Thursday, December 06, 2007
Parker: First-rate game and a first-rate life
This photo of Candace Parker graced the cover of Knoxville CityView magazine in November.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The best women's college hoops player in the country -- and, who knows, maybe of all time -- isn't going to like it, but she needs to address some serious personal issues.
First of all, who names their dog Fendi? That's so Reese Witherspoon and "Legally Blonde." Except that Candace Parker's Fendi is a St. Bernard mix, not some accessory pooch that fits in your makeup kit.
"She's high maintenance, so she's a designer purse," says Parker, the All-America forward for No. 1-ranked Tennessee. "She's, like, my heart. She sleeps with me every night."
OMG. Her other dog, a pug, is named Nino. "From 'New Jack City,'" Parker says.
Could have been worse. Could have been New Jack's Pookie.
Then there's what we'll call, "The Michael Jordan Situation." Parker grew up in a Chicago suburb and adored MJ and the Bulls. And yet one of her most-prized possessions on her bedroom wall was a framed, poster-size photo of her and … Ron Harper?
"I respect Jordan -- he is the king -- but I would walk past Jordan to get Ron Harper's picture," Parker says of Harper, who played with MJ and is now an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons. "I don't know why I was the biggest Ron Harper fan. I just was."
You see? Problems. Lots of them.
Parker is also an All-America procrastinator. Her motto: Why do just one load of dirty laundry when you can wait another week and do three?
And Parker is a closet Disneyophile. Her older brother Marcus will die for this, but he says Parker knows all the words to the songs in, "The Little Mermaid." So sing along to her favorite lyrics from "Part of Your World," in which Ariel belts out, "Wouldn't you think I'm the girl … The girl who has everything?"
That's Parker -- the girl who has everything. Drop step. Midrange J. The trey. Face-up game. Dribble drive. D. Dunks. Can play point guard or center (and has). Attitude. Intensity. Smile powered by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Potential for greatness.
"I definitely think Candace could go down as the best player in the history of the game," says UT's Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. By the way, Summitt says this without hesitation.
Can you be Now and Next at the same time? If so, Parker qualifies. Yes, there is her disturbing infatuation with bad dog names and Harper. And there's no getting around her jones for watching "Full House" or "The Cosby Show." Ask her to list her favorite basketball movies -- with a warning not to take the easy way out and say, "Love and Basketball" -- and she swats it right back in your face.
"OK, it's a tie," Parker says. "It's, 'He Got Game' and 'Love and Basketball.' Those are my two favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite movies of all time."
(New item on list of Parker personality flaws: excessive use of the word "favorite.")
It's hard not to like Parker. She is smart (second-team Academic All-America), borderline goofball and, so, well, 21. When she met Ray Allen for the first time at this summer's ESPYS, she called him "Jesus" -- as in Jesus Shuttlesworth, Allen's character in "He Got Game." And in her Knoxville apartment is a photo of Parker and her fiancé, Atlanta Hawks forward Shelden Williams. According to friend and UT media relations intern Courtney Tysinger, the photo is a knockoff of the "Love and Basketball" promo poster.
Parker has a soft spot for Cold Stone, her family, her coaches and teammates, her vintage TV shows, her hoops, her pooches, her Shelden and her cooking (specialties: fried chicken … salmon … rice, sugar and butter).
"I like the fact that no matter how much people know her or how much she gets recognized, she's still the sweet, well-rounded person I knew when she got here," Tysinger says. "She stops and signs every single piece of paper fans give her. She can be in the library studying, having dinner with her family … she'll sign them."
Parker earns her diploma in sports management in May and hopes to earn a second consecutive national championship in March. Nobody will come right out and say it, but the redshirt junior -- last season's consensus player of the year -- will most certainly leave UT and be chosen No. 1 by the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks or No. 2 by the Chicago Sky. And did I mention the endorsement deals?
But first comes her final season and the continuing work on her basketball legacy. Summitt remembers the first time she saw Parker on the court. It was at an AAU game.
"When I saw her I just knew that I didn't want to have to play against her," Summitt said.
Nobody did. One time during a 3-on-3 pickup game at the park near the Parkers' old house, Candace, who was still in high school, Marcus and a friend were matched up against some twentysomethings. The friend had to leave, so Candace's oldest brother, Anthony, who now plays for the Toronto Raptors and at the time had returned home as the EuroLeague MVP, subbed in.
"And they tried to isolate against Anthony," says Marcus, laughing.
That's how bad Candace was beating the guy trying to guard her.
About a year or so ago, Parker and Marcus played in some pickup games at the Cooley Athletic Center, which is near Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Marcus, 29, is completing his residency as a radiologist at the hospital.
"She was getting guarded by a 5-11 guy," Marcus says. "She didn't even take him on the post. She played very well. There was almost a buzz around the gym."
But don't get wrapped up in the guy thing. The 6-foot-4, 172-pound Parker couldn't play in the NBA, the NBDL or the elite European leagues.
"I don't think that's important," says Anthony, 32. "But I think she's good enough that anyone she played, they'd have to take her seriously. If you don't do that now, you'll get embarrassed."
Parker's talent is in the same paragraph -- or, at least, on the same page -- as the greats in the women's game: Diana Taurasi, Lisa Leslie, Tamika Catchings, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson ("My role model," Parker says. "She's been where I want to go."), Cheryl Miller (Parker has watched tape of the former USC star), Carol Blazejowski, Ann Meyers-Drysdale, Anne Donovan, Lusia Harris Stewart, Nancy Lieberman, Lauren Jackson, Lynette Woodard, Chamique Holdsclaw, Seimone Augustus and Rebecca Lobo, among others. One day she might have the page to herself.
"There's been a lot of great players," Summitt says. "What will separate Candace out from the pack I think is her ability to dominate the game on both ends."
She's getting there, not that that's much of a surprise. Parker has a history of separating herself from everyone else. She plays with a cadaver donor Achilles and a cadaver donor plug in her surgically repaired left knee. The first day home from ACL surgery she bent her knee 90 degrees -- you know, just to show the knee who it was messing with.
Her nickname of choice is "CP," but it ought to be, "Five More Shots." Beginning in eighth grade, when she fell in love with the game, that's what she used to say to her dad and mom when it was time to leave the gym. "I just want to shoot a little longer," she'd say. "Five more shots."
She went to the high school prom on a Friday night. On Saturday she was supposed to go to Six Flags Great America with her date, but instead decided to play in a hoops tournament. "We can go to Great America some other time," she told the guy.
"We didn't raise her to be a meek, mild, sit-back young lady," says Parker's mom, Sara.
She isn't. Parker is Daddy's little girl, but Summitt's basketball terror. She spent the offseason refining her midrange game and working on her defense. She played on and against the USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team. And a few days ago in the win against No. 4 North Carolina, Parker filled out her linescore with 21 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks.
"I do think about my potential," Parker says. "But it's just that, potential. Obviously I want to be the best. I want to be the best. It's been instilled in me since I was young. And I'm willing to work hard for it."
She got game. Even those hoops fans non-fluent in women's basketball would realize it if they watched. She's kind of Chris Bosh-ish, she says. Smooth. Can play off the block, but also face up. Her dad, Larry, says she's more Kevin Garnett-ish.
"He's 6-11, 7-foot," he says. "She's like that at 6-4 in the women's game. Candace has just scratched the surface."
It will be fun to watch her scratch away the rest of it. In the meantime, enjoy her for what she is, and what she might become. Most of all, say a prayer for her next dog.