THE MEDIA love pioneers, so of course they love 6'4" Tennessee redshirt freshman Candace Parker. When Parker dunked in a game in December 2001 as a 15-year-old Naperville Central High sophomore, becoming the first girl in Illinois and only the second in the nation to do so in a high school game, TV cameras and news reporters gathered in her driveway the next morning. When she became the first girl to win the McDonald's All-American Game slam-dunk contest in '04, depositing five straight-on, one-handed slams while her male opponents--including current pros Josh Smith and J.R. Smith--missed more extravagant ones, it made the NBC Nightly News and landed her on the Today show. Following an intense recruiting battle that Tennessee coach Pat Summitt says will get "at least a chapter" in her next book, Parker became the first female to announce her college choice on national television, picking the Lady Vols over DePaul, Duke, Maryland and Texas. Her dunk this summer on a male college player, 6'9" Tennessee freshman Ryan Childress, in a one-on-one game witnessed by about a dozen people, may have been a first too--at least that's what Time magazine surmised in the lead of an article about Parker in the Oct. 24 issue.
The hype machine has been rolling for about five years--in case you missed it, in July 2000 the Chicago Sun-Times published a story about her AAU exploits headlined hype machine is rolling--so forgive Parker if she doesn't appear to be a nervous wreck on the eve of the most highly anticipated, if long delayed, college debut in the history of the women's game. Anxious? No. Excited? "I can't wait," she says. "I was so excited just to start practice, I was counting down the days."
Parker is sitting in one of the 24,535 orange seats in Thompson-Boling Arena after one of those practices, her legs draped over the seat in front of her. Her left knee is wrapped in ice, as usual. It still puffs up a bit, but the swelling is nothing compared with the persistent and frightening ballooning that wiped out what was supposed to be her freshman season last year. Parker tore her left ACL in the summer of 2003, before her senior year of high school, then had another surgery in September 2004 to repair further damage. A couple of premature comeback attempts later, she reluctantly agreed to redshirt the season. "In my head I knew I shouldn't play," she says. "But my heart wanted to."
Parker is flashing through pictures of her four-month-old Saint Bernard puppy--named Fendi "because she is very high maintenance"--on her pink T-Mobile Sidekick. She offers a reporter a wintergreen candy, also pink, and then insists the reporter keep the whole bag. She is a giver, her Naperville Central coach, Andy Nussbaum, says. Whenever Parker got a break in one of her high school games, she'd quietly fill water cups for her teammates and check the scorebook to see who hadn't made a shot yet, so she could pass her the ball at the next opportunity. That generous spirit might be a bit of a problem for Parker's college coach. "She is so unselfish," says Summitt, "she sometimes overpasses."
Passing may be Parker's best skill, but it's not the one she is famous for. For all the publicity she has attracted, the only thing most people know about her is that she can dunk, an occurrence that is still so rare in women's college basketball that the instances can be counted on two hands. Quite a few women can dunk, actually, but most require a clear runway with the wind blowing in the right direction or some other condition that rarely happens in a game. Not Parker. She can easily palm the ball and can touch the backboard nearly eight inches above the rim from a standing start. She only needs a step or two to jam.
"She dunked in one of our early games," says Ceal Barry, who coached Parker on the U.S. junior national team in 2004. "My assistants and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh. Here was this player on a whole different level."
And that brings up a question about Parker: Is she the next step in the evolution of the female player or merely the rare specimen that comes along once in a generation, the modern-day Cheryl Miller? "I'd be happy to see more players like her come my way," says Nussbaum. "But I think she is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. When Candace was in high school, I said, barring injury, she will be the best female to ever play the game. Now I think, despite injury, Candace will be the best female to ever play the game. I would not bet against her in anything."
Dunking aside, what really separates Parker from players who have come before her is the package of skills she brings with her 6'4" frame. On Barry's team Parker was the best player in virtually every statistical category; she set junior national team records for average points (16.6), blocked shots (2.4) and assists (4.8). "Normally 6'4" stays in the low blocks," says Tennessee assistant coach Nikki Caldwell. "That's what our game had been accustomed to. Now you have a 6'4" who has the passing and ball-handling skills to run the point; who can get a shot anytime she wants to; who can create a shot for her teammates. She can shoot the three. With her back to the basket, she has the post moves of a center and can play around the rim. On top of that she's a student of the game. She watches film, she gets in the gym, she stays after practice to shoot. She is really serious about basketball."
The Tennessee coaches knew all that about Parker before she arrived in Knoxville. What has surprised them is her ability to defend. "That's a bonus we got," says associate head coach Holly Warlick. "She's very active and long. She tips a lot of balls."
Summitt, who prides herself on her teams' defensive intensity, might be pleased to learn that Parker's favorite Chicago Bull growing up was not the ever-popular Michael Jordan; it was lockdown defender Ron Harper, whose picture still hangs on her bedroom wall in Naperville. Summitt might be less thrilled to learn that Parker's favorite female player was Connecticut's Diana Taurasi, the bane of the Lady Vols for four seasons. Whenever she was sick and home from school, Parker comforted herself by watching tapes of the 2003 Final Four, which ended with Taurasi's dazzling 28-point performance that broke Tennessee hearts and gave UConn the national title.