Behind a lectern that held 10 microphones Thursday inside the gym at Simeon Career Academy, Jabari Parker initially looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
Nearly 300 people came for the made-for-TV news conference announcing where Chicago's best high school basketball player since Derrick Rose will spend the nine months preceding the 2014 NBA draft. OK, technically that isn't true. Fans and media gathered to learn which college basketball program Parker chose after years of high-profile recruiting — even if Chicago spent more time in suspense over Parker's choice than he likely will spend on campus.
Five hats sat on a table representing Duke, Florida, Stanford, BYU and Michigan State. Photographers hogged the front row in position for the money shot. Cameras from ESPNU carried all the drawn-out drama surrounding Parker's decision live, giving it all a very LeBron-ish feel.
When Parker finally appeared around 3:20 p.m. looking very collegiate in a button-up shirt and skinny tie, he stood several anxious minutes without saying a word. Parker had reaffirmed his decision to sign with Duke around 1 p.m. but only shared it with his brother, Christian, until he whispered into the ear of his mom, Lola, entering the court. Nobody else knew as Parker blankly stared straight ahead, waiting for some producer in Bristol, Conn., to signal through an earpiece when he could let the South Side in on the secret. At one point, Parker stepped back from the microphones and took a deep breath. Seldom have Simeon fans seen him so uneasy on this floor.
"When is the commercial over with?'' Parker asked aloud, breaking the silence.
Fittingly, that confirmed this was an advertisement for amateur-sports excess, a regrettable example of lost perspective in a week so many people spoke of regaining it and a missed opportunity for Parker to prove he is as unique as people say. This production betrayed Parker's reputation as an attention-shy teenager who would prefer to call Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski with the good news and call it a night. This was reality TV meets Chicago Public League, good intentions gone bad.
At least when Parker ended the waiting by awkwardly pulling a blue Duke shirt out of a bag, he didn't say, "I'm taking my talents to Tobacco Road.''
The development of Jabari Parker the basketball star and exemplary student-athlete who humbly loves his family and faith makes him one of the easiest athletes to like. We were impressed when Parker vowed to graduate from college and amused when he kidded Duke assistant coach Chris Collins "is not from Chicago — he's from Northbrook.'' The story Lola Parker shared about moving the coffee table during Krzyzewski's home visit Tuesday night so Coach K had enough space to make a point about Jabari's footwork conveyed a youngster as coachable as everybody imagines.
Parker's well-manicured portrait of uncommon character made Thursday's surprising circus at Simeon all the harder to watch. Didn't coaches from Stanford, BYU, Florida and Michigan State deserve better than to learn on live TV that Parker had turned them down? It was even sadder to hear Parker sound like a pawn when asked why he agreed to the show given that he said, "Everybody knows I hate attention.''
"I almost have to,'' Parker said. "It would be selfish for me not to. Me behind closed doors would have been bad for my fans.''
But a more understated, professional announcement that didn't require the go-ahead from an ESPN cameraman would have been truer to who fans have been told Parker is. Lola Parker countered with the only conceivable justification for choreographing The Decision II.
"If he can change one kid to understand your way out is your books, then he has done his job,'' she said.
The idea of Parker hitting the books harder than he hits the boards and matriculating to prestigious Duke indeed potentially casts a powerful image for youths in a city where too many dreams and lives end prematurely. If only Parker's decision were about education. But even Parker acknowledged that he would have chosen Michigan State over Duke if not for the presence of sophomore forward Branden Dawson.
"(Dawson) and I play the same position and it would be kind of a controversy if me and him were on the same floor,'' Parker said. "That was the main reason I didn't pick them.''
Publicly admitting he perhaps made the right choice for a wrong reason reminded everybody Parker is only 17. He might be a year away from being a millionaire but he is still a teenager prone to impulse and unpredictability.
One day in Parker's wonderful future he might look back on this day of suspenseful silliness and laugh. After he cringes.