SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe it was a recruiting pitch from the 1990s that brought Jabari Parker to Duke.
It worked once, didn't it?
Sixteen years ago, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was recruiting Chris Burgess, a 6-foot-10 LDS ballplayer who was one of the top prep basketball players in America. Burgess was wrapping up a brilliant prep career in Southern California, and BYU and Duke were on his list of finalists. Cougar coach Roger Reid had made it clear to the young star that he felt BYU was the place for him.
Still, Krzyzweski had a ready answer for the Mormon thing.
"He told me, 'I know BYU also wants you,'" Burgess said on Thursday, via telephone from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. "He said, 'I'm Catholic, but I never felt I had to go to Notre Dame. You shouldn't expect everyone to go to their religion's team. I don't feel like I need to coach at Notre Dame.' "
Krzyzewski also pointed out that Duke had historical ties to the Methodist church, but that didn't stop him from coaching there. Burgess went on to play sparingly for two years at Duke before transferring to Utah.
Burgess, who now plays professionally in the United Arab Emirates, knows a bit about Parker's decision. He was The Sporting News national player of the year in 1997, and a first-team McDonald's, Parade and USA Today all-America selection.
Where Burgess crashed head-on into controversy was after choosing the Blue Devils. He told Salt Lake radio host Craig Bolerjack that Reid had said he had "let down" nine million LDS Church members by not choosing BYU. Reid later said he wasn't implying Burgess had betrayed the Church; only that the decision would disappoint BYU's fan base.
Still, the remark stirred up a storm. Reid was fired shortly after and BYU finished 1-25, the worst record in school history. Many believe Reid's comment was a tipping factor in his dismissal.
"I loved being recruited by Roger. It was just a matter that I wanted to play at Duke," Burgess said on Thursday.
Now a Bountiful resident when not playing basketball, Burgess said he "didn't grow up in Utah, didn't understand the magnitude of athletics, what they mean to the state" when he was recruited. Even now, he said, people in his Abu Dhabi LDS ward recognize him.
"They say, 'Don't tell me — you're the BYU/Roger Reid guy,'" he said.
He added that as a 17-year-old, he had no real idea what 9 million was, so when he repeated Reid's comment, he was mostly thinking of his LDS ward members and family members being disappointed, not an entire church.
"Thank goodness there wasn't a social media back then," he said. "If I could do it again, I'd never have done that interview with Bolerjack."
As important as Burgess was as a recruit, his college career never took off. A series of injuries kept him from playing steadily. He never did play a road game at the Marriott Center. He came close to retiring from the game until his future wife and his LDS bishop at the U. convinced him to continue beyond college. He has since played in Korea, Australia, Turkey, Poland, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, the Ukraine and the UAE.
Parker is hardly the first top LDS athlete to choose somewhere besides BYU.
Stanley Havili (USC), Haloti Ngata (Oregon) and Manti Teo (Notre Dame) were football stars to choose other schools, as were eventual NBA players Mark Pope (Washington, Kentucky) and Mark Madsen (Stanford).26 comments on this story
Before knowing Parker's choice, Burgess said, "I don't envy the kid. There's so much pressure — right or wrong — because he's LDS, to represent Brigham Young. At the same time, the way I read this kid, it's not just a rash decision. I think he's prayed about it and his family has fasted about it and whatever he did, he didn't do just because Duke is Duke."
Burgess said he wanted to see Parker play at BYU — or Duke — but that sometimes spiritual direction dictates that LDS athletes go elsewhere.
"You have to respect it," he said. "I do think the answer could be Duke. Even though it didn't work out and I transferred (from Duke), I felt like that was my answer, and I feel I did the right thing. At Duke and Michigan State, he (could) still do a lot of good. BYU fans want to see him go to BYU, Duke fans want him to go to Duke. That's why it's really, really interesting."