CHICAGO -- The pride of Simeon Career Academy surprised everyone last week with an early return to action.
No, no. Not that guy.
While Derrick Rose sprints, shoots and avoids speculation over his comeback date from knee surgery, Simeon senior forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 recruit in the country, played in his team's season opener last week at the inaugural Chicago Elite Classic. Parker had missed nearly five months with a foot injury suffered in July while playing for Team USA's under-17 team in the FIBA championships in Lithuania.
It was big news as it spread virally early Saturday evening and served as a nice surprise to basketball fans who packed the UIC Pavilion for a day's worth of games.
Think "Daniel Larusso is going to fight" for the Twitter era. You just know Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau grunted a seal of approval for this move.
"I had a second opinion," Parker said to reporters after scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in 10 minutes in his team's 56-35 win over Milton (Ga.) at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion. "They said just take my time. I knew I felt good. The most important thing I had was my faith. God just helped me out. Everything goes to him today."
Foot injuries are no joke. Parker has everything to lose this season, and nothing to gain but Chicago immortality with a four-year sweep of state championships on the line. He has yet to sign with a college, but is deciding between Duke, Michigan State, Brigham Young, Stanford and Florida.
His coach, Rob Smith, kept him on a tight leash, minutes-wise, but you probably won't find many other coaches who would play their best player without a minute of practice. A players' coach indeed.
"He wanted to play," Smith said. "He was adamant about playing. He called his mother and father five or six times today to see if he could play. They finally gave in around 5:30 and said it's his decision, his future. They understand that, which is great. They let him do the things he wants to do because this is his future. I think he did well."
Parker, who said that he was 20 pounds overweight and had some ankle soreness after the game, wasn't even the best Mormon, or Brigham Young recruit, at the gym Friday. The Lone Peak (Utah) team, with three BYU recruits, put on a team-first show that was the talk of the tournament. Smith said Lone Peak would've beat his team that night, but "in a month or so, I don't think they'd beat us."
The best Chicago player at the tournament wasn't Parker. And that's a fun storyline to follow all season.
Simeon was the finale of the daylong basketball fest, but in the penultimate game, Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor showed why he could be the best player in the city. Okafor, a junior, is already the No. 2 player in the class of 2014, according to ESPN, and was the MVP of the FIBA U17 World Championship.
Okafor had 34 points and 9 rebounds playing all but 40 seconds in a 72-58 win over nationally ranked DeMatha (Md.). Listed at 6-10, 280 pounds by the USA Basketball website, Okafor is a load, but he can dribble and has legitimate post moves and impressive footwork. He doesn't have Parker's fluidity, but he's a center. A real center. Perhaps the top post prospect in the country.
An admiring Smith said Okafor is "a dominating player. We haven't had a dominating player like that in Chicago for a while."
I told Okafor that Smith said that and he nodded his head.
"Definitely, I have to try and be consistent," he said. "Not scoring as many points as I did tonight, but being a vocal leader, helping my team out on defense and rebounding. I'm definitely going to try and be that dominant every night."
"This is his basketball team," Young coach Tyrone Slaughter said. "We just happen to be a part of it."
Okafor and Parker are good friends and the younger player said Parker has been helpful as he navigates fame and attention from college coaches.
Unlike Parker, who has had a constantly updated list for the past three years, Okafor said he has no favorites right now. National powers are hawking him, and he has taken a slew of unofficial visits, but he also had good things to say about DePaul and Illinois, the latter which just signed two Simeon guards, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate.
"I love the new coach," he said. "I talk to Kendrick and Jaylon and they haven't said anything but positive things. I'm really looking at Illinois. I like them."
The "new coach," John Groce, sat courtside for both the Young and Simeon games in his orange jacket. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was closer to midcourt, near DePaul coach Oliver Purnell.
What's next is the biggest question about these two players, but the one that will be interesting to debate in Chicago this season is: Who is better? It's a good problem for city basketball fans.
"Jabari is a senior, so I'll give it to Jabari," Okafor said. "My coach says it was me, but he's my coach. He's always going to have my back. But I think you have to give it to Jabari."
Right now, though, it's Okafor. And some press row wags weren't so sure that would change.
It's tough to really gauge because they play different positions. But I'm willing to watch more games to decide. Like Jan. 26 at Loyola's Gentile Center, when the two teams meet up for a city grudge match. Simeon beat Young in the sectional semifinal en route to the state title. The two teams are close, from AAU basketball and such, so the rivalry is muted.
Okafor said this team is much better than last season's, even with the loss of big man Tommy Hamilton Jr., who transferred to the IMG Academy in Florida.
"No comparison," he said. "This year, we're just a unit."
Simeon is once again loaded, as students flock to the program. Smith thinks his team can play 13 in a rotation. In late August, Leo principal Dan McGrath accused Simeon of recruiting two Leo players. Smith denied it. Young and Slaughter have dealt with similar complaints. That's Chicago basketball.
Smith and Slaughter co-hosted the Elite Classic. After it was over, Smith said the rivalry was back on. Slaughter shot back an expletive as they both laughed.
"We want the same things they want," Slaughter said. "We want to be state champions, they want to be state champions. At the end of the day, they have three straight state championships and we can't boast that. Our challenge is to get the next one."
It's silly to say this is a golden era for Chicago basketball, because this city has produced scores and scores of college starters and NBA stars. But it's difficult to pinpoint the last time there have been two such dominant players ranked this high who are so darn nice.
Welcome to the Derrick Rose generation.
"I think that's what ultimately makes them the best players in the country," Slaughter said. "It's easy to be the best kid and be kind of a jerk. But it's dramatically different to be the best kid and be a good person. These kids are good kids and that's why it's so good to coach them and be around them. It's why people like them."
I wonder about the attention. For years and years, Simeon players were barely allowed to speak to reporters, a silly rule. Now, seemingly every outlet in town has an exclusive season-long coverage plan with the Wolverines. Parker and Okafor did a publicity tour before the games. Smith sees it as adapting to the times.
Parker has more than 27,000 Twitter followers. Okafor has more than 11,000. Nunn has more than 4,000.
"If I would've let the kids talk to the media [when Rose played] there would've been so much attention, it would've been crazy," Smith said. "This is just new. The times are different. We have to make sure we let these kids get the exposure they need to get. These guys are going to Division I schools and they need to be in front of the microphones."
Parker has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He has talked to Katie Couric. Some BYU students made a viral "Gangnam Style" video to recruit him. But his appearance last Friday shows where Parker's head is at. It's one thing for Smith and Parker's father, Sonny, to talk about how humble and team-oriented the young star is, it's another to show it.
"I have a balance," he said. "I'm not really into the college recruiting. I'll let that handle itself. When I'm on the court, when I'm with the guys, I have my focus mainly on high school basketball."
That's bad news for everyone else, except perhaps Okafor. It's always good to have a friendly rival.
"They both see their lives on a parallel course," Slaughter said. "Where that ends up, nobody knows. But I have a good suspicion it's going to end up very well."