Jabari Parker, star senior at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball, the nation’s top prep player, and Sports Illustrated cover boy, has yet to announce where he will attend college in 2014, but the candidates are Duke, Michigan State, Florida, Stanford, and Brigham Young University.
Each of those schools has something to recommend it.
Duke is loaded and wins titles. Michigan State is close to Parker’s Chicago home and is always ranked. Few can beat Stanford’s academics and alumni support. And at Florida, Parker would be in the nation’s top financial athletic league, the SEC, and part of its media machine.
But none of these schools can ring the bell for Parker like BYU, the nation’s largest private religious university, sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly referred to as the Mormon Church.
What other school on Parker’s list allows a prayer before a class? None. Only BYU. And Parker is not only a fine basketball player, he’s a devout Mormon who would fit right in with BYU’s student body, who commit to an honor code that prohibits drinking, smoking, illegal drugs, cheating, and even pre-marital sexual relations.
Although Parker is an active and devoted member of the Mormon faith, and BYU fans everywhere covet his presence, there is no reason he can’t have the same impact for the very public-image conscious LDS faith at Michigan State or anywhere else he chooses to play. For proof, look no further than Notre Dame, where linebacker Manti Te’o, also a faithful Mormon, has led the Fighting Irish to a BCS Championship game.
Still, BYU offers Parker advantages he’ll find nowhere else.
“We want Jabari to come to BYU because he is an outstanding young man who lives an exceptional life and is a great example,” said Bruce Bushnell of Orem, Utah, a lifetime Cougar season ticket holder, interviewed the week of Jabari’s recent visit to Provo. “He is also a great basketball player and he can be part of a great basketball tradition at BYU just like Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette.”
BYU fans see Parker as a potential flag bearer for the school and faith, following the path of San Francisco 49er and current ESPN analyst Steve Young, PGA Hall of Famer Johnny Miller, and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, who became the seventh member of the BYU family inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame earlier this month in New York City.
Only two years ago, Fredette, the national player of the year, had the Cougars on the cusp of an Elite Eight appearance and a No. 5 ranking before injuring his leg in a double overtime loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament. BYU fans contend there’s no reason why Parker couldn’t also make BYU a national title contender.
If Parker signed with the Cougars, he would join an elite class considered to be one of the best since Ainge played in the late 1980s. Chicago basketball fans got a glimpse at part of this class recently when No. 6 ranked Lone Peak High (Utah) defeated No. 13 Proviso East (Illinois) in the Chicago Elite Classic on campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago.
In that game, three potential Parker teammates at BYU—two in his same class of 2013—led Lone Peak to a commanding 84-46 win over the Chicago team. Point guard Nick Emery is listed as the 61st best player in the class by ESPN, and 6-9 center Eric Mika is ranked 76th overall and the tenth best center in the country.
“These kids at Lone Peak who are headed for BYU have played and defeated Parker and his Simeon AAU in grade school and they have played national competition all over the country most of their lives,” said Golden Holt, coach at Utah 4A champion Orem High, and sponsor of the Salt Lake Metro AAU team on which Emery and Mika and junior TJ Haws have played.
“They are not afraid and they compete. They have played the best in the country and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday they take BYU to the Final Four, at least the Elite Eight,” said Holt.
BYU coach Dave Rose’s signed recruiting class for 2013, without Parker, is ranked in the top 15 in the nation by ESPN.
BYU not only gives Parker the chance to win, it also offers him a chance to be a part of a community like no other on the planet, a community comprised of nearly 75 percent Mormons. He will find relatives here, too. While his father, former NBA player Sonny Parker, is black, his mother Lola is Tongan, and her relatives are sprinkled up and down the Wasatch Front from Salt Lake City to Provo.
Census records show in 1990 there were 2,904 Tongans in Utah. By 2010, the number reached 13,235. Most Tongans and Samoans who moved to Utah did so because of the LDS faith.
BYU coaches have been encouraged to find and recruit the world’s best LDS student athletes and bring them to Provo to help build the programs and bring exposure to the school and faith.
A recent success is former walk-on defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a Mormon convert from Ghana. A 6-foot-6, 270 pound athlete who came to America to try out for basketball, Ziggy runs a 10.9 hundred meters and has a 39-inch vertical jump. He had to be shown how to put on football equipment three years ago in BYU’s locker room but is now considered a likely first-round NFL draft pick.
BYU might not be as big a basketball school as Duke, but its sports programs get plenty of exposure, and Parker would hardly be overlooked. In addition to extensive ESPN coverage, the school has its own TV station, and its programming can be viewed on cable networks across the planet, from Brazil to Singapore and Sweden to Tahiti. At this week’s preamble press conference to the Poinsettia Bowl, BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall told the press that BYU was the sixth most watched football team in the world this past season.
BYU’s all-time leading rusher in football is Harvey Unga, who was drafted by the Bears in 2010. He’s Parker’s cousin. The top female golfers in Utah high school are from the Fotu family, also related to Parker.
Sports fans went crazy during his visit. One pair of fans raised money to print 6,300 T-shirts that read “Chicago to Provo” and handed them out across from the Marriott Center when Parker attended a game.
To the uninitiated, Chicago to Provo might sound like a long way to travel. But I have the feeling if Parker chooses BYU he’s going to feel right at home.