On Thursday night, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks selected Duke star Jabari Parker with the second overall pick in the 2014 draft.
While Parker gets set to wear an NBA uniform, tens of thousands of young Mormon men will be preparing uniforms of their own, the white shirt and black name tag of missionaries, as they begin knocking on unfriendly doors in countries around the world.
It was through this missionary service that Mormons traveled to the small island nation of Tonga and converted Jabari Parker’s great-grandfather a century ago. Today, Parker, who is of African-American descent, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a regular at its meetings. His brother Christian and his mother served on missions.
Parker, who played one season at Duke, will be the first African-American Mormon drafted in the NBA, positioning himself as a striking new face for a church that discriminated against African-Americans until 1978, excluding them from being in the lay clergy and being married in the L.D.S. temple.
Parker’s decision has raised some eyebrows among Mormons.
But while church leaders have said they expect “every worthy, able young man” to serve on a mission, Parker will not be joining his peers in the field. He will instead follow the path carved by other world-class Mormon athletes and focus on his sport, a path that allows him to pursue his basketball dreams, and make millions.
But church leaders and Mormon athletes argue that he will still be an ambassador for the church. And he may be an especially important ambassador – far more people will see him on “SportsCenter” than they would if he were doing missionary work in a far-off country.
“Exceptional talent evokes exceptions to the rule,” said Gregory Prince, a Mormon historian and an active member of the church. “It isn’t fair to the 60,000 young men who heed the call to serve and stay out of the limelight, while the athletes bypass formal missions and gain the accolades. It’s a double standard, but for the church it’s a no-brainer.”
Parker’s decision has raised some eyebrows among Mormons, particularly those who put off their athletic ambitions for two years to serve.
Austin Collie, a wide receiver drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, served on a mission in Argentina before turning professional. Xavier Su’a-Filo, an offensive lineman, left UCLA to serve a mission for two years in Florida and Alabama. He was the NFL draft’s 33rd pick last month, and he said he believed even star athletes should serve.
“If someone’s worried about going on a mission only because they can’t play or they’re not going to love the sport when they get back, I don’t think that’s a good reason,” Su’a-Filo said in an interview.
Parker Mangum was recruited to play quarterback out of high school and served a mission in Italy after his first college season, later transferring to Brigham Young. His brother Tanner was a highly rated quarterback coming out of high school and decided to postpone his college career at Brigham Young until he served his mission in Chile.
“I believe that there are no exceptions if you are physically able, as the prophet of our church has counseled,” Parker Mangum said. “They’ve personally made a decision not to serve, and I respect that.”
But those players were not as coveted a prospect as Parker, a 6-foot-8 forward. Basketball is a tradition in Parker’s family; his father, Sonny Parker, played in the NBA, and his two older brothers played in college.
Many high-profile Mormon athletes make the same decision as Parker to forgo mission work. Former and current pro athletes such as Steve Young, Bryce Harper, Danny Ainge, Johnny Miller and Jimmer Fredette did not serve.
Parker declined to be interviewed for this article, but his bishop, Eddie Blount, said Parker had been seriously considering a mission. Parker was a regular and active participant in church meetings, but he saw the NBA as an opportunity that was good for him and for the church, Blount said.
“He sees himself having an opportunity to be an example for young men in the church and society,” Blount said. “I think he can touch a lot of lives just by being a great person and being in the spotlight.”
In an interview with The News & Observer last season, Parker said he does think about a potential mission, but he doesn’t look at it as a burden.
“It’s about individual growth and development. What you can do to keep yourself away from your selfish intake and just worrying about others, just spreading out your joy and passion. I guess through basketball, I’m kind of doing it now,” he said. “But if I do need the time to improve myself, then I would go just to help me out in life.”
Many athletes who have struggled with the same decision said they saw their career on the national stage as mission work of a different sort. Indeed, Parker will be expected to attend church gatherings across the country as a special guest.
Ainge, a two-time NBA champion and a star player at Brigham Young, recalled that his college coach “really emphasized that our program could be the second-best missionary tool in the church, behind the mission program itself.”
When Ainge was deciding whether to serve a mission, he met privately with Marvin J. Ashton, then a member of a governing body in the church called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He said that a prophet needs to say every young man should serve a mission because that’s the expectation – knowing that a mission is not for everybody and not every young man can serve.”
Ainge has remained steadfast in his Mormon faith and served as a bishop, often counseling other young men about missions. “I do believe that everybody should prepare to serve a mission,” he said in an interview, conceding that not everyone was meant to do so.
Bruce Hurst, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox from 1980 to 1988, was another star athlete to struggle with the question.
He remembers an apostle, L. Tom Perry, coming to his town just before the baseball draft and privately discussing the power of sports success. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous, though, to get drafted by the Red Sox and have 35,000 people watch you?” Hurst remembered Perry saying. “And three times that number read what you said in the paper the next day.”
The Red Sox drafted Hurst in the first round in 1976, and he did not serve a mission. “I think the church should leave all the kids alone to make the decision,” Hurst said. “The culture of the church makes you feel guilty if you disobey.”
Miller, a Hall of Fame golfer who won the 1973 United States Open, said he did not “feel too bad” about his decision to forgo a mission.
“I think I did a lot of good for the church,” Miller said. “I played a lot of tournaments overseas, and some of the missionaries would get in the door in Japan by showing them a picture of me.”
In the spring, the church’s president and prophet, Thomas S. Monson, quoted Parker during the church’s General Conference. He recounted advice Parker said his father had given him.
“ ‘Just be the same person you are in the dark that you are in the light,’ ” Monson said. “Important advice, brethren, for all of us.”