CHICAGO — Outside the United Center, on the side nearest the corner of Madison and Wood, the statue hangs over an empty sidewalk, like a gathering storm on the west side of Chicago.
Michael Jordan, bronzed in his iconic Jumpman pose, is stretching to the south.
Duke freshman Jabari Parker went to high school 12 miles from here, growing up in the shadow of an NBA dynasty. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins had to settle for the nickname of “Maple Jordan,” Canada’s great basketball hope.
This is the setting for tonight’s long-awaited clash in the Champions Classic, where Wiggins and No. 5 Kansas will face Parker and No. 4 Duke, a blue-blood heavyweight battle featuring coaches with NCAA titles and dueling freshman stars.
“When you coach, you want to be able to coach against the best players,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And you also want to coach against the best coaches. And we have an opportunity to do both of those.”
No, the third installment of the Champions Classic certainly won’t be lacking star-power or story lines. Wiggins and Parker. Self and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Kansas and Duke.
ESPN slated Kansas and Duke for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff in prime time, relegating No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, the opening game of the doubleheader, to undercard status. Courtside seats are going for $3,250 apiece on StubHub.com. And, of course, Kansas and Duke both feature 6-foot-8 freshmen who have played in one college game — and each appeared on one cover of Sports Illustrated.
“As a kid,” said KU junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, “I watched games like this.”
In the spring of 2012, Parker, a 6-foot-8 forward from Simeon Academy, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as the best high school player since LeBron James. But just five months later, it was Wiggins who had supplanted Parker as the No. 1 overall player in the 2013 recruiting class.
As Self said earlier this week: Our guys know their guys.
That’s another way of saying this: Wiggins and fellow freshman Wayne Selden may still be learning about the pageantry and history of Kansas and Duke, but they know all about Parker and Duke swingman Rodney Hood — two potential first-round picks in next year’s NBA Draft.
“I would say Andrew is thinking about Duke, but he’s also thinking about Jabari and Hood,” Self said. “And I would bet they’re thinking about Kansas, but they’re also thinking about Wiggins and Selden.
“I think there’s probably a lot of that stuff going on, a little of a young personal rivalry. (It) really doesn’t mean much, but it’s natural to think like that.”
So here are a few things about Parker, who could play inside and out against Kansas. He had 22 points and six rebounds in Duke’s season-opening 111-77 victory against Davidson. And Self recruited him plenty hard to Kansas … until Parker told Self he wouldn’t be taking an official visit to Lawrence.
“Jabari Parker is probably about as skilled a 6-8 guy as you’ll ever see — and I mean ever,” Self said. “He’s a Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony-type player.”
That could sound like a motivational ploy for Wiggins, who had 16 points in Kansas’ rather lackluster victory over Louisiana-Monroe on Friday night. But the Jayhawks, 1-0, were also playing without Tharpe, their starting point guard, who served a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned pro-am game last summer in Chicago. The return of Tharpe could smooth out some offensive struggles and facilitate more scoring opportunities for Wiggins.
“At the beginning of the year, he was much more laid back,” Tharpe said of Wiggins. “But he’s starting to understand, he’s gonna have to start doing more. … I feel like everybody is gonna be against him, and we’re on his side. You gotta prove to the world that he is the best player.”
So much attention has been directed toward Wiggins, that it’s been easy to lose sight of Kansas’ growth as a team. The Jayhawks are still moving slowly, Self says, making sure not to skip steps. On Sunday, for instance, Self used part of practice to teach his young players how to properly box out on free throws. This is part of the reason Self can be honest when he says he doesn’t know how his young team will react in the atmosphere of a packed United Center.
“I’d like to think that we know,” Self said. “But we don’t know.”
For the last two years, Kansas has left the Champions Classic with a defeat: A loss to Kentucky in 2011; a late lead squandered against Michigan State last year in Atlanta. Now the Jayhawks take their swing at Duke. Wiggins can face Parker. And two programs with title aspirations meet on the west side of Chicago.
“We’re ridiculously young, and everything’s a new experience for us,” Self said. “But they’re good, and they’ll be a team that has a legitimate shot to win it all. And hopefully we’ll be a team that can be in that conversation also if we continue to get better.”