In the back corner of Simeon's cafeteria, at a table usually reserved for boys basketball players, Jabari Parker is talking about a couple of dark weeks he experienced over the summer, when he went from being on top of the high school basketball world to wanting to hide in his room.
"I watched Batman, 'The Dark Knight Rises,' " Parker says of his recovery period from a fractured right foot. "It showed me when Batman was hurt, he got out of bed, so why can't I get out of bed?"
He flashes a sheepish grin at a comparison that is so teenage boy that the CEO of a 6-foot-8 body disappears.
For most of lunch, as the camouflage-and-Nike-clad Parker pushes his pasta and meatballs around his plate and noisy teammates shoot videos on their phones, he maintains that ease.
Rated one of the top high school basketball players in the country, Parker knows he's different from many kids at the South Side school who don't have two-parent homes, or former NBA players such as Sonny Parker as their fathers or moves that can draw squeals of anticipation from fans at Duke, where he will play next season. But he says he fits in this lunchroom, with these boys, who are in the process of helping him wrap up his senior season.
"I look at myself as one of the silly, goofy kids that walks around the halls and has fun," Parker says. "I'm just like everybody else."
Then he talks about his brand and his marketability — concepts his mother says she introduced to him at 6 — and the strange balancing act of a 17-year-old Chicago Public Schools superstar comes back into focus.
"From very early on I would always say, 'Can Nike put a swoosh on you?'" Lola Parker says of conversations with her young son about how negative choices affect image. "It might have been silly and crazy, but I would always say, 'Can they put a swoosh on you, Jabari? … I know your talent can take care of all of the other stuff, but your character is your brand.'"
His brand of character
His 6 a.m. scripture study has had so many observers, his classmates know the drill. A girl pulls out her makeup compact when she hears a photographer is on the way. If the public has been told one thing about Parker, besides that he can hit 3-pointers and dunk wickedly with equal ease, it's that he is a devoted Mormon.
"Good Morning America ... The New York Times ... Sports Illustrated ... ESPN." Kimball Parker, who is no relation to Parker and is a University of Chicago law student who leads the seminary session, lists the outlets that have taken an interest in the versatile, skilled, faithful player who was named a McDonald's All-American last month.
But most of the three mornings per week Parker spends in a tiny classroom at the Hyde Park Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are used to build character, not brand.
He grabs a frosted doughnut from a box on the teacher's desk, sings a group hymn and plays a game to help the students memorize verses. Afterward, he gives a tour of the facility's gym, where he often played with older brother Christian, one of his six siblings. Stocked with two basketballs and a rack of hymn books, it sits just on the other side of a movable partition from the church.
On these mornings, his teacher says Parker is more concerned with the church side.
"It's kind of like, if you want to have a conversation with him, he'll kind of downplay (basketball)," Kimball Parker says. "My impression is he doesn't really like to talk about it here."
Parker says his interest in his faith increased as his stardom did and as he moved from a somewhat sheltered magnet elementary school to Simeon. A resident of a warm home off of 79th Street, on the edge of the South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods, he also considered attending Mount Carmel and Young. He decided on Simeon, which gave him "different challenges for basketball and for being a regular person."
It also has presented some bigger distractions, of which Lola Parker says, "He's a typical 17-year-old kid. The distractions are girls."
"Mostly in high school, when peer pressure took its big hold on me, that's when I started getting into my faith, and that helped me out so much," says Parker, who credits his mother for making faith a big part of his life. "My grades started getting better. I started having a better attitude. My attitude was horrible when I was a freshman. This helped me mature a little bit."
His day continues after a short drive to school, where his parents require he maintain a 3.5 GPA. His second class is Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, where the class reads "The Catcher in the Rye."
Parker, whom multiple teammates deem silly off the court, chuckles as the class reads Holden Caulfield's essay on Egyptians.
"One of the best words for him is aware," says his teacher, Keith Houghteling. "He knows what's going on. Even if it's subtle, even if it's a little joke nobody else is getting, he gets those things.
"He just wants to be pushed. I think in many ways he wants to be well-rounded. He wants to be great at a lot of things, so that's kind of cool."
Some people are likely to bank on it.
Waiting in line
A steady stream of Marquette Small Fry basketball players stare with open mouths at Parker as he signs their white T-shirts with a marker at a McDonald's All-American event.
"That could have been the best thing ever. ... He's going to the NBA?" 9-year-old Dearrius Clardy asks about Parker.
"He's the next Derrick Rose, right?" 7-year-old Dauntrell Dixon asks.
A steady stream of business suitors are expected to follow, his parents say, and Lola Parker points to her son's more than 38,000 Twitter followers as proof. But she and her husband say they made a decision when Parker was a sophomore to shut down contact with potential sponsors until he is closer to the NBA. They do their research on the suitors, but they don't tell their son much.
"There are just so many rules and regulations. We have to be very particular and careful because of who he is and his image," Sonny Parker says. "Even with all of these agencies and shoe companies and people that want to be in line or be involved, what me and my wife talked about, we can't talk to them right now. This is not the time or the place. We have to wait. Everybody wanted to jockey in position to be the front-runner."
Lola Parker laughs off a recent article proclaiming Nike has exclusive rights to her son's feet because the Simeon boys basketball program has a contract with the shoe company. She lists the benefits for all of the Simeon players as reasons such high school sponsorships are blessings.
Nike also is a sponsor of teams involved with the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation. But Sonny Parker says Adidas and Reebok were past sponsors and that his relationship with Nike will not influence his son. Neither will Simeon's contract with Nike, Lola Parker says.
"No. I can tell you this: Jabari won't be sold for cheap," Lola Parker says, before listing high school stars who changed their shoe brands when they went to the NBA. "It's back to the mighty dollar."
In the meantime, Lola Parker helps her son juggle so many appearances and interviews it sometimes dizzies Simeon coach Robert Smith. A camera crew films Parker practicing for an online video. He leaves school early for a tournament news conference. He goes to the McDonald's event. And he misses some school to speak to CPS children at an event for Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. And a reporter from Swedish national television travels to Chicago to watch and interview Parker after "looking for the next big star in American athletics."
That's all in the last two weeks.
"It's overwhelming to me keeping up with it for him," Smith says. "I don't think any regular student can understand the pressure they have."
Parker says his mom and Christian help him improve his interview techniques and teach him how to deal with fans, including one in Texas who begged Parker off a bus for a photo.
"(Christian) teaches me how to be marketable," Parker says. "…He always wants me to be respectful, and he's preparing me for another level, the next step to be marketable for yourself and developing your own brand."
As if that isn't enough for a teenager whose teacher worries whether he sleeps enough, he also plays basketball.
Season of struggles
Parker and his mother don't sugarcoat it. He was depressed.
After a spectacular junior season in which he helped Simeon win its third straight state title, was named Mr. Basketball of Illinois and was swarmed with positive media attention, Parker fractured his foot over the summer while playing for USA Basketball and was sidelined for more than five months.
"Last year was unreal for me for how good I was doing," Parker says. "This year, adversity has really helped me as a person."
His earlier than expected return for Simeon's first game was unspectacular, and he spent most of December getting back in shape. By Simeon's trip to Massachusetts for a key win against Oak Hill on Jan. 21, his teammates knew he was back, and he's now leading the Wolverines' Class 4A playoff run.
"First game, he came out and tripped and fell all over himself," teammate Russell Woods says. "We're like, 'Oh Jabari, he's not 100 percent yet.' He got better real fast. He was determined to lose weight and get back in shape, and it's paying off now."
Parker says he doesn't mind the criticism that comes with such struggles. In fact, he prefers it to praise.
"Because that would give me something to work toward, instead of people kissing my butt all the time," he says. "It gets me back to where I was as a freshman, when I didn't have my name up there and I was just working up to it."
The injury isn't the only adversity Parker is facing this season.
Parker learned the game at Garfield Park under his father, a former Golden State Warriors player and first-round draft pick, and often heard his motivational comments, such as, "There's somebody working harder than you, Jabari." Because of his dad, Parker lists his ultimate goals as being a good father and a community activist.
Sonny Parker says high blood pressure led to kidney problems this fall, and he must undergo dialysis for four hours a day, three days a week. Often that means he misses his son's games. Parker told his parents he worried about picking a school far from home in the face of the health problems, but his parents assured him his father could have dialysis treatment anywhere. He sometimes grows emotional when talking about his dad.
"Me and my dad, seeing him sick, it's…" Parker's voice breaks. "Sometimes in my game, I'll be like, 'Something's missing,' and I'll see my dad in there yelling. It's giving me something to work a little harder for, make him proud because he can't see it."
Should Simeon make it to Peoria for the state semifinals in two weeks, Parker's parents plan to attend. Should Simeon win, it will go down in history with Peoria Manual as the only teams to win four titles in a row, another boost to the Jabari Parker brand before it heads out of state.
Parker embraces that challenge.
"I'm glad that I'm someone people look up to," Parker says. "I would like to accept that role as someone who is looked up to."
Jabari Parker file
Through the years
Plays on Simeon's Class 4A state championship team.
Helps Simeon defend its 4A state title.
Named Tribune second-team All-State.
Plays for USA Basketball U16 team.
Leads Simeon to its third straight 4A state title.
Becomes first junior to win Mr. Basketball of Illinois.
Named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2011.
Picked as Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Plays for USA Basketball U17 team.
Ranked the No. 2 senior in the country by ESPN.
Announces he will play for Duke.
Named a McDonald's All-American.
Selected to play in Jordan Brand Classic.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun