Jeff Benedict: Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict grateful for the opportunity to share Jabari Parker story with the world
Photo by Jeff Benedict
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I was traveling to New York on Monday when my editor called and shared the cover language for the upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated that went on sale this week: "The best high school basketball player since LeBron James is JABARI PARKER but there's something more important to him than NBA stardom: HIS FAITH."
Those are two very big statements. Both true. That's why writing Jabari's story for SI has been one of the richest experiences of my journalism career. I've never met a more humble star athlete.
The first time I visited Jabari's Chicago high school back in January, the janitor stopped me in the hallway to say: "He's the finest young man I know."
The janitor didn't say a word about Jabari's basketball abilities. In fact, while reporting this story I met dozens of strangers in Chicago who follow Jabari's basketball career very closely. Once people learned I was profiling Jabari for SI they would tell me about his character, not his basketball prowess.
Even Chicago's mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tries to attend all of Jabari's home games, told me that Jabari has earned the right to be a role model for kids throughout the city of Chicago. Emanuel took it one step further, saying there ought to be a picture of Jabari's parents beside the words "role model" in the dictionary.
After Jabari led his team to an unprecedented third consecutive state title back in March, I pulled aside all of the cheerleaders and asked them to give me the one word that comes to mind when they think of Jabari Parker. They said: "Gentleman."
As the father of two young daughters I can't think of a finer compliment for a teenage boy. In fact, it's easy to forget that Jabari is still a boy. He's barely 17. Ironically, he and I practically share the same birthday. Mine is March 14. His is March 15.
Jabari and I share something else in common. He will be the first African-American Mormon drafted into the NBA. I am the only Mormon writer for Sports Illustrated. The reason we bonded so quickly is because we've spent our lives as the only Mormons in the room, so to speak. And we like it that way.
That's what I love and admire about Jabari. He lives his religion. But he never wears it on his sleeve. And he respects and embraces the beliefs of everyone around him. In fact, I think it is fair to say he prefers being around people of different faiths and persuasions. He's at home in the world.
I am the same way. And while working on Jabari's story I spent time with a few other Mormon athletes who are also that way. One of them is Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.
Like me, Steve grew up in Connecticut. He was the only Mormon at Greenwich High School. I was the only Mormon boy at my high school in Waterford. A few weeks back I spent a day with Steve in San Francisco, talking (actually, mostly laughing) about what it was like being the only Mormons growing up in our respective towns in Connecticut. We wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.
While Steve was the captain of the baseball, basketball and football teams at Greenwich, I was writing about my high school's sports teams for the school newspaper. Back then Steve never thought he'd quarterback a team to a Super Bowl championship. And I never dreamed I'd write cover stories for Sports Illustrated.
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