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Smith, who runs his team like a Division I program and routinely holds practices on Sunday, was floored. "I had never had a mother come in like that," he says. "I had never had a father come in like that either. But this has been the best relationship with a family I've ever had."
Jabari is the first player in the four-decade history of Simeon's program to start as a freshman. In the past three seasons he has led the Wolverines to a combined record of 87--12, including those three state titles. Yet coach and star are a bit of an odd couple. Jabari uses phrases from the Bible for motivation and avoids curse words. Smith drops f-bombs regularly in practice and during games. When asked about Smith's salty language, Jabari laughs. "It doesn't faze me," he says. "I love Coach Smith. He's someone I can talk to and trust. My previous coaches would say things they thought I wanted to hear. He tells it like it is and pushes me past my limit."
Smith's Sunday practices presented another potential conflict for Jabari. "On the Sabbath, I'm supposed to focus on Jesus and the resurrection," he says. "But if I don't practice, I let the team down. I don't want my teammates to think that I think I'm special. I want to be treated like everyone else. It would break bonds with my teammates if I took Sundays off." So Smith schedules Sunday practices in the afternoon, allowing Jabari to attend morning services. And when the team is on the road—Simeon plays a national schedule, with games in five states last season—Smith makes sure there is time on Sunday for Jabari to attend church.
"Jabari makes my job a lot easier as a coach," says Smith. "The best player sets the tone for the team. He's clean-cut. He prefers to remain out of the limelight. And he's the ultimate team player."
One of Smith's assistants, Marlo Finner, texts an inspirational message to Jabari every morning. "I grew up around gangs and crime, but I went to church with my mom," says Finner, a 6'6", 290-pound Chicagoan who played at Missouri and in Europe. "Jabari and I have a lot in common. He knows that if you want to be successful you have to look for guidance from above. I tell kids you can follow God and still be tough-minded. Look at Jabari."
After Simeon won the state title in 2011, Smith kept his team overnight in a Peoria hotel. The plan was to celebrate and then make the three-hour drive back to Chicago in the morning, which was a Sunday. Lola informed Smith that Jabari would leave before that because he had a church commitment in Chicago. Smith and the other players understood. "Our relationship is why we are so good on the court," Jabari says of his teammates. "Our bond doesn't break. So I wanted to stay the night and celebrate. But I knew I had to do what was important." What Jabari didn't tell the others was that the following morning he was scheduled to become a priest. Mormon boys become priests at 16, and his 16th birthday had coincided with the state tournament.
One of the primary responsibilities of a Mormon priest is to handle the sacrament every Sunday. Priests also perform baptisms. Jabari has done both, but he has spent most of his time as a priest accompanying Bishop Joe Cannon on monthly visits to the sick, the poor and the elderly—an assignment designed to teach young men the importance of service and self-sacrifice. Mormons don't have a professional clergy, and Cannon, a 39-year-old Chicago Law School graduate who owns a specialty lumber company in Idaho, Indiana and Utah, has been Jabari's bishop for most of his teen years.
In December 2010, Jabari went with Cannon to the Waterfront Terrace nursing home on Lake Michigan. An elderly woman from Arkansas was living there. Lonely and dying, she asked Parker and Cannon to sing her some Christmas carols. "I knew it would make her day," Jabari says. "Her family wasn't around." As Jabari sang Silent Night, it was all Cannon could do to hold back tears.
Sonny gets anxious watching his son in high-pressure games, so he didn't go to Peoria to see Jabari win state championships as a freshman and sophomore. But when Simeon played for its third straight title in March, against Chicago's Proviso East, ranked No. 2 in Illinois with a 32--0 record, Sonny was in the stands. Fans sat on the edges of their seats as Simeon clung to a two-point lead with 3:05 remaining. Then an official lost a shoe as he ran to signal a blocking foul. With the ref at the scorer's table, Jabari jogged to center court, knelt and picked up the shoe and some notes that had fallen from the ref's pocket. When the official turned from the scorer's table to return to the floor, Jabari handed him his shoe.
The next three minutes belonged to Simeon. And with 15 seconds remaining and Simeon up by five, Jabari threw down a two-handed dunk to seal the game. Fans stormed the court, and Jabari found Sonny. The two tallest men in the arena embraced. "I'm so proud of you, son," Sonny said. A couple of weeks later, after Kentucky beat Kansas for the NCAA championship, Sonny called John Calipari to congratulate him. Before hanging up, Calipari said, "I want to coach Jabari."