From the roller coaster political life of Mitt Romney to the so-called love life of Manti Te’o to the boffo box office life of “The Book of Mormon,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been much in the news recently.
In Chicago, fascination has focused on the basketball future of 17-year-old Jabari Parker. The Simeon Career Academy senior is arguably the nation’s top college basketball prospect. He also happens to be a Mormon.
No local hoopster’s college plans have generated this much buzz since suburban Glenbrook North High School graduate Jon Scheyer took his considerable talent to Duke University in 2006.
Back then, the burning issue was why the All-American Scheyer opted for Duke rather than a college in Illinois. Now, with Parker also choosing Duke, the question is why he picked the secular North Carolina school over any Mormon-heavy college in Utah, particularly Brigham Young University, whose students are nearly all Mormons.
On Twitter, some people criticized Jabari Parker’s decision — enough so that Parker felt hurt and compelled to tweet in response that he was trying to “stay respectful” and “grow up fast.” He reminded everyone that he was a 17-year-old “striving for character.”
But there was no public criticism among Parker’s fellow Mormons in Chicago, who have been sympathetic, supportive, and impressed with the teenager’s character.
Paul Haglund, a Mormon bishop of the north suburban Second Ward, said Parker has already demonstrated enough character that his choice of college should be respected, even if it wasn’t an LDS school.
“It’s a personal decision and I know he chose a place that would assist him most in his future,” Haglund said. “I’m sure he probably felt that people in his ward (South Side Hyde Park) would have been tickled and it would have raised their profile had he picked a Mormon campus.”
Similarly, Haglund admitted, his son Owen, a student at Brigham Young, now serving a two-year Mormon mission in Italy, “is really disappointed.” BYU was among schools recruiting Parker, along with basketball powers Florida and Stanford.
Bishop Haglund’s wife, Sally, said, “As Mormons, we’re disappointed, of course, and I’m sure the Brigham Young basketball team is disappointed.” But, she added, “We know Jabari personally. If we didn’t know him, we’d probably be more disappointed. But we know he’s a great kid.”
Before moving to north suburban Glenview, where Haglund is serving a non-salaried term as bishop, similar to a pastor in other Christian congregations, he and his wife were members of Parker’s Hyde Park ward for seven years.
“We knew Jabari before he was six feet tall,” Bishop Haglund quipped.
Kimball Dean Parker is not related to Jabari, but teaches him in early morning seminary studies at the Hyde Park church. Jabari attends hourly studies from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. Mondays and Fridays, then gets a ride to Simeon from Parker or someone else from the study class.
“Duke seems like a perfect fit for Jabari. It’s a top-five basketball school with a top coach and a top academic reputation, ” said teacher Parker. “Him choosing BYU was a longshot.
“I don’t think it’s a big thing to Mormons when the church’s athletes choose not to go to BYU,” said Kimball Dean Parker. “Those of us here know the Parker family’s spirituality.” Even Jabari’s father, non-Mormon Sonny Parker, comes to church with his son, he said, adding: “I’m from Utah originally, so I keep up with Mormon message boards there. I haven’t detected any resentment or anger about Jabari’s decision.
“Mormons are used to their big-time athletes not choosing to go to BYU or other Mormon-related schools.” He cited two such athletes who just went to the Super Bowl: Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and San Francisco 49ers fullback/defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, both of whom went to college and played at Oregon. And, of course, Te’o chose Notre Dame.
Trey Clark and Scott Shurtliff are members of the LDS Hyde Park ward who have known Jabari Parker for years and have been to Simeon games to watch him play.
“I can see why BYU students who don’t know him might take umbrage at Jabari’s not choosing their school,” said Clark, an alumnus of the Mormon college. “But there are over 100 BYU grads here in Hyde Park and there was never any jockeying to get him to go to BYU. If I were in his shoes, I’d make the same decision he did.”
“I think Duke is a great decision for Jabari,” said Shurtliff. “I’m really excited for him. I’m not at all disappointed that he didn’t pick a Mormon school. I’m sure BYU was in the picture, but Coach K (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) is a really great coach. BYU is certainly not as strong as Duke in basketball.”
As for the Mormon connection, he said, “There are Mormon congregations and groups all over the country and I’ve read that there is one at Duke.”
Indeed, Jabari’s mother, Lola, checked that out even as her son made an official visit to the campus. Although there have only been 50 to 60 Mormon students at Duke at any given time, there are services and “institute” study groups for them, according to Kenneth Rogerson, the faculty adviser for the Latter-day Saint Student Association at Duke.
Matt Christensen offers Parker a precedent example of merging Mormon mission with athletic aspirations. Duke and its athletic program were “very accommodating” of his beliefs and practices, said Christensen, who was recruited by school’s basketball program in 1995.
He played for one year, then went on a Mormon mission to Germany for two years and red-shirted for another year to renew his basketball skills before returning to the team.
Although Christensen was seldom a starter, he recalled that “Coach K tried to limit Sunday practices in respect for my Mormon instruction to keep the seventh day holy.”
Similarly, he said, “some of my teammates actually apologized for swearing around me, aware of my obedience to the commandment against using profanity. I never asked them to apologize.”
One issue Parker and Duke will yet face is whether and when he will serve his Mormon mission, which is encouraged but not required of LDS members and is usually accomplished in individuals’ late teens. The age for application was recently reduced to 18. Missions are assigned by the church, not chosen by the individual.
Parker, who will turn 18 next month, has said he intends to attend college for at least a year before considering his mission.
Christensen believes a year of college, “being away from home for a year before going on a two-year mission with little contact back home, is a good idea.” Asked whether Parker might feel alienated if he returned to the team after being away for two years, Christensen said, “Jabari will already be different when he arrives as a freshman, obedient to Mormon commandments such as no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, and chastity before marriage.” And no drinking includes coffee and tea, as well as alcohol.
Mormons stress that while a mission is encouraged for males beginning at age 18 and for females beginning at 19, it is not required and a good many LDS members never go on one.
Particularly among elite Mormon athletes whose professional careers may be limited in years, it is not uncommon to forgo the two-year mission commitment, said Clark. “If Jabari opted not to go on a mission, just like he chose not to go to BYU, I don’t think he would be marginalized as a Mormon.”