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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Jabari Parker's decision all his own

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- A packed gymnasium, a national television audience, a table full of hats, rows of reporters hunkered over computers and millionaire coaches in East Lansing, Mich., and Durham, N.C., agonizing over a teenager's decision.

"Just a regular day for me," said Jabari Parker, one of the nation's most coveted high school basketball recruits.

It's Jabari's World and we're living in it.

We assembled at Simeon Career Academy on a rainy Thursday afternoon to hear Parker's college announcement. Any feeling of impropriety about boosting a teenager's possible sense of entitlement was superseded by genuine interest in his decision.

Jabari Parker
Said Jabari Parker of his decision to make Duke his college choice: "You can't go wrong at the program."

Many of us have been following this situation for three years as Parker, the amiable 6-foot-8 small forward/wunderkind and his father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, updated his top-five and top-10 lists.

"Where will Jabari Parker go?" became the hottest debate in basketball, in Chicago and across the country, from Twitter to texts to bleachers.

The answer, finally, after a seemingly interminable wait for the live ESPNU cut-in, was Duke, the clear co-favorite all along, with Michigan State. I had Duke as the front-runner since I first talked to Parker's family nearly two years ago. Michigan State and Tom Izzo were probably Parker's favorite.

Under Chicago native Mike Krzyzewski, Duke doesn't recruit the Chicago Public League very often. Nor do the Blue Devils, with their academic standards and particular style of play, often land arguably the top recruit in the country.

So this was a big deal, as Parker goes from the three-time defending state champion Simeon to the Blue Devils, America's favorite team to watch and hate.

"What brought me to the decision is, of course, the history," Parker said. "Duke was always going to be a team in the tournament. You can't go wrong at the program. And, most importantly, the long-term investment -- I feel if I go there, I can get a good degree."

Whereas Derrick Rose shared his Memphis signing day announcement with two Simeon teammates who were going to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Parker, the No. 2 recruit in the country with a LeBron-like legend, had the spotlight to himself with a live ESPNU feed for his news conference.

Not that he wanted it, of course.

"Everybody knows I hate attention," Parker said. "I don't put stuff out in the media. I don't do that. I just focus on everybody. I focus on the team. Attention is real hard for me. ... Because it's about the team, it's not about me."

Oh, but it is about Parker. The soft-spoken, sweet-smiling star has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he has interviewed with Katie Couric, he has had the local Comcast station and the Chicago Tribune following him for a season. Nike blankets his team with apparel. Parker can do it all on the court and he has a clean image.

So when he was asked why he had a big production for his announcement if he hates attention, Parker said he had to do it. He understands his place in the firmament.

"It wasn't a choice for me," he said. "A lot of people wanted to know and it would've been selfish for me not to. Me [signing] behind closed doors, that would be bad for my fans and a lot of people that want to find out. I had to do it."

When a teenager starts talking about what's good for his fans, it's easy to wince. But it's also true. And, hey, in the wake of Brian Urlacher's comments, it's nice when a star appreciates his fans.

There is nothing wrong with liking attention. In fact, Parker has to mature commensurate with his fame. If things develop as they have been, he'll be in the NBA, maybe after just one year of school.

That's why his mother, Lola, practiced interviews with him at home. That's why his coach, Rob Smith, relaxed the school's traditionally draconian interview rules for his players. What is high school if not preparation for the future?

Parker has a sly sense of humor he displayed for the crowd, noting Duke assistant coach Chris Collins "isn't from Chicago; he's from Northbrook." He also joked he was focused only on the movie his class was watching in sixth period, not this announcement.

There was no leak for this decision, an uncommon achievement in this age.

Parker said he made his final decision Thursday afternoon, around 1 p.m. CT. His mother told me, "He just whispered [Duke] to us in that room before we walked out" for the news conference. His teammate Kendrick Nunn said he and the rest of the team didn't know either, so he jokingly tweeted out Parker was going to South Suburban College. Parker's 18-year-old cousin, Hea Toki, was wearing a Duke sweatshirt after the announcement. Did she know? No. She and her sister each brought three different sweatshirts to the school.

For his part, Parker had a big smile when he unveiled a Duke T-shirt for the cameras. One reason he announced months before he will officially sign with Duke, is he wants to get back to focusing on his team and their quest for a fourth straight state championship. Parker's quick return from a foot injury has hampered his senior season. The Wolverines lost to DeSoto (Texas) High School earlier this month on national TV. You could get a sense this team, which is rich with future college players, needed a wake-up call.

"It would be selfish of me to hold the recruiting process so long and not focus on my team," he said. Was his mother glad the decision has been made, even if it's just a non-binding verbal commitment?

"I am, but you know, it'll be something else," she said, understanding that soon there figures to be a new distraction or demand on Jabari's time. "That's just part of the life that he lives. We're just so blessed to be in that situation."

It was Parker's decision to come back too early from his foot injury this month. He begged his parents to let him play, and it backfired. What's important is he got to make the decision.

"We raised Jabari to make choices," Lola said.

While Parker's inner circle was prepping him for microphones and live shots, his mother was trying to create an environment in which the star doesn't eclipse the universe.

"Jabari doesn't get any special treatment at home," she said. "If I see something that's not together with his character or personality, I'll fix it right away."

By all accounts, Parker is a good kid as well as player, the latest in a line of Chicago prep stars you want to root for. He goes to his Mormon church before school, he treats adults with respect, and he talks about graduating college more than managing his brand.

Talking to his mother reminded me of a conversation we had nearly two years ago. Jabari was midway through his sophomore year and his mother witnessed the initial phone conversation with Coach K that "lasted less than two minutes."

When she asked why he was so short with the coach, Parker told her, "Mom, don't get caught up in this stuff. Coach K is not Jesus. He's just another human being." That knocked her back, and don't think she didn't relay that message back to the coach.

Two years later, Parker said Coach K was one of the biggest reasons he picked Duke, calling him the "guru of all basketball." It's probably not a coincidence that Parker, a mainstay on the U.S. national teams, picked the Olympic coach to teach him basketball.

While he portrays a genial leader in his commercials, Krzyzewski is known for his harsh language at times. While Simeon coaches will say they ride Parker hard, even Lola admitted they are "a little too soft on Jabari."

Parker has mastered high school basketball, but he wouldn't be the first phenom to get tripped up in college. The road to NBA stardom is before him, but it's not always paved.

I asked the last Chicago (OK, Northbrook) star to go to Duke, Jon Scheyer, for suggestions for Parker to adjust to Duke and Krzyzewski. He thought hard for the right answer, noting that he tried too hard to be a Duke star before he was ready. For now, he said Parker should make sure to stand out.

"You can never talk too much for Coach K," he wrote in an email from Spain, where he's playing professionally. "Biggest adjustment guys have to make (besides the normal physicality adjustments, etc.) is communication. Coach K is huge on that. That's what Luol [Deng] told me going into my frosh year and it really helped. Because that's why Duke is always so tough on defense, you can always hear guys talking. He won't put you out there if you are silent."

Earlier this month Smith told me Parker's friend, Whitney Young junior center Jahlil Okafor (a Duke prospect for 2014) is the most dominating player in the city. He's not wrong. Parker touched on that issue, noting he wants to become an on-court "assassin, working on taking people's hearts out. That's what I need to be, not a nice guy."

That's wise. Because Parker's days as a high school star, where almost everything comes easy, are ending. We know where he's going next year, but who knows where he will end up. That is another decision he will have make for himself.