- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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After Saturday's game at the Hartford Civic Center, a few of us reporters huddled around the Tennessee locker room talking to coach Pat Summitt as we waited for Candace Parker.
Parker had 30 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the 70-64 victory over Connecticut, which was going on the same time that former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning's Colts were beating Kansas City in an NFL playoff game.
Manning had his degree in hand in 1997 and was set to be a No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but opted to come back for his senior season at Tennessee. One of the people he talked to in the process of making that decision was Summitt.
I asked Summitt if it was strange, 10 years later, to be a position where people were asking if one of her players might leave early for the pro ranks. Parker, a redshirt sophomore, is scheduled to graduate next December. A player can be eligible for the WNBA draft if she graduates in the same year that draft is held.
"I hope I can be as convincing with Candace," Summitt joked of advising Manning on the benefits of staying.
Truth is, there's no doubt her words did carry a lot of weight 10 years ago, just as they will now. Manning's situation is quite different from the perspective of the amount of money he was leaving on the table for another year of college ball and the fact that the NFL's popularity provides the grandest "stage" for an athlete to perform on in this country.
But among the similarities of their situations is the one at the very core of making the decision: How do you place a value on those things that don't come with price tags?
For me -- and I would bet a vast majority of women's basketball observers (except, perhaps, Phoenix Mercury fans, whose team has the No. 1 pick in April's draft) -- the idea of anyone voluntarily giving up even a second of the "college experience" seems unfathomable. Especially if you happen to play at one of the premiere women's programs where pretty much every game is an "event."
I've been to a lot of fun WNBA games. But Saturday's regular-season matchup of UConn-Tennessee at the sold-out Civic Center was still more fun.
Sportswriters used to write that a lot about men's college hoops and early entry into the NBA. But since it has become so commonplace for top men's prospects to leave early or never go to college at all, it doesn't seem you hear so much of that anymore. The salaries are too enormous. The lifestyle that money provides seems far more alluring, plus the buzz in college arenas versus those in the NBA might seem just the same to the players.
The WNBA is not like the NBA. There is not mind-boggling money or regular sellouts or nightly "SportsCenter" glory in the WNBA. The WNBA can provide a nice life for a female basketball player, much better than her predecessors had when there was no league in the United States.
And there continues to be pro ball overseas, which in certain areas can be lucrative -- relative to ordinary wages. But that's also like playing in a vacuum in terms of who's paying attention. There might be passionate groups of fans in the small gyms across the world watching women's hoops. But to virtually everyone in the United States, that's invisible.
I don't want to paint some bleak picture of life after college for women's players, because it's brighter than it ever has been. But it's not so bright that it's worth giving up a year (or two) of college.
"What college kids don't realize sometimes is that it truly is the best years of your life," Summitt said. "I think the college game right now is the game. The most exciting game on the women's side.
"I'm not taking anything away from the pros, but looking at the popularity of the college game at Tennessee, [Candace] is on a big stage every night, our fans love her. She's enjoying being a college player. How long, with the potential injury factor she's got some big goals for herself and the program. We'll cross the bridge when we get there."
Parker has had knee problems dating back to high school, and that caused her to redshirt what would have been her freshman season at Tennessee. Of course, to look at her play, you can't tell she has ever had any trouble, but only Parker really knows how much pain she deals with or how worried she is about career longevity. Although, as to the latter, I tend to doubt even the most body-aware 20-year-old could be all that sure of such a thing regardless of her past-injury history.
Only Parker, her family and others closest to her know how much, if any, pressure or desire she feels to earn money as soon as possible. Endorsement money is not huge, comparatively speaking, among elite women's hoops players. But Parker will be at the high end of that whenever she goes pro.
When Parker came out of the locker room Saturday, she was eager to go talk to her mother and, understandably, not especially eager to chat up the media. She was very polite, but she didn't smile. She didn't seem like any of the day's experiences had been particularly uplifting. It was more like she had punched the clock that day, did exactly what she wanted and was done with it.
Parker might well have had a blast and just doesn't show it the way some other athletes do. I've seen "perfectionist" athletes like her with similar postgame personalities. They expect to win, and they expect to make every play. They seem to spend very little time celebrating anything. It's always on to the next conquest. I'm not criticizing that, and certainly not saying Parker should "fake" any other reaction if that's how she feels.
Also, one thing I've learned as a reporter is that you really can't gauge always how athletes feel based on their demeanor talking to us. So it might have been that Parker was relishing her team's victory and her performance more than we could tell.
Still, I couldn't help but flash back to the memory of Chamique Holdsclaw after Tennessee had won its third NCAA title in 1998. In that case, though, she not only didn't appear all that excited, she even said she wasn't. She expected to win. Period. In her mind, all she'd done was meet expectations.
Saturday's game was quite different, obviously -- a big victory, but only in January and not for any title. Still, I really hope Parker is enjoying all this, as Summitt says she is. And, yes, I really do hope she plays college ball for four seasons.
But as for her future, in the end, it makes no difference what anyone else thinks about how precious the college experience is. It only matters what Parker thinks is best for her.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
14dBonnie D. Ford