Jabari Parker finds a new home
Jack White / Chronicle File Photo
He came to Duke because he wanted to be part of a culture where basketball was celebrated.
"The people here at Cameron just helps us keep moving," Parker said. "It's something very important to me because I never came from something so important, so big, because in high school a lot of our home fans didn't want to see us succeed."
The Chicago native is no stranger to winning championships, guiding his team at Simeon Career Academy to an unprecedented four straight Illinois state championships during his high school career. If the Blue Devils are the ones cutting down the nets in Dallas in three weeks, the only difference for Parker will be the size and shape of the championship trophy he hoists.
Winning four state championships and having one of the top college prospects in the country was not enough to drum up major support for the Simeon program. Having a supportive campus culture was one of the main things that led Parker to commit to Duke 14 months ago, but it wasn't until the freshman first arrived on campus that he truly understood what that meant.
"It was just a selective few that was always supportive of my high school. In all reality, they didn't want to see us achieve," Parker said. "When I'm here I see all the love and support. It's more than just one person—it's about the whole program."
Parker didn't waste any time getting the loyal Duke fan base in his corner. He electrified the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium in his first collegiate game, scoring 22 points in just 23 minutes on 8-of-10 shooting in a blowout win against Davidson.
Seemingly unstoppable through the end of nonconference play, Parker fell back down to earth hard when he played his first ACC games. Rims seemed to become more hostile along with road environments as Parker's efficiency dipped well below the superhuman level Duke fans had become accustomed to seeing.
He responded by altering his game. Instead of opting for deep 3-pointers, Parker attacked the basket with the confidence of a senior and once again began to overpower his opponents.
"He's way more aggressive," said redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood, who alongside Parker has been a primary offensive option for Duke this season. "At the beginning of the year he was hitting all jumpers, and now he's going at people and going in strong. I think he's a bull down low, and he's maturing. His growth has helped our team."
Hood said that the freshman got his season back on track in a Jan. 18 blowout win against N.C. State. Parker scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds and three steals in just 26 minutes after failing to top 15 points in each of his first four ACC contests.
"He was taking it to the rack, he was talking to himself—he was into it," Hood said. "That's when I knew that from here on out, he's going to be there."
To Parker, that added maturity came from experiences off the court as well as on it. Parker said that being around high-caliber students in the classroom has helped him become more of a "student of the game," and that his experiences at Duke have aided his personal growth.
"It just made me think more important, outside of basketball, how great the community is and just focusing on everybody, treating everybody with respect," Parker said. "It's more than just one culture, it's more than just one race. There's so many people out here at Duke, so much diversity. You just learn how to cherish those bonds and relationships."
Academically, Parker may still be a freshman. Whatever you do, don't call him that on the court.
The Duke forward has made an effort to distance himself from his first-year moniker as his team approaches the NCAA tournament.
"I've just left it behind," he said.
After playing a full 34 games and one of the ACC's most grueling conference schedules in history, it is not unfair to say that Parker's experience now expands beyond that of a rookie. When the Blue Devils made a run to the ACC tournament championship game, Parker was often the most vocal Duke player on the floor.
"It's really a delight to watch him grow over the season," sophomore forward Amile Jefferson said. "He opens up the floor for his teammates, and he's really just a great person. So it's been a lot of fun playing with him."
As he moves forward into his first NCAA tournament and potentially his final games in a Duke uniform, Parker fields countless questions about the legacy he will leave with the Blue Devils. Despite the most successful season by any freshman in Duke history, Parker will not see his No. 1 jersey raised to the rafters anytime soon, regardless of the arguments that can be made for it. That honor is only reserved for Blue Devils who graduate.
He knows the way he can be remembered at Duke.
"The only way you can leave a legacy—you can leave behind memories—is winning a championship," he said.
Regardless of whether his collegiate career lasts another three weeks or another three years, Parker is approaching the Big Dance as though any game could be his grand finale.
"Every game is the last," he said. "Win or lose, you have to play that way."