In the pool of high school players considered strong enough to make it to the NBA, 17-year-old Jabari Parker is a big fish.
Jabari is a standout, and not just for his size – he’s 6-foot-9 and weighs 220 pounds – or his 3.7 high school GPA. What also makes him unique is that he’s an African-American Mormon.
Of the 6.2 million Mormons in America, only 3 percent are African-American.
And for Jabari Parker, it’s his faith that defines him, not the promise of basketball superstardom that seems almost certain to be in his future.
People don’t equate Mormonism with him, Jabari told ABC News’ Katie Couric during a recent interview at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Manhattan.
“Once they think of Mormonism, they will look at a white guy. But it’s worldwide,” Jabari, a student at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, said.
Couric also asked Jabari what he thought about his growing celebrity. He’s featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine’s May 21 issue. The magazine calls him the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.
“I’ve always dreamed of being on the front magazine cover all my life,” he said.
For Jabari, that talent is in the genes. His father, Sonny, played for the Golden State Warriors in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The youngest of Sonny and Lola Parker’s four children, Jabari inherited his father’s passion for the game, and led Simeon Career Academy to three state championships.
Lola Parker said she first recognized her son’s special talent early on. “He was seven. I would take him to practice. The kids were two … some of them were three years older. His skill level, he could beat all of them on the court,” she said.
As Jabari grew, so did his abilities on the basketball court. Not surprisingly, college coaches – from the top programs – soon came calling.
“I’m looking at almost every school right now,” Jabari said. “And it’s [an] evaluation period for me as well. They’re not just looking at me, I’m looking at them.”
And he plans to be picky.
“Well, you have to be,” he said. “You have to be selfish for yourself. Because this is the biggest decision of your life.”
And, of course, a future with NBA beckons.
If Jabari does end up in the NBA, he would be the first African-American Mormon drafted into the league.
But he’ll have a big decision to make that could delay any potential NBA career.
When Mormons are 19, they’re expected to go on a two-year mission for the church. For Jabari, that would be right around the time he would be eligible to enter the NBA draft and sign a potentially huge contract.
The mission is voluntary. Steve Young and Danny Ainge, both Mormons, elected to forgo a mission and went on to have successful professional sporting careers — Ainge in the NBA and Young in the NFL.
His parents don’t know what Jabari will do.
“That’ll be his choice to make, but we’ve encouraged him to, you know, be a good person. And that’s all we can hope for,” his mother said.
Jeff Benedict, who wrote the profile of Jabari for Sports Illustrated, told Couric that the teen might feel some pressure.
“It’s not that the church puts pressure on you to do it, it’s just that there’s an expectation that young men in the Mormon church should go,” Benedict, who is a Mormon, told Couric. “And all boys in the Mormon church grow up knowing that, and certainly he feels that and so there’s a bit of a pull.”