April 15, 2004

Candace Parker shines spotlight on women's hoops with dunk

Vince Carter. Baron Davis. Carmelo Anthony. LeBron James. Candace Parker. The McDonald's High School All-American dunk contest traditionally displays the most athletic, promising and exciting young basketball players around, with future superstars winning on multiple occasions. This year's contest did just the same, though for the first time, with a female winner.

For years, the McDonald's games showcased both the top male and female prep stars in the country, a sort of preview of the cream of the incoming freshmen crop. In the competition, Parker out-dunked J.R. Smith, a North Carolina recruit renowned as one of the top high school dunkers of the past decade; Josh Smith, a likely top ten pick in the upcoming NBA draft; and Darius Washington, another possible first-round pick.

All the more remarkable, Parker is less than a year removed from a severe ACL tear that sidelined her for part of the season. Despite the injury, the awe-struck crowd watched silently as Parker delivered the biggest slam for women's athletics since adolescent golfer Michelle Wie almost made the cut at a PGA tour event this past January.

But exactly what does this mean for the future of women's basketball? In a larger sense, what effect will Parker's victory in the contest have on the sporting landscape in America? The two questions have been asked repeatedly and answered with much debate over the past week.

While women's basketball has long been appreciated for its dedication to the fundamentals of the game and spirit amongst competitors, it has failed to truly break through into mainstream American sporting culture. However, many envision positive results for women's hoops as a result of Parker's success.

ESPN.com dedicated the focus of its Web site to Parker under the title "SheBron," a direct reference to NBA rookie phenom and former dunk contest champion LeBron James.

While some see the dunk as a major contribution in the progression of women's basketball, and ultimately, all of women's athletics, not all agree. Jason Whitlock, columnist for the Kansas City Star, claims the dunk was "just another leap backwards" for the women's game, pointing out that she benefited from some missed dunks of other competitors.

He continued, saying, "I realize that sports -- even high school sports -- are nothing more than a vehicle to drive TV ratings. It's all entertainment. I was just disappointed with the unrealistic news coverage of Parker's victory. It was condescending and patronizing."

Parker offered a different spin on the dunk.

"I hope 10 years from now this isn't a big deal," she said. "That would be my dream. That 10 years from now three or four girls enter the dunk contest and it's not a big deal. It's not like, 'Wow, she won.' I hope that happens."

While only a small number of dunks by women have been recorded, approximately five during college games and only one during a WNBA game, Parker's dunk and overall athleticism could be prescient of changing times.

The women's game now shows vestiges of the old-style men's game, Parker's dunk and overall athleticism show a sign of progression toward the style of the men's game. As women's basketball continually struggles for increased television ratings and more fan support, falling behind the likes of the NBA and men's college basketball, the quicker the women's game evolves to appeal more to the masses, the sooner the ratings and support that the game so desires will follow.

However, despite the apparent progression, Parker's dunk appears in the midst of real struggle within women's college basketball. This year's women's tournament, complete with numerous buzzer-beater endings, a true Cinderella story in No. 7-seeded Minnesota reaching the Final Four, and the late-season resurgence of traditional powerhouse Connecticut, continued to lag far behind its male counterpart in the in ratings.

While the women's tournament has seen television ratings up over 50 percent from the previous year, the NCAA still expects to lose money from the tournament for the sixth consecutive year. In contrast, the NCAA historically has profited from the men's tournament, giving back large sums of money to conferences with schools playing in the Final Four.

While not tangibly beneficial at the moment, the promise of attracting more people and interest to the women's game by virtue of Parker's star power and upcoming arrival at the University of Tennessee proves hopeful for the women's game.

Regardless, Candace Parker's achievement in the dunk contest will be remembered, if not for its effects on the sporting culture of America, then for its sheer significance within the women's game. When asked on whether he was upset by losing to a girl, fellow dunk finalist Washington said, "It's a unique thing for a girl to dunk. Once in a blue moon. Congratulations. I'm kind of happy because she went down in history."

Only time will tell what historical mark Parker's dunk truly leaves.

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