Saturday, January 12, 2008

Parker eyes 2nd title as pros beckon

It is not an official farewell tour, but Midlands basketball fans hoping to catch Tennessee All-American Candace Parker would be well advised to head to the Colonial Center on Sunday.

Hoops junkies can see plenty of Parker on YouTube. The popular video-sharing Web site features clips of the 6-foot-4 standout dunking against Army in the NCAA tournament, accepting the Wooden Award as the nation’s top women’s player last season, and dunking some more with former Lady Vols standout Michelle Snow during a Team USA practice at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

But with Parker expected to become the first women’s player to leave school early for the WNBA, No. 2 Tennessee’s trip to South Carolina likely will be the last chance for area fans to see Parker play in person — at least in a Lady Vols’ uniform.

Parker has yet to announce her intentions, but most signs point to the 21-year-old beginning her professional career following this season.

Asked this week in a phone interview if leading the Lady Vols to a second consecutive NCAA title would be a fitting end to her college career, Parker said: “To some extent, I think it would justify my decision to leave even more so.”

Given that the WNBA draft falls on the heels of the NCAA finals, Parker pointed out that she has to make up her mind before the tournament begins.

So when might that be?

“I’m trying to wait as long as I can,” Parker said, laughing a bit. “I have no idea. I’ll sit down with my family and friends and decide.”

There is little left for Parker to accomplish in college. A two-time All-American, Parker claimed two national player-of-the-year awards last season, won an NCAA title and became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game when she jammed twice in a first-round game against Army in 2006.

But perhaps the most telling sign that Parker has reached superstar status came last month when her benching at DePaul was one of the top stories on SportsCenter. Parker was held out of the first half after missing curfew prior to the game, played near her hometown of Naperville, Ill., and attended by 60 of her friends and family members.

“Sometimes people love controversy and they love — the media covers things like that,” Parker said. “So I wasn’t surprised when that was the lead story and everybody found out about it.”

Parker is used to the attention. Pat Summitt won an intense recruiting battle for Parker, who still has a photograph of her and Summitt taken when Parker, then in seventh grade, attended a Lady Vols’ game at DePaul.

Nor has Summitt forgotten the first time she saw Parker play during an AAU tournament in the Raleigh-Durham area.

“When I walked in and saw her, I was like, I do not want to play against this young lady,” Summitt recalled. “I just thought there was a great upside for Candace and I thought she’s got a chance to be one of the best that’s ever played the game.”

Summitt puts Parker in the same rarefied air as former Tennessee stars Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw. But what makes Parker unique is her versatility: The redshirt junior, who sat out her first year at Tennessee with a knee injury, is listed as a forward-center-guard on the Lady Vols’ roster.

Parker ranks among the nation’s top 10 scorers with 21.3 points per game and leads her team in rebounding (8.7), field-goal percentage (54.8), blocked shots (2.3) and steals (2.6).

Experts believe Parker will be the first player taken in the WNBA draft.

“The WNBA needs stars. And she’s obviously one of the most heralded players coming out of women’s basketball,” said John Lombardo, who covers the league for Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal. “She’s just an exciting player, which the WNBA needs.”

But Parker will bring more to the WNBA than a soft shooting touch and good leaping ability. Named one of People magazine’s 100 most beautiful people last spring, Parker is engaged to Atlanta Hawks forward Shelden Williams and could bring crossover appeal to a league struggling to fill arenas.

But those are concerns for another day for Parker, who is trying to savor what likely will be her last semester on campus. Parker, on track to graduate in May, enjoys cooking, going to Tennessee’s rec center to watch friends play intramural sports, and checking out the Vols’ football games — on TV.

“I love football, watching football on television,” she said. “But 108,000 (fans), that’s just too much for me.”

They represent 108,000 potential autograph-seekers from what Summitt calls all the “Candace Parker fan clubs out there.”

But Summitt said Parker does a good job keeping it all in perspective.

“I really try not to think about it because they say college is some of the best years of your life, and you want to enjoy it,” Parker said. “I never really understood because people are always like, AAU’s the best time of your life, and high school’s the best time of your life. You don’t realize it while you’re in it, then you look back and say, ‘Wow, those times were great and those memories were great.’ ”

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