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Jake Flannigan filmed every in-state basketball game played by Chicago's Simeon Career Academy during the 2011--12 season. He saw Simeon's star forward, Jabari Parker, score 40 points one day and block 12 shots another. But his lasting impression of Jabari was formed when the camera was off. After a home game in which Jabari barely missed a triple double, Flannigan, a producer at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, waited outside the locker room for an interview. Jabari never appeared. He had used another exit to return to the court for the jayvee game and was behind the bench passing out water.
"The other varsity players were out in the hallway, talking to girls by the snack stand," says Flannigan. "The best player in the city was being the water boy for the jayvee. It's hard to root against a kid like that. He's on top of the world, but he's incredibly humble."
Humble isn't usually the first word that comes to mind when describing a star athlete, but it's the one most often used by people who have been around Jabari: the high school janitor, the hall monitors, the cheerleaders, even hard-bitten sports reporters and Chicago's famously combative mayor. What makes this all the more surprising is that Jabari, 17, is not just the best high school player in the state. He's the best high school player since LeBron James.
Last season the 6'9", 220-pound junior led Simeon to a 33--1 record and a third straight Class 4A state championship. In April he was chosen the Gatorade National Player of the Year, becoming only the fourth nonsenior to win the award (after James, Greg Oden and Brandon Knight). Three months earlier USA Basketball had named Jabari its male athlete of the year for 2011, succeeding 2010 winner Kevin Durant, an NBA All-Star. Jabari got that nod after leading the U.S. to the gold medal and being named MVP of the FIBA Americas U16 championship in Cancún, Mexico, last summer.
Jabari handles the ball like a point guard and has a crossover that makes defenders stumble. His first step has been compared to Oscar Robertson's. He can drain threes, yet he goes to the rim with power and uses his 6'11½" wingspan to block shots and snatch rebounds. (Last season he averaged 19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.) One NBA executive told SI that if Jabari were eligible for the draft, he would be a lottery pick in June.
Instead, Jabari is being pursued by all the top college programs—Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina. Though he is a serious student with a 3.7 GPA, he is almost certain to leave college after his freshman season. But his fast track to the pros includes a potential detour. A life-altering decision awaits Jabari that few other athletes of his caliber have had to face.
The backpack that Jabari Parker takes everywhere contains all the expected items: a pair of Nikes, socks with the NBA logo, basketball shorts, T-shirts, Icy Hot gel, a couple of rolls of athletic prewrap, and an iPod loaded with rap and R&B. But there's also a paperback copy of The Book of Mormon. Jabari belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. "Basketball is what I do," he says. "It's not who I am."
Jabari's father, Sonny, who played for the Warriors from 1976 to '82, is not a Mormon, but his wife, Lola, is a lifelong member of the church, and their four children have been raised as Mormons. Jabari's religion makes him a minority on two fronts. Mormons make up just 1.7% of the U.S. population. And of the 6.2 million Mormons in the U.S., only about 186,000, or 3%, are black. At Simeon, Jabari is one of only two Mormons out of 1,588 students.
"I used to have to explain to a lot of my friends that not all Mormons are from Utah, and not all Mormons are white," Sonny says. "There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Mormon faith."
Says Flannigan, "When people around Chicago first find out Jabari's a Mormon, they are shocked. But whatever doubt there is about who he is or what he represents is quickly brushed away by his character."