CHICAGO – On Monday, Lola Parker was thinking this Duke-Kansas matchup in the United Center was just another game.
Then the mayor of Chicago called.
"Tell Jabari, 'Welcome home, true son,' " Rahm Emanuel told Lola.
When she hung up the phone, it dawned on her.
"Oh, this might be a little special," she said with a laugh.
Just a little. Chicago's Jabari Parker and his Duke teammates were home to play Andrew Wiggins and his Kansas teammates, in one of the most anticipated early season matchups in college basketball history. The interest emanated far beyond the mayor's office; it went nationwide and north of the border, to Wiggins' home country of Canada. Everyone wanted to see the players who were Sports Illustrated cover boys before they'd ever played a minute of college basketball.
And in a sporting rarity, the showdown lived up to the towering hype. It might even have soared over it, giving us a glimpse of the sport's promising future.
Parker had 27 points, nine rebounds and most of the gasp-inducing highlights. Wiggins had 22 points, eight rebounds and the last laugh in a 94-83 victory that capped a tremendous Champions Classic doubleheader.
[Photos: Best of Champions Classic]
"It's remarkable that a kid who's 18, in his second game, can come in here in your hometown – and you're playing against Kansas – and he was sensational," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Parker.
"He was the best player in the game for a long time," said Kansas coach Bill Self.
The 6-foot-8 forward, who dropped in the recruiting rankings to the No. 3 senior after an injury-marred senior season of high school, once again resembled the top dog Tuesday. Parker had a first half that should have been accompanied by archangels singing on high, it was so brilliant.
He scored 19 points in 17 minutes, swishing four 3-pointers and finishing an acrobatic drive through traffic. That was enough to have everyone buzzing, including the 58 NBA scouts in the building.
Then early in the second half Parker produced a soaring, one-handed alley-oop dunk that was the spitting image of Duke freshman Grant Hill's tomahawk slam in the 1991 national championship game against none other than Kansas. After that play it seemed wholly appropriate that Parker go pro. Right then and there. There were no worlds left to conquer.
But a funny thing happened on the way to instant Hall of Fame induction. Wiggins, who was the No. 1 recruit in the class and had been completely obscured by Parker's brilliance to that point, mutinied against Self.
He simply started guarding Parker on his own.
"People have made a lot about Andrew's personality, because he's so mild-mannered and non-demonstrative," Self said. "But he is competitive. That dude wanted [to guard Parker]."
Wiggins kept asking his coach for the assignment and Self kept saying no, hoping to keep him out of foul trouble (he missed 11 first-half minutes with two fouls). So Wiggins unilaterally made the decision on the court.
"I didn't put him on Jabari," Self said. "He just went over to guard him, and I think got a piece of his shot. I thought, 'Maybe I should have listened to him.' "
Self was fine with the matchup then, and Wiggins was effective against Parker, who scored just eight points in the second half, sagging late beneath the emotion of the night, the workload of being the primary offensive option and battling the bigger Jayhawks in the paint.
"It's all pride," Wiggins said of wanting the defensive assignment. "You take big pride in what you do."
Wiggins supplied the coup de grace with 87 seconds left, slamming home a run-out layup and drawing the fifth foul from Parker as he rushed to futilely contest. A minute later, when the victory was secure, Wiggins dropped his on-court poker face and laughed with his teammates.
"It was fun," he said. "It was nerve-wracking at first. I was sweating a lot. I was nervous."
That's the reminder of the delicate age of these basketball prodigies. Parker, Wiggins and Kentucky strongman Julius Randle – the No. 2 recruit in the class, who had 27 points and 13 rebounds (and eight turnovers) in the opening game here against Michigan State – all are fresh out of high school.
But they clearly can handle the pressure of being on the big stage.
"These three have a chance to all be special," Self said. "But people are too giddy because of the unknown.
"It's a great freshman class and we're fortunate to have one that's talked about. Jabari lived up to the billing. Andrew lived up to the billing late in the game."
This was a great night for college basketball, a sport that has been under siege in recent years. The talent turnover caused by early entry into the NBA was diminishing the quality of the best teams. Scoring was plummeting. TV ratings were stagnant. The game was pilloried as a puny subset of the product played at the pro level.
But now we have something to excite the common fan, the folks outside Kentucky and Indiana and North Carolina who need to be lured in. And the NBA fans will come back to the game as well, to see these three and many other excellent young players.
The freshman class is one of the best in years, and there are some vaunted veteran teams as well – most notably defending national champion Louisville and No. 2 Michigan State, which beat No. 1 Kentucky in an entertaining opener here.
The game is being gradually – but painfully – cleaned up, as well. Officials are calling it tighter, resulting in some marathon parades to the foul line, but the players will adjust and the product will improve. Skill is making a comeback. Shoving and hacking are endangered defensive strategies.
So this season stands to be a renaissance for beleaguered college basketball. And this night was the grand opening for the nation at large.
"It's a great way to start the season," Krzyzewski said.
After midnight, when Coach K and most of the Blue Devils had gone to the bus, workers were pulling up the basketball floorboards, converting the United Center back into a hockey rink. In the stands, the last few friends and family members of the Duke and Kansas players were lingering.
That's when the future of basketball walked out. In tandem.
Here came Parker. And right with him came Wiggins.
Hands were clasped, hugs exchanged. Lola Parker graciously snapped a picture of Wiggins with a young fan. Wiggins smiled and giggled as he interacted, enjoying the afterglow of a night that will be remembered as the international launching pad for three transcendent talents.
They are linked. In the 2013-14 college season, the 2014 NBA draft and beyond. Perhaps for decades to come.
So yes, Lola Parker. It was a little special here Tuesday night.
- Sports & Recreation
- Jabari Parker
- Andrew Wiggins
- college basketball