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Jeff Benedict: Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Benedict grateful for the opportunity to share Jabari Parker story with the world

Published: Thursday, May 17 2012 1:02 p.m. MDT

Jabari Parker signing autographs after winning the state championship.

Photo by Jeff Benedict

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Related article: Mormon prep basketball phenom Jabari Parker makes the cover of Sports Illustrated

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.

I told that story to Jabari a couple days ago when I accompanied him and his parents to the Sports Illustrated offices at the Time Life Building in Manhattan. I had brought them there to meet my editor B.J. Schecter and the Editor-in-Chief Terry McDonell. Sitting in McDonell's office, we looked at old SI covers featuring Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, along with famous pictures of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Then we went to the Sports Illustrated library, which is the biggest sports library in the world. There are files on every athlete ever written about in the magazine. At one point, my editor pulled me aside and told me to keep Jabari distracted.

While Jabari and I thumbed through the files on his favorite players, my editor led Jabari's parents into his office and showed them an advance copy of this week's issue with Jabari on the cover. We'd kept it a secret that Jabari had been chosen for the cover. Jabari had no idea.

In fact, when we left the Sports Illustrated building, Jabari still didn't know he was on the cover. He didn't find out until just before early editions hit the newsstands in New York City. Hours later we were in a restaurant seated beneath a portrait of Roger Maris. By that point Jabari knew he was on the cover. And people were starting to notice him.

The busboy working our table approached me and said: "He's on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week, right?" I nodded.

By the time we left the restaurant, others had noticed him, too. The waiter. A few restaurant patrons seated near us. But Jabari was still Jabari, holding the door for his mother as we exited onto 50th Street.

"New York is a great city," I told him.

"Yeah, I like it. I like the people here."

I thought to myself — They are going to like you, too.

Related top list: All-time list of returned LDS missionaries in professional sports

Related top list: High school athletes who have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Related article: Mormon prep basketball phenom Jabari Parker makes the cover of Sports Illustrated

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