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Candace Parker IS ALL ALONE IN THE OPEN court, and the crowd is on its feet. As she sprints ever closer to certain bedlam, her stride begins to slow. She takes one long step—picks up her dribble—then another and takes off. She's gliding now, with the ball cupped in her right hand and her arm straight up. The crowd is ready to explode when ... wait a minute...what's she doing?! Her arm twists. The ball flicks up from her fingers and into the air, then skips gently off the glass and through the hoop just as Parker, along with thousands more inside University of Dayton Arena, comes back to earth.
Two points, Candace Parker. And the crowd grows mild.
It's this curious tension between expectation and reality that has followed the 20-year-old Parker ever since she slammed home her first dunk in a high school game at 15, flouting every convention of the earthbound women's game. When she followed that up with a landmark triumph in the 2004 McDonald's All-American slam-dunk contest—a victory that came at the expense of two future NBA first-round picks in JR Smith and Josh Smith—the world was put on notice that she would be taking the game to a whole new level. "A lot of people say Magic Johnson came in and saved the game in the '70s and '80s," Parker says. "I feel like women's basketball now is at that stage, and I'm a part of our growth."
While her ability above the rim remains singular, it has become a mere sideshow to a much richer repertoire. In just two seasons at Tennessee she has established herself as the most complete player in college basketball. The only player listed as a center, a forward and a guard, she plays all five positions with an effortlessness that recalls greats both past and present, female and male. To future Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dykes, she's this generation's Cheryl Miller; to Parker's eldest brother, Anthony, a four-year NBA veteran, she's more like a cross between Kevin Garnett and Lamar Odom. "I'd be surprised," says Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, "if I don't see her as the best ever."
There's no doubt that Parker's considerable role in a 33-win season and the ending of a nine-year championship drought has cemented her legend in Knoxville. Three years removed from off-season knee surgery, Parker led the SEC in scoring (19.7 ppg) and blocks (2.7), and Tennessee in rebounds (9.7), earning all-conference, All-America and Wade honors—as well as Summitt's confidence when the game was on the line. "A lot of players want the ball under pressure," says Summitt, "but I prefer to go with those that can make plays."
Parker has proved she can do just that. Offensively, she can beat bigger players off the dribble from the perimeter and abuse smaller ones in the post. Her bevy of inside moves is enhanced by an ability to finish with either hand and a jump shot that's automatic from 15 feet or closer. ("When she becomes a dead-eye from the three-point line," says Drake coach Amy Stephens, "boy, she will be the best.") Defensively, the 6' 4" Parker has the size, speed and wingspan to defend any player on the floor. Parker sees regular double and triple teams and is fouled at an alarming clip. Of the 573 penalties committed against the Lady Vols during the regular season, almost a third were on the Tennessee forward.
During the team's run through the brackets, she was at the top of her game, averaging 15.5 points and 10 rebounds in the tournament's last two games en route to being named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
And still, everyone wants to see the dunks. Her six career dunks are double the previous NCAA career mark. Parker's first two came in the same game, against Army on March 19, 2006; she is the only woman believed to have dunked twice in a college or pro game. Her four slams since are even more impressive considering the coaches never even drew up plays for them. "A lot of her dunks come off steals," says Lady Vols associate head coach Holly Warlick. "As long as she makes the basket, we're cool with it."
Still, there was a time, while growing up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, when Parker thought her game would never get off the ground. The youngest of three, she rounds out a family lineup that would make an impressive starting five. In addition to Anthony, a starting off-guard with the Toronto Raptors, there's older brother Marcus—the middle child—a high school point guard turned radiologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore; mother Sara, a pre–Title IX vocational player; and father Larry, who lettered at Iowa under Lute Olson. (Candace's parents are now divorced.)
Early on, volleyball and soccer were Parker's chosen sports. But then a growth spurt in the seventh grade forced another hard look at hoops. Everyone in the family played a role in Candace's basketball development—her father most notably. Despite her size, his tutoring emphasized ball handling and backcourt play to keep her from using her height as a crutch.