CHICAGO - It took him a few awkward moments to grab the T-shirt out of a bag before Jabari Parker finally got some help with it and revealed
to the world his college choice on Thursday afternoon at Simeon Career Academy.
Parker smiled wide and held up a Duke T-shirt, as most in the crowded gym cheered and at least a couple of people muttered loudly enough to hear, "Oh, man …"
And just like that, a long, strange recruiting journey achieved some finality.
Parker, a 6-foot-8 forward, ranked the No. 3 player in the country, was all smiles for Duke on Thursday and didn't seem torn about it at all - even though he said his decision wasn't finalized until 1 p.m. earlier in the afternoon.
So, the question for the Michigan State Spartans becomes: "Now what?"
Well, it's not the end of the world necessarily - despite what some Mayan calendar might or might not say. Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo will pick up the pieces after expending much time and effort into Parker and just move ahead.
The Spartans do have one scholarship spot open for this class, which was saved for Parker.
Izzo said after practice on Thursday, a few hours before Parker's announcement, that Michigan State planned to sign one player this year, regardless of Parker's decision. No names have surfaced as Plan A targets just yet, but MSU has scouted Gavin Schilling, a skilled 6-foot-9 power forward at Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep.
Michigan State also has quite a bit of young talent already in uniform and the class of 2014 offers some major talent in the Midwest who have voiced initial interest in MSU, including Chicago Whitney
Young's 6-foot-10, 280-pound center Jahlil Okafor (ranked No.1 in
Rivals 150 for 2014), Apple Valley, Minn., point guard Tyus Jones
(ranked third) and Chicago Curie's 6-9, 240-pound forward Cliff
Alexander (ranked fourth).
Chicago AAU coach Mike Irvin, who runs the
powerhouse Mac Irvin Fire program that Parker and Okafor play for in the summer, thinks Thursday's events shouldn't hinder MSU's efforts with either of the above-notes Chicago prospects.
"I definitely expect them to make a pretty strong push (for Okafor and Alexander)," said Irvin, who doesn't coach Alexander but knows him personally. "Coach Izzo's been in here with those guys from day one,
too … just like he was with Jabari. Those guys, Cliff and Jahlil, they like Michigan State too - and with Izzo, he's going to win some and lose some. But he's always going to win more than he loses."
The question is when will he win some big recruiting battles, in regards to Chicago's city limits?
Parker is undoubtedly going to start recruiting Okafor and/or Alexander for Duke now that he's committed verbally, so the thinking is that Parker's decision might begin to undermine more of Izzo's ground game with the other touted prospects in the Windy City. Irvin doesn't necessarily see it that way.
"Now it's a little trickier, but everybody makes their own decisions," Irvin said. "I don't think Jabari going one way or the other affects Cliff's decision or Jahlil's decision."
Irvin's advice to Izzo and the MSU coaches is simple. Keep chopping wood, basically.
"He's got to land one of those staple guys (from Chicago)," Irvin said. "And I hope he does, because Michigan State is a great school and it's not too far from Chicago. Tom Izzo … you can (become) a pro
(at MSU). So, I hope he gets one of these guys."
Does he think that Izzo will, though?
"I think eventually he's going to get one, as long as he keeps knocking and knocking on the door," Irvin said.
He then cited the Blue Devils program, of all teams, as one that went through a similar process before landing Chicago's top kids. Duke did land Illinois Mr. Basketball Chris Collins in 1992, but he was from a
suburban school, Glenbrook North.
Duke then lost out on 1994 Illinois Mr. Basketball Jarrod Gee to the home state Illini before landing All-American forward Corey Maggette
of Chicago Fenwick in 1998 and then Julian point guard Sean Dockery in 2001. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski also got a signature on a letter-of-intent out of Peoria Central's 2004 Illinois Mr. Basketball, Shaun Livingston, before he went straight to the NBA - and struck gold again at Glenbrook North with 2006 Illinois Mr. Basketball Jon Scheyer.
Izzo landed 2003 Illinois Mr. Basketball Shannon Brown, of Proviso East, so it's not like he was new to the Chicago scene before picking up Parker's trail four years ago. Still, to crack into Chicago's city
limits, it's going to take even more leg work and more determination.
Irvin doesn't anticipate that being a problem, though.
"He's not an easy guy to let down, just because he's been there and been there and been there," Irvin said of Izzo's recruitment of Parker and other Chicago standout prospects. "He's done a great job through
the whole recruiting process."
There is also another prospect, much more under-the-radar, who plays for Irvin and might rocket up the recruiting ranks shortly. That would be 6-6 junior swing player Josh Cunningham of Chicago's Morgan Park High, who is currently a 3-star small forward in the Rivals system.
He started playing basketball a little more than three years ago, so he's raw. The talent, however, is there according to Irvin. Michigan State is one of a handful of power conference schools to check Cunningham out - joining the likes of Illinois, Michigan, DePaul and Oklahoma to name a few.
"He is a sleeper in that class," Irvin said. "I think he's going to end up a Top 25 player by the summer. He's 6-6-1/2 or 6-7 … long and athletic. He shoots the jumper pretty well, too. He plays the three, but he's interchangeable and can guard the one through four (positions). So, there's a kid who I think is going to jump up the national rankings."
One of the biggest reasons he feels that way is what should make Izzo's eyebrows raise a little.
"He's going to make some college coach real happy, because defensively he might be the best defender in the country for his grade," Irvin said. "He's not like a Jahlil or a Jabari, a known commodity, because
he just started playing 3-1/2 years ago. He's been coming through the program and we've just been keeping our eye on him. He's a great kid and has a GPA that's over three. He's going to have options, because
everybody is like, 'Man, who is this kid?'"
Hedger's Take On Parker
After Parker first mentioned that one of his reasons for not choosing Michigan State was because of a potential position conflict with current Spartan sophomore forward Branden Dawson, I asked him
just how big that played in the ultimate decision.
I was actually pretty stunned to hear his answer, which was, "I think it was the main reason why I didn't pick them today."
Wait, what? The main reason?
Something just didn't seem right about that statement, which wasn't made in front of live TV cameras but was made in front of many reporters with Parker standing behind a podium with a bank of microphones on it.
What I can say is that from my vantage point, about 10 feet away, he seemed very sincere about it - and went on to say that Dawson is a friend of his from nearby Gary, Ind., and he didn't want to have any potential playing time conflicts with him. That was his story and he stuck to it - and I didn't really want to continue pressing him about it in front of a big room full of reporters on the day he picked Duke.
Just suffice it to say that he said it once, was given another chance to downplay it and reaffirmed it even stronger the second time.
Closure on Parker
A sampling of other Parker comments during his Q&A time with reporters:
His thought on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: "That's one of the best coaches ever and I wanted to be able to experience the things that he has to offer."
On maybe going pro after one year at Duke: "I'll just go off how I do. You never know. I might play in college two or three years. It doesn't matter to me. I just want the college experience. It's worth it to get
my degree and I want to go to school. That's important."
On difficulty of turning down Michigan State/Tom Izzo: "He's been recruiting me since before high school and has been to a lot games, but a lot of things went into it … like. 'How will I be used?' Branden
Dawson, me and him play the same position, and it'd kind of be a controversy if me and him were on the same floor running into each other."
Duke visit: "To tell you the truth, that was probably the worst on-campus visit I had. That's just because I knew what I wanted, and that was to be a kid. They just wanted to tell me everything about
being in college and the college experience. It was all business."
On Chris Collins' Chicago-area roots possibly playing into it: "Oh no … he's not from Chicago. He's from Northbrook."
On MSU: "I wanted to go there since my sophomore year. Me and coach Izzo have been having a good relationship"
On Florida making a late push: "Oh no, they didn't have a late push. I always liked Coach Donovan. He was probably one of my two favorite coaches throughout the whole process."
On whether/when he will take a Mormon mission: "That's undecided right now."
More on Dawson: "I think it was the main reason why I didn't pick them today. I don't want to mess up his thing. Me coming in there would be kind of disrespectful. I just want him to do well. He's a local kid
from the area … from Gary, Ind., and me coming in at the last minute would kind of ruin everything."
On why he agreed to making the announcement on ESPNU when he prefers to be very low key and not grab attention off the court: "It wasn't a choice for
me. A lot of people wanted to know (my choice) and it would be difficult for me not to (do it this way). With all my fans, there's a lot of people who wanted to find out."