April 28, 2004

Parker's success a slam dunk, talent evaluators say

NAPERVILLE, Ill. — The tornado sirens are wailing outside on a mild spring evening. Coaches scurry to empty the gym and hallways of Naperville Central High, ushering youth league basketball players and gymnasts into the basement.
Candace Parker, carrying a basketball, walks toward the door then takes a short detour onto the court. Three dribbles and a layup on the way to the basement.

The little scene symbolizes life these days for the 18-year old basketball prodigy. Amid the whirl of publicity over her beating five male competitors in the McDonald's High School All-American slam-dunk contest and the torrent of postseason accolades, Parker forges calmly through the commotion with her eye on her goals.

Next stop, University of Tennessee, entering as one of the more celebrated high school girls basketball players in history. She adds to the résumé today, winning her second USA TODAY Player of the Year citation after returning from knee surgery in late December. She is the first in the 22-year history of the All-USA TODAY team to win the top girls basketball award twice.

Even before she created a national buzz by succeeding LeBron James as the McDonald's slam-dunk champion, Parker was being dubbed "SheBron."

"It's an honor," she says, of the expression, "but hopefully if I do what I'm supposed to do, I won't have to be nicknamed after (anyone). I'll have my own identity."

She says it without a hint of the cockiness or bravado that frequently accompanies youthful stardom. The headlines, it seems, haven't gone to her head.

"I try not to pay attention to it because hype, I look at it as potential," she says. "You may be the person that has the most potential in the world, but if you never reach that ..."

P, as in Parker, potential

Potential is a word being thrown around a lot with Parker and it's attached to the names of some of the most celebrated players in women's basketball history.

As in, she has the potential to be the next (fill in the blank).

Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw, Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller ...

"Candace Parker is one of the most dominant and impressive high school players I've ever seen, in 30 years," says prep analyst Mike Flynn, editor of the Blue Star Report. "She's the closest to what I saw in Cheryl Miller when Cheryl Miller was 16."

"This kid is going to transcend the sport," says All Game Sports' Jerry Gatewood, whose daughter Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood joins Parker on the All-USA team and also at Tennessee in a recruiting class considered one of the best ever.

"She's Jordan on offense and Russell on defense," says Doug Bruno, women's basketball coach at DePaul, which was one of five finalists for Parker.

Parker's victory in the dunk contest, televised on ESPN, has brought her national recognition. It made the NBC Nightly News; she appeared on NBC's Today show and has generated interest from the Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America.

But it is just a tiny fraction of her game. "The dunk (is not) what her game is about," Gatewood says.

She has been dunking for three years and has done it twice in high school games and a few more times in AAU games, joining a half-dozen or so women to have done it in competition.

"That's just another challenge thrown at me, to show people that dunking is not just my game," Parker says. "I'd love to make dunks part of my game. Everybody dreams of ... going up on somebody. ... But my job the next few years is not to be known as the girl that dunks."

Parker, listed at 6-foot-3 but probably an inch taller, played primarily at center in leading her suburban Chicago high school to consecutive state championships. At Tennessee, she is expected to move to small forward. She could just as easily move to either guard spot. She runs the floor with the ball, dribbling behind her back or between her legs effortlessly. She can pull up and shoot from the outside.

"Candace is the most versatile 6-3 player (at this stage) that I've ever seen," says Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

Analysts say she's capable of playing any of the five positions on the court in college.

"She's very agile, like Miller," Flynn says. "She has the same level of physical agility on the floor, graceful agility."

Gatewood predicts she'll have a lasting impact on the women's game.

"These girls growing up, 6-3, 6-2, are going to be saying, 'Don't put me in the paint. Look at Candace,' " he says. "You're looking at Kevin Garnett on the women's side."

Summitt never guarantees any recruit anything, but Gatewood predicts Parker will be playing a minimum of 25 minutes a game as a freshman, probably as a starter. "By the end of her sophomore year, she'll be one of the top players in the country," he says.

Parker's parents, Larry and Sara, say Candace will have to adjust to the increased intensity level at Tennessee but are confident she will. As for the expectations, Larry says she has been dealing with them since eighth grade. "I'm a tough critic and she's exceeded most of mine," he says, with a laugh.

Coy about prom date

For all her celebrity, Parker is in many ways a typical teenager. She'll describe two strapless gowns she has picked out for her senior prom, but is coy about her date.

As tall as she stands on the court, she downplays her height off the court, presumably for her social life. She loves to chat with friends online on her computer and she'll graduate next month with a 3.7 GPA. She plans to study broadcast communications with an English minor at Tennessee.

Her on-court achievements this year are particularly impressive because there was some question whether she would even play. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee July 11 and had ligament replacement surgery 18 days later. Conventional wisdom dictated a mid- to late-January return at the earliest, but she was back in the lineup in late December, five months to the day after the surgery.

Two watershed moments marked the recovery, both in a nearly vacant gym. The first came in late November, when her rehabilitation hit a lull and she was bored with exercise routine. She had been worried she'd never dunk again. So, with a teammate and school administrator looking on, she decided to try — and slammed one down.

"It was a great point in time because it proved to me we had achieved something. I went back to rehab with a different attitude," she says.

Then, about 10 p.m. on Christmas night, she called Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum and asked if he could come down and open the gym. She and her brother, Marcus, 25, wanted to go one-on-one. They went at it until nearly 2 a.m., satisfying everyone she was ready to play.

"When the Parkers play one-on-one, they play for keeps," Nussbaum says. "There was nothing she was going to get in a game Marcus hadn't already given her."

When she returned, she averaged 24.3 points and 11.4 rebounds, and Naperville Central was undefeated with her playing.

At first, she says, her junior year meant more than the second Illinois Class AA title, particularly because she was sad to end her high school career. "But now that I've had time to look and reflect on what the past year has been like, in a way it's sweeter."

The postseason brought player of the year awards, all-star games and introductions to celebrities. Carmelo Anthony sat courtside at one of the all-star games. She has met Michael Jordan. The Chicago Cubs honored her on opening day, and she watched the game in a luxury box with actor Bill Murray.

So who is the most interesting person she's met? Her physical therapist, Joe Bresingham. "I'm blessed to know him."

After out-dunking the boys, Parker is now being cited with Michelle Wie, Annika Sorenstam and others breaking down the gender barriers in sport. She doesn't proclaim the distinction, or flinch from it.

"I'm really excited to be growing up in an age where I had role models ... people who were instrumental in (women's) basketball being where it is now," she says. "I look at it as a challenge not to let what they did go to waste."

Heady territory for a young lady who turned 18 on April 19. Rather than dwell on it, she concentrates on getting her knee back to 100% strength — it'll be another nine months or so — and heading for summer school at Tennessee.

Whether she'll take her place with the greats of the women's game remains to be seen. But Summitt's evaluation before she signed Parker tips off her plans:

"Whoever gets her will be cutting down nets," Summitt said.

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