More than a year ago, Ken Rogerson received an unusual phone call in his office at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He wasn’t answering as the director of undergraduate studies at Sanford, but rather as the faculty advisor for the Latter-day Saint Student Association.
On the other end was Lola Parker, the mother of highly-touted basketball recruit Jabari Parker, who needed to know: What is it like to be a Mormon at Duke?
The call was not a surprise. One of the Blue Devil assistant coaches had been in touch with Rogerson to inform him that a prospect, who he did not name, might reach out to Rogerson.
Although Rogerson never heard back from the Parker family, Parker committed to Duke in December. At 6-foot-8, the Chicago native is praised mostly for his fluid jump shot and complete offensive repertoire. But the small forward is also a deeply committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so his mother—like any concerned mother of a prospective student might do—reached out to Rogerson.
“Mormons are not very visible on Duke’s campus. We are a very small contingent. We have 10 to 15 undergraduate students at any one time,” Rogerson said. “She wanted to know what we offer here.”
Lola Parker asked Rogerson if an Institute program—a scripture group for young and college-aged adults—or a community for Young Single Adults existed in the area. Rogerson informed her that there are.
Sonny Parker, Jabari’s father who is not Mormon, played six seasons in the NBA and handled his son’s recruitment. He said they had the chance to see the Institute and seminary when they visited Oct. 26-28. They also met with one of the team’s physicians, Blake Boggess, who is an active leader in Durham’s Mormon community.
“[Jabari] says, ‘Basketball is what I do, it’s not who I am,’” Sonny said. “For him to be a good person and treat people like he wants to be treated, he handles it a lot better than the normal kid because since grammar school, we just made sure he’s around the right people that support him.”
A former Blue Devil of the faith
Parker’s comfort with pursuing his faith was a critical factor in his college decision. Among the five finalists for his services was Brigham Young, the Mormon-owned and operated university in Provo, Utah.
Matt Christensen, a 6-foot-11 big man and fellow member of the Mormon Church, went through a similar decision-making process as a hoops prospect before ultimately signing with Duke in 1995.
But as Christensen weighed his options, there was a catch: He had to be able to take a mission, during which a member of the church takes off time from school or work to engage in various church services such as community service and proselytizing. He ultimately did for three years after his freshman season before rejoining the Blue Devils in 1999.
“It was a deal breaker for me,” Christensen said. “I was recruited by some schools that didn’t seem like they would be very supportive and some that practically or explicitly said they didn’t think it was a good idea. For me, those were places that were out of the running.”
Duke, though, was not one of those places, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski was not one of those coaches.
“He was supportive,” Christensen said. “He already knew it was something that I wanted to do before we met for the first time, but he was totally behind it.”
The coaching staff even supported him while he was on his mission in Frankfurt, Germany. Although mission rules at the time prevented Christensen from exchanging emails with the coaches, he said they would write him letters up to four times per week.
When he was playing, they would take steps to accommodate him as well. Although Christensen was far from a star—starting just three games in his Duke career—he said they often would not practice on Sundays so that he could observe the Sabbath.
Like Jabari will likely be, Christensen was involved with the Institute while at Duke. Although he was quite busy as a student—juggling basketball and a double major in civil engineering and economics—he said he often found time to make the meetings, which he described as “fun.”
The Institute meets once per week for an hour and this year holds most of its meetings in a kitchen underneath the Duke Chapel. Han Woong Lee, president of the Latter-day Saint Student Association, hails from South Korea and said his experience with the Institute and LDSSA has allowed him to remain true to his faith, even when it has been tested in college.
Christensen said the same Mormon studies keep him sane in a hectic work environment, as he is now the CEO of Rose Park Advisors, a Boston-based investment firm.
“The vast majority of what I’m doing from one moment to the next is focused on things that are in the eternal scheme of things, not very important,” Christensen said. “The Church gives us the opportunity to serve other people that, left to our own devices, a lot of us wouldn’t be inclined to do. I know that I help other people, but I know that it helps me a lot.”
Will Jabari go on a mission?
The lingering question is whether or not Parker, like Christensen and many other devout Mormons, will go on a mission. And not all missions are the same—Lee, like Christensen, went after his freshman year at Duke but did not go abroad, instead going to New York City for 11 months.
Lola Parker asked Rogerson about how a mission trip and basketball could coincide, though Rogerson felt unqualified to answer that question.
In October, the LDS Church lowered the age limit for men to go on full-time missions from 19 to 18, meaning Parker could go immediately after high school, if he so desired. Although that appears unlikely, taking a mission at some point remains a possibility.
“He doesn’t really know at this point. There’s so much going on. He has to finish up his senior year and he also chose to go to Duke University,” Sonny Parker said. “He’s thought about it, but he hasn’t made a decision…. He is still part of the church. That will never change.”
Although Rogerson has not heard from the Parker family or members of the Duke basketball staff since that one phone call, news travels quickly in the tightly-knit Mormon community.
After Parker’s commitment to the Blue Devils last month, Rogerson received a note from a stranger and BYU alumnus. The alumnus wrote he was happy to hear that there is a good Institute program at Duke and that the Institute had a “profound influence” on his life.
“Take good care of Brother Parker,” the email concluded.