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Duke phenom Jabari Parker has humble alter ego

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/18/15/SRNiy.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
    Duke's Jabari Parker (1) celebrates after slamming in two during the first half against Florida State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/18/17/1l6HaP.Em.138.jpeg|424
    Chuck Liddy - cliddy@newsobserver.com
    Duke forward Jabari Parker (1) is fouled as Florida State center Boris Bojanovsky (15) defends in the first half of Saturday’s game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. Duke defeated the Seminoles 78-56.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/01/25/18/15/1cxII2.Em.138.jpeg|453
    Ethan Hyman - ehyman@newsobserver.com
    Duke's Jabari Parker (1) pulls in a rebound in front of Florida State's Devon Bookert (1) during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.

When the best basketball player at Duke isn’t on the court, he likes to be in his dorm room, watching cartoons. He’s had the same best friend since grade school, and the biggest party they ever attended was a Bar Mitzvah. His mom would occasionally take him and his siblings to the thrift store, where they could learn the value of a dollar and develop a personal sense of style.

Jabari Parker, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound son of a former NBA player, isn’t like most people his age – there are only a handful of freshmen being considered for the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft. But he’s not like other young, elite basketball players, either. Those close to him attribute that in part to his Mormon faith, which Parker calls his base and foundation. His parents, Sonny and Lola, stressed to him that to whom much is given, much is required. On the court, he plays like a man among boys. Off the court, his roommate and teammate, Matt Jones, describes him as a big kid.

In interviews, Parker is quick to deflect attention away from himself and toward the team. Many of his closest relationships have nothing to do with basketball, and he puts aside his fame to connect with people. The mix of youth, wisdom and elite basketball gifts make it hard to define Parker.

“I would say I’m definitely not a person that stays complacent,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I’m necessarily a person that is good, but I’m in the midst of trying to be a good person. I have a lot to improve. Obviously, I’m not perfect, but I just try to do my best everyday, on the court and off the court, just being a good guy and good teammate.”

Basketball is just part of Parker’s life.

“That is what I do, but that’s not who I am,” he said when asked about basketball. “More importantly, it’s the image and the person that you want people to perceive you as. You deal with basketball only some parts of the day. It’s your job to make yourself noticeable in the right ways.”

This year, Parker has been noticed plenty. That’s not new – as the first freshman to play varsity for Chicago prep powerhouse Simeon Career Academy, Parker has had a high-profile for years. The college basketball world followed along as he scored at least 20 points in his first seven games, then had just seven at Notre Dame. Until a 23-point performance four games later against N.C. State and a double-double at Miami, he hadn’t quite regained the scoring production that seemed to come so naturally during the nonconference schedule.

Parker, who is from the South Side of Chicago, is not surprised by all the media attention. He doesn’t appear to be fazed by it, either. He says it’s about what he expected, as his dad, a former NCAA and NBA player, helped prepare him. So did one of the more famous Duke alums: Grant Hill. The two met over fall break at Duke Elevate, a four-day trip to New York organized by Mike Krzyzewski that mixed a few basketball practices with cultural experiences like seeing a Broadway show and visiting West Point.

“When we met at Duke Elevate, he was telling me how it went down,” Parker said of Hill.

That trip was what he mentioned first when thinking back to favorite memories from his first semester. School has made a big impression on Parker, too.

IN THE CLASSROOM

The ability to keep a low profile on campus, Parker says, was part of Duke’s appeal, part of the reason he’s here instead of the other schools that recruited him. His mom said there is a plan in place for him to graduate, regardless of how long he is actually on campus. But while he is at Duke, Parker feels like he can do something that’s impossible when he’s playing basketball: blend in.

“That was one of the main reasons that I came here is because I get my space,” he said. “My name is not as important as another person because they’re just as important in their field. Who am I to them? That’s the kind of attitude that I have because everybody is unique, and you will run into future corporate CEOs here.”

His favorite class last semester was a cultural anthropology course called, “Music as Mirror, Mediator and Prophet.” The professor, Ingrid Bianca Byerly, says the class investigates the role of music in societies.

Byerly, who is teaching at sea this semester, gave her thoughts over a series of emails. She says she is a fan of Duke basketball, though not an avid one. As a graduate student who arrived from South Africa in 1990, she attended games during her six years of school. But she does not follow recruiting, so when Parker showed up on the first day of class, she didn’t know who he was.

“I had NO idea who was walking into my class on the first day of the semester, because he absolutely does not have an attitude,” she wrote. “In fact it was only after a few classes that I realized who Jabari was – and that was really only after someone asked me what it was like to have a ‘superstar’ in my class.”

Byerly said Parker was quiet and diligent, with a sense of humor, always thinking, often amused. When she asked students early in the semester to reflect on experiences in their lives that led them to her class, Parker went first. His classmates followed his lead.

The course ended with Byerly bringing her Nepalese walking-meditation bell, to show how difficult it is to produce a series of clear rings while doing a slow, focused walking-meditation. Parker, who moves so quickly and swiftly up and down the basketball floor, slowed down, way down, in attempts to sync his steps with the rings.

“Very wise for one so young,” Byerly wrote. “A philosopher’s soul in an athlete’s body.”

Byerly will most remember Parker as the ultimate “parable-man.” Never had she seen a student think so often in parables, using them to analyze readings and abstract ideas. Parker thinks in stories, she said, using them to teach and learn.

That’s a habit that can be traced back to his religion.

WITH THE CHURCH

Like nearly all Mormon men active in the church, Parker is a priest, and he spent about two years during high school as a home teacher, making monthly visits to a group of families in the congregation. For these visits, he was paired with his bishop, Joe Cannon.

“And we would teach them a little lesson or share with them experiences that we’ve had and hear experiences that they have had and ask them if there was anything that we could do to help out,” Cannon said. “He was a young kid and sort of learning how to interact with people like that. He was very, very supportive and helpful and would always share one or two things, his insights about whatever we were talking about.”

Cannon has known Parker since he was in grade school, but it wasn’t until high school that he realized the extent of his basketball talent. Many of the people Parker visited had no idea, either.

There was the time they went to a nursing home during the winter holidays, where an elderly woman wanted to hear Christmas carols.

“I’ll be honest; I don’t sing very well. Jabari sings a little bit worse than I do,” Cannon said. “So it would have been very easy for him to say, ‘you know, I’m really not comfortable doing it.’ But as a 15- or 16-year old, he said, okay, let’s do this. And it was great. She loved us for doing that, and he was rewarded for having done it.”

Some of Parker’s favorite visits were to families with young children, and he would sit on the ground and play with them. That’s also what he would do when visiting Cannon’s house for dinner.

“Anything that my kids wanted to talk to him about, a game that they were playing or something that they were doing in school or a TV show that they watched or a video online, he would love to chat about that sort of stuff,” Cannon said. “He was always just a super great friend to my kids and not like a pro basketball player.”

When Cannon was in a serious bike accident during Parker’s senior year and had to have brain surgery, Parker visited him several times in the hospital, bringing the sacrament, the bread and water. Cannon doesn’t remember this – there is a gap of about 10 days in his memory after the accident – but he is proud of his student.

“He does things that I don’t necessarily expect from him or any kid who has the possibilities that he has,” Cannon said. “But I’m always pleased how supportive he is and how much he cares about others.”

OFF THE COURT

Parker tends to be thoughtful, something his high school coach, Robert Smith, noticed right away. It was small things, like staying after varsity games to be the water boy for the sophomore game, or bringing the coach’s wife and daughter small gifts at Christmas his freshman year. As the first freshman to play for Simeon’s varsity team – even the school’s most famous alum, NBA star Derrick Rose, played on the sophomore team – Parker wanted to pay his dues.

“There were times when he was a freshman when he would say, can you be a little bit harder on me than everyone else; I don’t want them to think you gave me anything,” Smith said. “Little things like that.”

Parker grew up around the game – his dad started a youth foundation that included basketball leagues for inner-city kids in Chicago after retiring from the NBA. His mother noticed her son’s extraordinary basketball abilities by the time he was in second grade. When he arrived at Simeon, he was a prodigy.

But he was also a 14-year-old boy.

Early in his freshman season, Parker’s dad picked him up from practice and took him trick-or-treating. During a team camp at Illinois, Smith noticed Parker blowing bubbles in his water.

“I’m looking at him like, he shouldn’t be doing that, but I had to realize that he was only 14,” Smith said. “I had to get some of those things to realize that he was still a kid. You wouldn’t know that when he stepped between these lines, but he still did kid things.

“A lot of these kids have to grow up fast and be so much older, they lose these great days, these childhood days. They lose them because they have to do so much. But he didn’t let that affect him; he was still able to be a child, which was good.”

‘LOW-KEY KID’

Parker still is a kid, according to Jones, his roommate.

“He is very low maintenance,” Jones said. “JP, somebody of Jabari’s stature, you would think that he would want more stuff. But, honestly, he just wants to watch Netflix and be in his room all day.

“He’s probably on the Disney channel,” Jones said. “I just know he’s a big kid. Anything cartoon, Disney-channel affiliated, he’s probably watching it.”

The low-key Parker’s best friend since grade school, Cory Dolins, is a 6-foot, 182-pound sophomore walk-on at DePaul. They met when Parker was in fifth grade, and Dolins in sixth, while playing at Joy of the Game, a gym located in Deerfield, a northern Chicago suburb.

Parker commuted from the South side of the city, while Dolins lived close by. Sometimes Parker would spend the night, and a friendship began, one that would grow stronger despite the fact that they never attended the same schools.

“Personally and socially, he’s been the same,” Dolins said. “Same values. He hasn’t really changed, and that’s always good.”

“We have a lot of similarities that a lot of people don’t see,” Parker said, alluding to their differences (Parker is black, Mormon and from the city; Dolins is white, Jewish and from the suburbs). “We’re both conservative, somebody that wants to give up their time to help others and make other people happy. Yeah, that’s my guy.”

Dolins came to visit Parker at Duke early in the fall, before both of their seasons started in earnest. They hung out, saw a movie. Nothing fancy. Just their style.

“I treat him as another person, as a best friend and not as a basketball player,” Dolins said.

And that’s all Parker wants, just to be Jabari, more than just a basketball player.

“Like my mom told me, people are not going to remember you necessarily for your talent and your skills,” Parker said. “Life moves on. What’s more important is the person that you are, and that’s what sticks into people’s minds.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley
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