accomplished in Chicago or at the Illinois 4A level.
"I'm always looking toward the next game," Parker said. "You're only as good as your last one. That keeps me going. I'm never satisfied. I didn't have a goal to win one championship; it was always four."
The Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior and 2011 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year, Parker, like his mother, is a devout Mormon.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls upon its members to serve a mission at age 19. For Parker, that would arrive after his freshman year of college and before his possible entry to the NBA as a likely top pick in 2014. It would take him away from the game for two years; cost him valuable time in his development, not to mention millions of dollars, potentially.
He may delay his mission or decline to serve. But don't count it out. Parker has not decided.
His faith sits at the foundation of all the traits that construct his persona. Parker rises at 5 a.m. three days a week to attend seminary. His teachings in church guide Parker's principles in basketball.
Parker said he views opponents of Simeon and his Mac Irvin Fire AAU team with respect.
"I look at it like they have as much skill as me," Parker said. "I'm a person with low self-esteem. I don't think I deserve some of the things I've received. That helps me strive for more, to be hungry and humble and keep on working."
"Those are strong words," he said. "I'd probably say humility is better."
According to his father, Parker "wants to be the best ever."
And he respects the game.
"You can't know who you are unless you know where you came from and give praise to those who laid the foundation," Jabari said.
So Parker has studied Robertson, the 12-time NBA All-Star. Parker said he admired the decisiveness of Robertson, who averaged 30.5 points as a rookie and retired in 1974. Parker also tries to model aspects of his game after Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Paul Pierce.
He likes Pierce, Parker said, because the Celtics' 10-time All-Star "can't be sped up" and makes plays, even at 34, which belie his athleticism.
"When I was younger, I didn't have the same athleticism I do now," Parker said, "so I used to implement a lot of [Pierce's] game into my game. I still use it now."
Parker said he thinks he came of age athletically last summer.
College coaches noticed him long before then. Parker plans to sign in November. He'll have his choice, of course, from close-to-home Illinois to powers Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, Duke and many others.
Parker said he feels a connection with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Dave Rose of Brigham Young and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins, though Parker has yet to narrow his list or set recruiting visits for the fall.
Parker said he recognizes the importance of Chicago's basketball tradition, too. He follows recent greats Rose and Anthony Davis, presumably the top pick next month in the NBA draft, and a long line of legends who graduated from Chicago high schools -- Isaiah Thomas, Doc Rivers, Mark Aguirre, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade.
Those close to Parker have stopped trying to deflect the comparisons, even to the king of all Chicago basketball, Michael Jordan.
"I want to be just like Michael Jordan," Parker said. "Chicago greats get noticed around the city. People have a lot of respect for them. I look up to those guys a lot. I want to be part of that family."
In one way, at least, the MJ talk appears legit; Parker, no doubt, possesses that extraordinary killer instinct.
"When people talk trash, he'll listen," Sonny said. "He won't say a word, but he'll listen. It's like they woke him up. They shouldn't have said anything. Now, he's awake. Now, he'll let his game do the talking. He has that in him. It comes out by his play and his performance."
Parker averaged 21.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 blocks as a junior.
Yet he needs time for growth. Parker developed toughness on the court over the past year, his father said, but he's far from a finished product. He needs to add strength. He has yet to lift weights on a strict routine -- a reminder that he is, in fact, a teenager for nearly three more years.
On Monday, Parker attended driver's education class in the afternoon and a school council meeting in the evening before catching "The Avengers" with a few friends.
Days like that, it's easy to forget the talk about Jordan or LeBron.
Even when he seems like just another kid, it's always there, burning in the back of his mind, that desire for greatness. The desire to be uncommon.
It's the best method to describe, in the end, what makes Jabari Parker so rare.
Chicago-native Jabari Parker, No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, is humble but still driven to be the best ever, writes Mitch Sherman.