Jabari Parker as reluctant superstar
Duke's freshman might be best of stellar class, but he shies from attention
Jabari Parker is talking about the strange world he inhabits, the one where he is a basketball superstar who dislikes the spotlight, the one that finds a kid who prefers the we culture while living in the middle of the me culture, when he says something so astounding, so unexpected, you make him repeat himself.
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"It's all on account of when I was a kid, me having low self-esteem," he says.
Come again, please.
"Yeah, as a kid I didn't really have a lot to be proud of," he continues. "I knew I had raw talent, but I wasn't blessed with all of this athleticism, or right away with things. It took awhile for me to feel good about myself and my ability."
Before Andrew Wiggins reclassified and ignited Wilt Chamberlain comparisons, before the most recent edition of the best recruiting class ever enrolled at Kentucky, before all of his freshman frenzy, Parker was the center of the storm.
He was the one on the cover of a certain national magazine, tabbed "the best high school player since LeBron James." He was the USA Basketball male athlete of the year. He was the Gatorade national player of the year. He was the most coveted recruit, the center of breathless anxiety at college campuses across the country.
He was the kid every kid dreamed of being.
Except, that is, Jabari Parker.
Viewed now as a basketball prodigy, a millionaire in waiting, Parker is, in his mind at least, still that awkward preteen trying to find a way. His low self-esteem has been replaced with quiet confidence. And while he accepts the attention that comes with the job, he doesn't seek it. Frankly, he could flat out do without it.
"If he could just play basketball without all of the other stuff, he'd be a very happy camper," his mother, Lola Parker, said.
Meet the Reluctant Superstar, an 18-year-old who defies the social norms of his entire generation.
Among a demographic that considers Twitter followers some sort of popularity gauge, that Instagrams its every moment and snapchats its every thought, Jabari Parker craves anonymity, privacy and the ordinary.
If there was a time when someone with his talent could hide in the shadows, surely those days are gone now. The façade that college athletes are just like the rest of us is just too hard to maintain when Kansas students tweet pictures of the back of Wiggins' head from class; when Kentucky players pose for pictures at the mall; and when people crawl out of the woodwork and from under their rocks to use social media to viciously attack an 18-year-old for his college choice, as they did Parker and Wiggins, and pretty much any other top player in recent history.
But Parker stubbornly and optimistically clings to the hope and the notion that he can be treated like anyone else.
Yes, he has found his self-esteem, but not his ego.
"I didn't want to go to a place where I'd just be a basketball player," he said. "I wanted to be able to build relationships with other students as a person. That loses its value when you are just considered a basketball player, when people want to take your picture all of the time. Everyone here [at Duke] is extraordinary at something."
But now it is basketball season, the time that Parker is more extraordinary than most.
One weekend into the season, and already he's been a headline. On the first day of the season, Parker stole the national show, scoring 22 points as Duke beat Davidson.
On Tuesday night, he'll join nine of his 2013 McDonald All-American teammates in what could be the best collection assembled on the court this season.
The Final Four will have more riding on it, but it may not have the same caliber of teams as the Champions Classic -- No. 1 Kentucky versus No. 2 Michigan State followed by No. 4 Duke against No. 5 Kansas on ESPN.
And it's in Chicago, Parker's hometown and a city that loves its basketball and expects a lot of its locals.
There is no hiding anymore.
Lola Parker wanted her five children to be exceptional -- exceptionally kind, exceptionally responsible, exceptionally respectful, exceptionally strong in character.
She is tiny compared to everyone else in her family, but a 5-foot-6 force of nature who handles the discipline even if her bigger, former NBA-playing husband, Sonny, looks more the part.
The lessons for Jabari, also raised in the Mormon faith, were everywhere and every day. Go outside to cut the grass. Do the neighbor's yard, too. Not because he asked. Not because you were told. Because you should.
In class, you raise your hand and participate. You engage in your education, no slouching off in the back.
When Jabari was in the fifth grade he was traveling with a summer-league team to Minnesota. The team, made up mostly of sixth-graders, was about to board the white passenger van when the coach asked if anyone would like to say a prayer.
"I just gave Jabari that look," Lola Parker said. "You know, the parents-don't-have-to-say-anything look. To me, if you don't show courage in what you believe in, if you don't show it and practice it and be strong in it, why bother?"
Jabari remembers the moment well, remembers it exactly as most kids would.
"I was like, 'OK, Mom is embarrassing me again,"' Jabari said. "But I knew it was for a good reason. I didn't take it the wrong way."
He never did. A self-described "obedient kid," Jabari did little to give his parents any grief. He toed the line in the classroom, where he carried a 3.71 GPA through high school, and worked hard on the basketball court.
In those early, pre-high school years, basketball, he said, was his sanctuary. He loved the game so much that practicing was never a burden. Eventually it paid off; the gawky colt became a thoroughbred.
By the time he entered Simeon Career Academy, Parker was special.
The same high school that counts Derrick Rose as an alum tabbed Parker as the first freshman starter on the varsity. He averaged 9.3 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game in that first season, helping Simeon to a state championship and himself to ESPN's national freshman of the year honors.
He dreamed up his wish list and told his mom -- that he'd be a high school All-American, that one day he'd play on an Olympic team -- who told Sonny. "He'd just say, 'Does he know how many other kids want to achieve those same dreams?'" Lola said. "Sonny is very real. He would never say, 'Oh you were good.' It was always, 'There's room for improvement.'"
Sonny Parker played six seasons with the Golden State Warriors, and when he finished, he started his own eponymous foundation. He and Lola debated where to live. A move to the suburbs was tempting, but both decided it would be less than genuine to mentor kids in the inner city and then ditch them at night to go home to a leafy home in the burbs.
So they made their home in the city, and plenty of nights the kids from Sonny's foundation would come by for dinner or a visit.
A one-time SWAC player of the year and a Chicago native as well, Sonny has seen plenty of kids with big basketball dreams and too little reality. He wasn't about to let his son become one of them and so the basketball love was always tough.
"My dad is more credible than almost anybody I know," Jabari said. "Growing up, I think I took for granted having a father in my life. I know I shouldn't have been like that. A lot of my friends didn't have a father, so for so many people he was the father figure. I look at the way he's lived his life, sacrificing so much. I tried to take his attitude, his way of doing things."
Sonny Parker will be at the game on Tuesday night and unfortunately that's a big deal.
He's been slowed by a kidney disease that requires dialysis three times a week and he rarely travels. The family prefers to downplay Sonny's condition, not interested in some woe-is-me tale following Jabari around, adding extra pressure.
"Dad doesn't have the energy he used to, but that's OK," Lola said. "I just tell him, 'The weeds are beautiful. Let's leave it.' We don't sweat those little things."
Nor does their youngest child. Plenty of kids would look at a game of this magnitude, played in an NBA arena, in his hometown, as a chance to shine.
Here is Jabari Parker's chance to turn the spotlight back on him, to prove that all of the people who have been salivating over Wiggins and the Kentucky freshmen are misguided and misinformed. In one night, in one game, he could redirect all of the attention on him.
He could and maybe he even will.
He just won't care if he does.
"I'm just happy to be able to play in front of my family, my high school coach, all of the people who have been with me for a long time," he said. "It's about that and self-motivation. All of that other stuff, it doesn't matter"
No, it doesn't, especially not for the Reluctant Superstar.