Is national player of year next great Lady Vol?

Updated: January 27, 2004, 9:42 PM ET
Associated Press

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- Since the day she dunked as a lanky 15-year-old sophomore, Candace Parker has lived with the lofty expectations of becoming the next big name in women's basketball.

So far, she's living up to them.

"Candace has the chance to be the greatest female player on the planet. I really believe that," said Andy Nussbaum, her coach at Naperville Central High School in suburban Chicago.

The 17-year-old senior has gained attention enjoyed by few of her peers -- so much so that her ability to dunk has become a footnote in her career.

She writes an occasional diary for the Chicago Tribune, and a monthly column for The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights. She wears finger bands that were a gift from 76ers guard Allen Iverson, a player she jokingly refers to as her husband.

Over the summer, Parker attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. And just before she announced her college choice -- Tennessee -- on national television, she received a call from former Shock coach Nancy Lieberman congratulating her for bringing more exposure to women's basketball.

Some have even gone so far as to liken the 6-foot-3 high school standout to Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw -- a comparison that causes Parker to blush.

"They're pioneers for the women's game," Parker says. "I hope one day I can be mentioned in the same breath with them. But not right now."

Parker was the first junior ever to be named the Naismith prep player of the year last season after leading Naperville Central to the Illinois state championship. She also was the national Gatorade girls basketball player of the year, joining LeBron James as the only other junior to win the award in its 17-year history.

Basketball runs in Parker's family.

Her father, Larry, played at Iowa in the 1970s. Her brother, Anthony, was a standout guard at Bradley, spent three years in the NBA with Philadelphia and Orlando, and now plays overseas.

As a youngster, Candace excelled at soccer and volleyball. It wasn't until seventh grade that she started to focus on basketball, Larry Parker said.

Her dad was her coach -- and he was strict.

"I figured, if I could play for my dad, I could play for anybody," Parker said when asked whether she had any reservations playing for the notoriously intense Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Larry Parker admits he was tough on his daughter.

"But it's a little bit different," he said. "She knows I'm her father and I love her no matter what. Coach Summitt may not give her a hug at the end of practice like I did."

The tough love paid off.

Last season, Parker averaged 24.3 points, 14.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists while leading Naperville Central to the Class AA state title and a perfect record.

In the championship, Parker finished with 32 points, including a 3-pointer in the closing seconds that sent the game into overtime. She scored just as many points earlier that day in the semifinals.

Sitting up in the stands was Summitt, who took time out during the SEC tournament to travel to Normal to watch Parker play.

"Candace is the most versatile 6-3 player (at this stage) that I've ever seen," said Summitt, whose Lady Vols have won six national championships. "She has the ability to play every position on the floor, from point guard to post."

Parker said Summitt's track record, her approach to coaching and the overwhelming success of the program attracted her to Tennessee.

She wouldn't have had an opportunity to jump directly to the WNBA from high school, a la James. The league doesn't allow that.

This season, Parker missed the first six weeks while recovering from knee surgery. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a tournament game in the summer.

In her first game back, Parker scored 19 points and had seven rebounds while playing 16 minutes in a 77-54 win.

She's gotten better and stronger with each contest, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds on the season. Naperville Central has won 44 straight over two seasons with Parker in the lineup.

On Saturday, Parker had 17 points, four steals and three assists in the first half before sitting out the rest of the game.

It's the type of performance her high school coach has come to expect.

"She's got a chance to become the greatest of the great," Nussbaum said. "Four years from now we may be saying that she's the greatest to play at Tennessee -- and that's really something."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press