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"Diana was so raw," says Parker. "She'd make moves you didn't think she could make. And I loved the air she had about her. Not cocky, but confident, in her game and in her team. Her team was like her personality. I'd like to have that effect someday."
Parker already has confidence; she has been playing organized basketball since she was six, learning the game from her father, Larry, and her mother, Sara (now separated), and older brothers Anthony and Marcus. Larry was a small forward at Iowa in the mid-'70s under Lute Olson. Sara was an assistant coach on some of Candace's AAU teams and would help her break down film. Anthony, 30, was a standout shooting guard at Naperville Central and Bradley before the New Jersey Nets picked him in the first round of the 1997 NBA draft. (He now plays professionally in Israel.) Marcus, 27, played point guard in high school. (He's a resident in interventional neuroradiology at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.)
Candace knew basketball, but she didn't fall in love with it until her dad started coaching her on an AAU team in eighth grade. Playing for Larry wasn't easy. "My dad did everything from grabbing my shirt to kicking me out of practice," says Parker. "He'd kick the ball, block my shot, knock me over. He did things to make me mad, to challenge me, because I was so much more athletic and had so much more knowledge of the game than everyone else that sometimes I just coasted."
If Parker had 25 points and 14 rebounds in a game, Larry would point out the three-minute stretch in the second half when she took her foot off the gas. "Candace was my daughter, so I yelled at her a lot more," says Larry. "Sometimes I'd yell at her just to get the other players' attention."
In retrospect, Parker can appreciate that extra scrutiny. "I love my dad," she says. "He spent so much time with me, with all of us." Larry was the one who taught her how to dunk, fixed her shooting form and pored over game tape with her. "If we lost, I'd be up all night watching film," she says.
After her sophomore year Naperville Central never lost a game she played in, even though she sat out the fourth quarter of most. Despite the ACL tear Parker returned for the final 24 games of her senior season, leading the Redhawks to their second consecutive Class AA state title and finishing her career with averages of 22.9 points and 13.2 rebounds. She was named Illinois player of the year three times and became the first person to win the Naismith national high school player of the year award twice.
After her tour de force performance for the junior national team, Parker arrived on Tennessee's campus to begin her life as a college athlete. The first time trainer Jenny Moshak saw Parker, she became alarmed when she noticed that Parker's knee was the size of a grapefruit. Says Parker, "It had been swelling and clicking all summer, but I thought that was normal after an ACL surgery."
Parker had an MRI, followed by exploratory surgery. The ACL was fine, but her lateral meniscus needed repair and she had a quarter-sized hole in her lateral femoral condyle, a bone at the end of the femur. On Sept. 8, Parker had surgery to fix both. "I thank God every day for Jenny Moshak because without her I wouldn't be playing anymore," says Parker. "That could have [cost me] my career, and I didn't even know it. I was playing on a busted knee."
Now healthy after more than a year of rehab, Parker is ready to get her college career off the ground. She spent the summer in Knoxville working out with Moshak, adding three inches to her vertical leap and 10 pounds of muscle. (She's up to 180.) Parker has had plenty of time to consider how she might change the game when she finally gets to play. "How can you not think about that?" she asks. "I came to Tennessee to be the best. There's greatness that surrounds me here. There are expectations around greatness. If we don't win the national championship, there will be disappointment. So while I'm here, yeah, I'd like to help move the women's game along, but our main goal is to win the national championship. People can argue about whether I change the game, but you can't take away a banner."
The lights at Thompson-Boling dim, a signal, perhaps, that it's time to clear out. "We're O.K.," Parker says softly. "You probably shouldn't write this, but this place never closes. I've come in here late at night and shot around." She can't wait to do that when the place is packed, when Orange Nation is in full throat. No woman has ever dunked on the Thompson-Boling Arena floor during a game. Parker plans to be the first.