- Clay Kallam
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Though the hype didn't hit until Candace Parker got to Tennessee, she was just as dominant in high school as she was in college and is now in the WNBA -- and that's why she's the choice as the ESPN RISE Girls Basketball Player of the Decade.
You don't need six degrees of separation to connect Parker with LeBron James, either. Parker's older brother, Anthony, now plays with James for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Anthony preceded Candace at Naperville Central in Naperville, Ill., but even though he was a great high school player, he couldn't match Candace's litany of achievements.
Candace not only led the Redhawks to two Illinois state championships (2003 and 2004), she was also the Gatorade Player of the Year twice, a feat matched only by Marion Jones and some guy named James. She was the consensus choice as Illinois Player of the Year three times and capped her high school career by winning the dunk contest -- against the guys -- at the 2004 McDonald's All-American game.
The 6-4 Parker is far from just a post player, though. Her coaches claim she can play any position on the court, and she did run the point at times for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks this past season. Still, she is tremendous around the basket, especially with her left hand (even though she is right-handed), and she has a smooth all-around game that makes her all but impossible to guard.
But despite Parker's later success with Tennessee, the Sparks and the U.S. Olympic team, she has said that one of the highlights of her career remains Naperville's 35-0 record and state championship during her junior year. Parker capped that season in the title game against perennial Illinois power Bishop Fenwick. With her team trailing 53-50 in the final minutes, Parker pulled up and hit a 3-pointer -- not a shot she took often in high school -- to force overtime. She added six more points in OT, and the Redhawks went on to win 63-59.
Parker tore her ACL that summer, and she pushed herself to return to the court for the second half of Naperville Central's season. Despite being less than 100 percent, she led the Redhawks to their second straight championship, and added the Naismith Player of the Year award to her collection.
When she dunked at the McDonald's game, she became the poster girl for women's basketball. She lived up to the hype during an outstanding career at Tennessee. After missing her freshman season after getting more work done on her knee, she led the Volunteers to a national championship in 2008. She passed on a fourth year at Tennessee to opt for a professional career, and she was named WNBA MVP that fall. She capped a spectacular season by winning a gold medal in Beijing. Parker followed the Olympics by marrying Boston Celtics forward Shelden Williams in November 2008, and her daughter, Lailaa, was born May 13, 2009. Parker returned to the court July 9 and averaged 13.1 points and 9.8 rebounds just months after giving birth.
But before all of her success at the college, professional and international levels, the foundation for all of it was laid during her high school days when Parker turned Naperville Central into a national power.