- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Candace Parker has bigger plans than just those that involve the basketball court. She'd like to be a CEO of a company, the person in the huge office with the tastefully minimal furnishing. The one who has the best view -- and makes the most important decisions.
So maybe one day, Fortune or Money magazine will send a reporter -- who will walk solemnly into the "big office" -- to ask Parker to start at the beginning and tell her story.
"The beginning?" she'll say, then continue, "OK. I attended my first game when I was 2 weeks old. Yes, 2 weeks. I have pictures of me at the age of 2 years, with a backward cap on and baggy shorts, playing basketball with my brothers.
"My mom said when I was 4, I was at one of my brother's basketball games and this dude had gotten beat high side like four times. His parents were sitting right behind me, but I didn't know it. And I was like, 'He's so stupid, Mom, he's been beaten high side every time, you'd think he would catch on. Or the defense would come over and help.' And she's like, 'Candace!'"
"OK, of course," the reporter will say. "Your success all began with basketball. So when did that hype really start?"
"The Chicago Tribune had me on the cover of the sports page -- before my freshman year of high school," Parker will say. "So that's always been part of playing basketball for me. I didn't look at it as a lot of pressure when I got to Tennessee."
Right now, we can predict that much of that possible future interview. All that stuff has happened. It has all been chronicled nationwide, from USA Today to Time magazine. The quick version of Parker's bio goes like this:
Candace Parker, born into a basketball family, doesn't remember when the sport wasn't part of her life. Because there was no such time. Her father, Larry, played at Iowa, and one of her older brothers, Anthony, played at Bradley and in the NBA, for the 76ers and the Magic. Candace was a high school sensation at Naperville Central in suburban Chicago.
She made her college choice, Tennessee, public on ESPNEWS. She had to sit out her first season in Knoxville because of knee problems, but she's on the verge of beginning what's expected to be a spectacular freshman year. Oh, and she dunks.
Well reporters actually tend to make a bigger deal of the dunk thing than that. Parker's answer when asked about the dunk thing comes out automatically now, with her barely even thinking of it.
"Yeah, it's fun to goof around with your friends and see what dunks you can do. And it's nice to make a move and finish with a dunk," she says. "Dunking is an exciting part of the game. It's not like a fan's going to jump up and scream about a down screen. So I understand why that's the question. But dunking is not all of basketball or all of my game."
Of course it isn't. Not all of Parker's game has even been defined yet, but what's there is quite vast. And though there is no official statistic for this, you'd be on rock-solid ground to claim that no one in the history of women's basketball has talked more about her skills and her future before actually playing a college game than Parker has.
It has been two full years since Parker said on ESPNEWS that Tennessee would be the place. She had suffered an ACL injury to her left knee and had surgery in July 2003. She missed 11 games of her senior season for Naperville Central, but still came back and led the team to a second consecutive Class AA state title, averaging 24.3 points per game. She saw competitive action with USA Basketball in summer 2004, but then the "Great Wait" began in the fall. There was swelling in the knee, and surgeries to remove loose cartilage fragments and repair the lateral meniscus and lateral articular cartilage were performed in late August and early September.
Parker was cleared to practice the day after Christmas, but then she had more swelling. She was pretty certain then that she would not play basketball for Tennessee in the 2004-05 season, but that wasn't officially announced by coach Pat Summitt until mid-February.
"I was trying to be supportive of my team, go every day and be involved in practice, pay attention in film sessions so I could help people in timeouts," Parker said of her role on the team last season. "I think I'm a student of the game, growing up in a household with a coach. I know basketball pretty well and have been around it long enough that from a young age, I could recognize defenses and things like that."
As for what was going through her mind as she watched Tennessee fall in the Final Four to Michigan State, Parker acknowledged the obvious: At some point last season, she had to detach a little bit from "player" emotions. Because she wasn't a player. She was an extremely invested observer, a cheerleader, a supporter, an everyday testament to the future. But she wasn't No. 3, Candace Parker, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward for Tennessee. Not yet.
"You feel sad because you can't do anything," she said of the season-ending loss. "I don't want to say you're not part of the wins, but you're not, really. And you can't help in the losses. I was upset that we lost, but this year we're using it as motivation."
With Parker out and not in contention for the acclaim as the nation's best freshman, that so-called title went to another "Candice," though with a different spelling. Candice Wiggins was the Pac-10 rookie and player of the year, leading Stanford to the Elite Eight.
Wiggins lost her father to complications from AIDS when she was just 3 years old. Alan Wiggins was a former major-league baseball player, someone of enough fame that his daughter couldn't have avoided talking about him
even if she'd wanted to.
But she didn't choose to avoid it. Instead, Wiggins handled all the questions about herself and her father with grace and forthrightness. She understood that in the women's basketball world -- even now, with all the growth -- not that many people get a lot of national attention as individuals. It's not just OK to talk engagingly about yourself, your game and your goals as a young spokeswoman for your sport, it's highly commendable. It's necessary.
Candace with two a's understands that, too.
"Coach has talked to me about where women's basketball was even a few years ago," Parker said. "We're at a point where we've got a professional league, and it's our responsibility as a new generation to continue that. I'm excited about that, and I know there are a lot of people on this team who want to grow the game.
"I'm OK with [the attention]; I can't do anything about it. I really don't feel I'm the type of person that it's going to affect. If it were going to affect me, it would have by now."
Don't get the idea, though, that Parker thinks that she has things all figured out and that this college game will be a breeze.
"I know that this is going to take time," she said, "and it's a new level."
Summitt, of course, talked about Parker for two years before getting to coach her in an actual game, an exhibition victory Sunday in which Parker had 20 points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Summitt doesn't want to dump a load of historical significance on someone who hasn't even gone through her first cycle of SEC competition. At the same time, Summitt doesn't shy away from talking about what Parker can be.
"Candace has a tremendous presence on the floor at both ends," Summitt said. "It's not like she's just a great offensive player. You see her on defense, and she's long and she's rangy and constantly getting a piece of the ball. I think she could be the best defender on our team, just because of what she brings physically, and she's such a great competitor.
"I definitely think she can make her mark as a player of impact because she can do so many things on the floor to help her team win."
Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee to three national championships and was the defining player of her college years in 1995-99. Parker, with her versatility, is a different type of player and could, perhaps, be someone who defines her own time in college.
"In this day and age, being versatile, long, tall and agile is definitely an advantage and players are allowed to expand their games and do more things," Parker said. "I think players like myself could define this generation of basketball. Chamique definitely did that. I hope to."
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
20dBonnie D. Ford