EVER SINCE CANDACE PARKER BURST onto the national scene as a high-flying 15-year-old who could dunk with the boys, the hype surrounding her has been enormous—and she has lived up to every bit of it. Amid great expectations at Tennessee, Parker delivered consecutive national titles and earned two All-America nods while averaging 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.2 blocks and 2.2 steals. How exactly did Parker—who leaves Knoxville at age 22 for the Los Angeles Sparks as the WNBA's first overall draft pick and is poised to step onto the world stage at this year's Summer Olympics in Beijing—become so dominant so quickly? Herewith is a look back on the rise of a pioneering athlete in the words of those who first saw the greatness in her.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
"SHE WAS BORN 24 INCHES LONG, NINE POUNDS and one ounce," recalls her mother, Sara. "She came into the world with her eyes open, very aware. She was running around the house at eight months. She could ride a bike without training wheels at three. She could catch a basketball, she could dribble, and she had two big brothers who loved to play with her.
"She was two weeks old when she went to her first basketball game, her brother Anthony's AAU game in Poplar Bluff [Mo.]. She's been in the gym her whole life, and I think that's helped her basketball IQ. We used to take her to Bulls games when she was five years old, and she would make comments like, 'If they're going to win this game, somebody's going to have to start rebounding! Somebody needs to box out!' She understood the game even then."
HER FIRST COACH
"I'D EITHER RIDE THE BIKE AND MAKE HER RUN (because I have a bad knee) or drive my car while she ran the 1� miles or the seven blocks or whatever we decided she was going to run for the day," remembers her father, Larry, who lettered at Iowa in the mid-1970s under Lute Olson and subjected Candace to many of the same rigors he endured under the acclaimed coach. "Mostly, I just tried to work her like I did my sons. Still, she was my youngest and only girl—so she did get some breaks. Not very many, but some. We had fun.
"We'd do ball handling drills, and a lot of passing and catching and spinning while trying to establish your pivot foot—things to help her coordination. But mainly I made her put in twice as much work with her left hand as her right. There were times when I even made her eat with her left hand so that she could develop those fine motor skills. It also made her eat a lot slower!
"I didn't know that she was going to be able to develop that left hand to where it is now. After it got going in high school, it was something else. She could shoot jumpers with her left and do all kinds of other things. The first couple of years at Tennessee, I think Pat [Summitt] was kinda surprised to see how good it was."
THAT FIRST DUNK
"WHEN IT HAPPENED, I DIDN'T BELIEVE IT," SAYS CANDACE'S brother Anthony, the starting shooting guard for the Toronto Raptors, of his sister's epic first slam, which she got as a high school sophomore in a regular-season game. "I was playing in Israel while my brother, Marcus, who was away in college, was home for Christmas break. She had told him before the game that she'd try to put one down for him. On the video when she got a little open break, you can see my brother starting to stand up. When she dunked it, he jumped in the air as she ran back downcourt. It was just a great, great moment. When they called me and told me about it, I was like, 'No way!'