Six years later, after Sonny retired from the NBA and Lola completed an 18-month mission for the church in Tonga, they married and settled in a blue-collar section on Chicago's South Side. There, for more than 20 years, Sonny has run a nonprofit that puts on basketball camps and sponsors teams for underprivileged kids. Although he never converted, he and his family have attended the Mormon church in Hyde Park for years. Jabari, like his three older siblings, was baptized there. But he learned more than religion at the church. He learned to play basketball. "That's where Jabari became Jabari," says his brother, Christian, 24. "His first dunk was in that building."
Like most Mormon churches, the one in Hyde Park has a small indoor basketball court. When Jabari was in grammar school, Christian started taking him there to play one-on-one. The Parkers lived in a neighborhood where gunfire and street crime were not unusual. "We couldn't play at our local playground," Jabari says.
Recognizing how much the Parker brothers loved basketball, the bishop slipped Christian a key to the church. At night, if there was no school the next day, Christian and Jabari would wait till their parents were asleep before going to the gym. "We'd play for three hours straight," Jabari says. "We were very competitive." So competitive that the brothers occasionally would bump and bang each other until Christian was too tired to drive home. Then they slept on couches in the lobby. Once, when the cleaning lady showed up at 6 a.m., the boys woke up and played a little more before going home.
"Jabari never wanted to leave the gym," says Christian. "I'd beat him game after game, because I was older and stronger. But he'd keep coming back."
The first time Lola discovered that her boys hadn't come home, she placed frantic unanswered calls to Christian's cellphone. Then she called a friend who lives across the street from the church, who told her that Christian's car was parked outside. From then on, whenever the boys went missing at night, she knew they were safe.
One night when Jabari was in middle school, he dunked for the first time. One of the rims in the church gym is still bent from the ensuing years of Jabari's dunks. The other rim is straight: That's where he honed his jump shot. "The church was our safe haven," says Christian.
But the gym had another significance for Jabari. "There were images of Christ everywhere," he says. "There was a special spirit there, because we were at a church. So we didn't do things there that we might do outside a church." Today one of those paintings that hung from the church's walls—one of Christ telling a rich man that in order to obtain eternal life he must sell all that he has and give to the poor—hangs in the Parkers' home.
In 2007, Simeon coach Robert Smith had the best team in Illinois. He also had the best player: senior point guard Derrick Rose. One afternoon Sonny Parker walked into the Simeon gym and introduced Jabari, then a 6'2" 11-year-old, to Smith. At Sonny's request Smith invited the boy to run with Rose and the rest of the varsity. "I let Jabari see what he would eventually be up against," Smith says. "He was very skilled and handled the ball extremely well. He did stuff that normal sixth-graders just don't do."
When it came time for Jabari to choose a high school, Smith got another visit from Sonny, informing him that Jabari was coming to Simeon. "I didn't recruit Jabari," says Smith. "The Parkers recruited me." Then Smith got an unexpected visit from Lola.
"Jabari is a student-athlete," she said. "That means he's a student first. Second, this young man is into his church. He's a devoted Mormon. I don't want any special privileges for my son. But he will go to church every Sunday."