Related top list: All-time list of returned LDS missionaries in professional sports
Sports Illustrated rarely produces a cover story on a high school athlete, but when it comes to 17-year-old prep basketball sensation Jabari Parker, the venerable national publication couldn't resist.
Parker, a high school junior, graces the cover of this week's issue. For SI, the allure isn't simply the fact he is the reigning National High School Player of the Year and would likely be a lottery pick in this June's NBA Draft if he were eligible.
A native of Chicago, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Parker is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and along with leading Simeon High to three consecutive state championships and carrying an impressive 3.7 grade point average, he wakes up early three days a week for LDS seminary, carries a copy of The Book of Mormon in his backpack, and is considering serving a two-year LDS mission after his freshman year of college.
"Basketball is what I do," Parker told SI. "It's not who I am."
Sports Illustrated devoted six pages to Parker's story, which describes him as "the best high school basketball player since LeBron James, but there's something more important to him than instant NBA stardom: his faith."
The article, written by LDS journalist and frequent SI contributor Jeff Benedict, chronicles Parker's background, and explains the role Parker's membership in the LDS Church plays in his life.
The first time Parker dunked a basketball was at his LDS church gym in Hyde Park; after Simeon High claimed the state title in 2011, Parker left his team's celebration in Peoria early so he could be at church the following day to be ordained a priest; and Simeon's coach schedules Sunday practices in the afternoon so Jabari can attend LDS worship services in the morning.
"For us, with this story, it's a lot more than basketball," said B.J. Schecter, executive editor at Sports Illustrated. "We are attracted to this particular story because of how unique of a kid Jabari is. A lot of people preach that they're into their faith and that it's a huge part of their lives. Jabari actually practices that. We found in looking into this story that his faith and his Mormon religion is more important to him than basketball in a lot of ways. How he carries himself in the fact that he can excel in two distinct areas where few people can balance is really extraordinary. The fact that he is so good, yet so humble, only makes you want to know more about the kid. With Jabari, his actions are what do the talking, not him. In today's modern athlete, that makes him really unique."
Benedict approached Schecter last December with the idea of profiling Parker, and subsequently traveled to the South Side of Chicago to spend a weekend with the Parker family.
"The purpose of that trip was to find out what the story might be like," Benedict said. "There wasn't a guarantee that we'd even do it at that point. I came back and my editor and I met with the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated and I pitched the idea. He loved it."
That Benedict is a member of the LDS Church facilitated the story's production.
"I understand the religion and the Mormon religion has been a defining influence in Jabari's life," Benedict said. "That was a bonus in terms of me doing the story. The magazine liked that idea as well … There have been plenty of stories written about the Mormon faith that haven't been completely accurate. In my case, there's no excuse to write a story that doesn't have complete accuracy with respect to the faith."
As he worked on the article, Benedict made multiple trips to Chicago, covered the state tournament, and followed Parker everywhere — including restaurants, hotels, school, and the barbershop. But Benedict made a conscious decision not to attend church with Parker.
"If I wasn't a member of the Church, I absolutely would have done that," he explained. "But for me to go to church with him, it's like, what am I going to see that I don't know? What I needed to see was everything else."
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice, who works special assignments for SI, was charged with telling Parker's story visually.
"Because of the kind of story this is, we didn't need someone to take great basketball pictures," Benedict said. "We needed someone who could take pictures of Jabari and his family that could really capture what this kid's about. In my opinion, there's nobody better than her of doing that. She went out to Chicago and spent a weekend with Jabari, went to church with him, and photographed everything. Her pictures line up nicely with my words. Deanne was a critical part of the team that worked on this story."
Interestingly, the last time a high school athlete was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it was another member of the LDS Church, prep baseball superstar Bryce Harper, in 2009. Harper, who ended up being the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2010, made his Major League Baseball debut late last month. Before Harper, the most recent high school athlete to land on the cover was Sebastian Telfair in 2004.
Not all high school athletes that have graced the cover of SI, however, meet the lofty expectations heaped upon them.
Being an SI coverboy is accompanied by plenty of pressure, especially for a high school kid. But Schecter is confident that Parker — who, as of Tuesday afternoon, still didn't know he was going to be on the cover — can manage that pressure.
"I think he can because he's not going to take himself too seriously," Schecter said. "I can guess that his first reaction (to being on the cover) will be surprise, then he'll be uncomfortable with it. It's a lot of attention and a lot of people are going to see it. But I think over time he'll see it as a responsibility, as in, 'I'm on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old high school junior for a reason.' He has the opportunity to use this tremendous platform that he's been able to build for himself for good, and not for his own personal gain. I truly believe he's going to do that.
"With high school kids in general, there's a tremendous reluctance to put too much pressure on them and put them on the cover," Schecter continued. "That's why we rarely do that. But with him, there wasn't as much reluctance, because if anybody can handle it, it's him. You spend five minutes talking to this kid and you know he's for real. The reason why you don't read about him very much is he's very reluctant to do interviews and attract attention to himself. He'd much rather deflect it on everybody else and blend in. Yet as soon as he steps between those lines (on the basketball court), he's driven. He wants to beat you in any way he can. This switch kind of flips. Which is nice, because so many people can't turn it off."
Parker's story is compelling on many fronts. The son of an African-American father and a Polynesian mother, Jabari was taught to be humble, respectful and service-oriented from a young age. While Jabari's mom, Lola, is a member of the LDS Church, his dad, Sonny, who enjoyed a successful NBA career, is not. Jabari and his older brother, Christian, often found refuge at the LDS church, a place where they could avoid trouble, practice their religion, and hone their basketball abilities.
Initially, the Parker family was hesitant to tell its story to such a wide audience, Schecter said.
"It's the type of story that we want to handle delicately, because we don't want to come in and be ultra aggressive. We want to make them feel comfortable and realize that we're going to handle their story with tremendous care. Pairing Jeff Benedict, who is Mormon, with this story is a major reason why we were able to get the access and the interviews that we got. He's done these types of stories before where they're sensitive. With a very short amount of time, it's very important for the subjects to trust the writer. Jeff is someone who you talk to for 10 minutes and you feel like you've known him all of your life. That was really important and they felt comfortable from the get-go. We wanted to do the definitive story on Jabari and his family."
Jabari is being recruited by all the nation's top basketball programs, and BYU is among those courting him. He is expected to announce this fall which college he will attend.
"But an even bigger decision awaits in the spring of 2014: whether to declare for the NBA draft and become the first African-American Mormon in the league or to serve as a missionary and walk away from basketball for two years," Benedict wrote, adding that it's "a life-altering decision … that few other athletes of his caliber have had to face."
Benedict's impressions of Jabari?
"The thing that stood out to me is how humble he is. It's the kind of thing you can't fake," he said. "He truly is the most humble teenager I've ever met. And he's gentle. That's another thing I admire about him. He's a gentle giant. He's one of the most gentle people you'll ever meet. Being gentle yet tough in the game is a unique combination. I really like that he doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve. He just quietly lives it. That's really important when you live in a place like he does, where there are so few members of your faith. It's important to go about your business and live your religion very quietly. People know what he's about. He doesn't need to say anything. I like that about him."
At a time when Mormonism is drawing so much attention nationally, in large part due to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, SI's story on Jabari Parker could also serve to educate the public about aspects of the LDS Church and clear up some misconceptions about the faith.
"The way I like to approach these stories is, I'm a reader first. I'm inquisitive by nature," Schecter said. "I've been friends with Jeff for a long time. We've frequently had long talks where I ask him 50 questions about Mormonism because I'm interested in it. I think our readers are too, if presented in the right way. The way to present it is informational. It's not preachy. This is who Mormons are, the slice of American religion that they represent. In that context, this story is interesting and informative. It also helps accentuate how rare of a gem Jabari is. He's a black kid from inner city Chicago, he's a Mormon — one of only two in his school — and is so devout. That just makes him that much more unique in a unique religion."
Related top list: All-time list of returned LDS missionaries in professional sports
Read more about Jabari Parker and see more photos at www.jeffbenedict.com/.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company