Jeff Benedict: SI writer sheds light on Jabari Parker's Mormon faith and bond with Coach K in a Deseret News Exclusive

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19 2014 10:05 a.m. MST

Read the Sports Illustrated cover story: The education of Jabari Parker

During his junior year at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, Jabari Parker received his first letter from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Every few months he got another. Each contained praise, encouragement and promises. Each was handwritten. “It’s my way of telling him, ‘This is me. I am doing this,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “And you can count on what I say. When you sign your name it means more. It takes giving your word to a different level.”

Parker saved the letters in a shoebox. He still has them. They represent just one of many unique things Krzyzewski did to recruit him. Coach K also sent handwritten letters to Jabari’s parents Sonny and Lola. He made a point to teach Jabari some technical aspect of the game every time he visited the Parker home. He even went out of his way to compliment Parker’s commitment to his faith, and promised to make it easy for him to actively participate in Mormonism at Duke.

In December 2012, Parker announced on national television that he’d be attending Duke. It helped that Duke is a perennial national title contender. But Coach K is a master recruiter because he understands people and he’s genuine. Still, the truth is that he didn’t have to work that hard to land Parker. Parker had his heart set on playing for Coach K even before the first recruiting letter arrived.

As a young teen Parker kept quotes from UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden in his backpack. He read stories about The Wizard of Westwood and the way he melded lessons about life with the game of basketball. “I wondered what it would be like to play for him,” Parker said.

Wooden passed away after Parker’s freshman year. By then his dream was to play for Coach K — the greatest coach of the modern era. In 2011, Krzyzewski surpassed his mentor Bobby Knight for the most coaching victories in college basketball history with over 900. He’s led Duke to 11 Final Fours and four national championships. In the summers he coaches the greatest players in the world — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony — on the USA basketball team.

“I consider it a blessing and a great privilege to play for Coach K and learn from him,” Parker said. “The basketball tradition at Duke is very rich.”

In many respects, Parker’s union with Krzyzewski has the makings of a Hollywood script. In route to NBA stardom, the kid that Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James” goes off to be tutored by a legendary coach at a school with gothic archways, stone buildings and perfectly manicured gardens.

Even before the regular season started, Coach K took Parker and his team to West Point to learn about discipline and precision; to the 9/11 Memorial to remember the importance of loyalty and patriotism; to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and to a Broadway performance of “Motown” to enrich culture; and to New York City’s famous Rucker Park to play on the same court where greats Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J” Erving once played.

I’ve had a first-hand look at how the story has played out from there. Last summer Coach Krzyzewski agreed to let me follow him and Parker through Parker’s freshman year. Over the past six months I’ve spent a lot of time in Durham. I’ve also followed the team on the road. But mainly I’ve observed and interviewed Krzyzewski and Parker. This week in Sports Illustrated I tell their story.

Jabari and I were quite close before I started this project. We became fast friends when I profiled him at age 17 for Sports Illustrated. One of the things we share in common is our religion. More important, we share the same approach to it.

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