KNOXVILLE, Tenn., Dec. 3 - Had the teenage journalist not stopped her newspaper column to focus on what many believe could become the greatest career in women's college basketball history, Candace Parker might have begun her opus Wednesday by talking about the stress.
"Oh, definitely, the stress," said Parker, the 19-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch redshirt freshman forward for the Tennessee Lady Vols. "Yes, that's where I'd start the column."
Parker, who had written a weekly column for The Chicago Tribune during her senior year at Naperville Central High School outside Chicago, was a two-time USA Today national high school player of the year, leading her team to two state Class AA championships. Then, after being perhaps the mostly highly recruited high school player in the country, Parker chose to attend Tennessee, a program that has reached 16 Final Fours and won 6 national championships, though none since 1998.
But in the summer of 2004, she sustained a meniscus and cartilage tear in her left knee (the same knee in which she tore the anterior cruciate ligament before her senior year in high school. She missed 11 games before returning to average 24.3 points a game). She sat out her freshman year at Tennessee, but has returned to help the No. 2 Lady Vols get off to a 6-0 start heading into Sunday's game at No. 12 Stanford.
"The expectations are so high, for her to perform, for her to lead us to a national championship," said Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Tennessee, who has worked with Parker to get her back in shape after the knee injury. "You just wonder how she handles it."
This is not lost on her teammates. "Every game, every team is keying on her," Tennessee guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood said, "and sometimes they double- and triple-team her. I know it frustrates her at times."
But not enough to slow her down. Playing here against No. 16 Texas on Thursday, Parker scored 17 points, slightly above her average, pulled down 14 rebounds, and had 3 blocks and 3 steals in Tennessee's 102-61 victory.
Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt, who recruited her, said, "Candace could have gone to a smaller school, or one with less of a tradition of winning than ours, but she wanted to be on the big stage, and compete."
So what is Parker stressed about? "I'm stressed out because it's finals week," she said. "I've got tests in all my courses: accounting, philosophy 110, business applications, history of rock - that's a music, not a geology, course - and statistics."
She earned a 3.5 grade point average last year and is doing well in her current classes, so well in statistics, for example, "that I was invited to the statistics pizza party, for the kids who are at the top of the class."
"One of them said to me, 'You're smart; stop trying to act like you're not,' " she said.
Parker, who was also a high honor-roll student all four years in high school, laughed. "I wasn't trying. I didn't think I was, anyway," she said.
So Parker is not stressed out because of the pressures of basketball?
"When I go out on the basketball court, it's fun," she said. "It's actually my stress-free zone. Especially after what happened last season. I was denied that all last year. Now when I'm on the court, it's like a wonderful gift. Of course, when we have a practice at 7 in the morning, and I have to get up at 5:45, I have to remind myself of that."
She has been an avid student of the game, as her family tells it, since she was 4 years old. She broke down film with her father, Larry, who played for Lute Olson at Iowa; and her two older brothers, Anthony, who played for three years in the N.B.A. with Philadelphia and Orlando, and Marcus, who was a high school player but is now a resident in radiology at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore.
When she was 10 or 11, she said, she and her mother, Sara, drove up to Milwaukee to see Anthony play with the 76ers. It was there she met her idol, Allen Iverson.
"He was so nice," Parker said. "I had just played a game in which I had scored 20 or so, but our team lost and I was distressed about it.
"He said to me, 'Happens to me all the time. You gotta keep your head up. You never know when the pieces will come together.' That meant so much to me, coming from him, who is a phenomenal player, who gives everything all the time."
Iverson gave her a black finger band with, in white, his number, 3, and his initials on it. "I used to never take it off," she said. "I'd sleep with it. People would say, 'What's wrong with you?' And I still wear it every time I play." She also wears his number.
True to her word, the black band was on the middle finger of her left hand Thursday night against Texas.
Parker works, on and off the court. In the last year, she has put about 10 pounds of muscle on her 180-pound frame. "Last year, you might be able to push her around in the paint," Wiley-Gatewood said, "but no more. She's gotten too strong."
Even after her knee injury, and staying here over the summer, she has increased her vertical leap by 2 inches to 28 inches, according to Moshak. (She won a slam-dunk contest during festivities surrounding the 2004 McDonald's All-American Game.) The extra vaulting inches came from labor in the weight room and industrious rehabilitation.
A low point for Parker? "I think it was the first game of last season," said Wiley-Gatewood, Parker's close friend. "I was sitting on the bench next to her. And she cried. And you know, it wasn't totally that she wanted to play herself, but she said, 'I think I can help the team.' And you know, by the way she had worked to get back, I think she did help the team, in spirit."
And she has already made an impression. "What you have to love about her as much as anything is that when the score is tight, she wants the ball, she has that confidence," Summitt said. "She can make big plays, either rebounding or defense or taking the last shot, and not worrying about being the hero or the goat."
High praise, though it is the kind of high expectations that Parker welcomes. She said her goal was to win four national championships, "and to help keep women's basketball improving and making it more exciting."
"Sure, we keep the traditional pure game that a lot of people like, but add that fast-paced game, the athletic game, some hip-hop with style," she said.
Then, this fundamentally sound basketball star and fervent competitor left her locker, where she has taped a picture of her with Allen Iverson, her sometime basketball model.