KNOXVILLE -- A star long before she even arrived at the University of Tennessee, Candace Parker is that rare athlete who not only meets supersized expectations, she exceeds them.
Parker, a junior from Naperville, Ill. and a two-time all-American, is averaging 21.1 points and 8.4 rebounds for the second-ranked Lady Vols (17-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference), who will visit 10th-ranked Duke tonight in a game televised by ESPN.
At the ripe age of 21, Parker has already claimed a national title, helped lead the United States to a gold medal at the Junior World Championships, won the slam dunk contest at the McDonald's High School All-American Game, become the first woman to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game, and listened to herself be referenced in lyrics by the rap group Wu-Tang Clan. Parker, the group opined, can "take flight like Skywalker."
For these reasons, and others, coach Pat Summitt lists her on the team's roster as a guard, forward and center. She does it all.
Parker recently sat down with The Commercial Appeal to talk about her season, her Olympic aspirations and her wedding plans.
Q: So how are things going this season?
CP: Everything's good. I'm really enjoying myself. Coming off the national title is cool.
Q: Having won the national title, does this season feel any different?
CP: I feel like that's what's so special about this team. We won our national title, then we kind of put it aside and said, 'This is a new year.' That's how you keep motivated. Every day is a new day, and you just have to continue to take it day by day. Because when you start looking too far ahead, that's when things go wrong.
Q: When people stop you on the street, what's the first question they ask?
CP: I hear it all, really. I'd say the biggest question is, 'Are you going to stay another year?'
Q: And what do you say?
CP: I just kind of laugh and get moving.
Q: You're graduating in May. What'll your process be in terms of deciding whether to return for one last season or go to the WNBA?
CP: To be honest with you, I haven't even really thought about it yet. It'll be a decision I'll have to make before I graduate, obviously. But I haven't really thought about it.
Q: Is potentially playing on the U.S. Olympic team this summer exciting?
CP: Yeah, it's exciting. Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to make the Olympic team and play. It's always been a dream of mine.
Q: What's the tryout process?
CP: To be honest with you, I don't even know. I just kind of show up when they ask me to show up, go where they tell me to go.
Q: When people say you're the player capable of taking the women's game to the next level, is that something you embrace?
CP: It's just somebody's opinion, that's my take. I just have to focus on what my teammates and my coaches and my family, the people that are closest to me, are saying. If you think about it too much, you start putting too much pressure on yourself.
Q: The WNBA hasn't grown in popularity the way a lot of people were hoping, and you're probably going to play overseas in addition to playing here in the U.S. Is it your hope that you wouldn't have to go overseas to supplement your playing career here?
CP: Well, to be honest with you, I envision the WNBA growing. With every sport, there's been some type of growth period where it's been stagnant. A lot of people remember the NBA in the '60s and '70s, they were saying it wasn't going to make it. I think also, going overseas, yeah, some players go because they have to make more money, but if we didn't go overseas it would take away from the sport over there. A lot of people support women's basketball in Russia, so I just think the WNBA season is short enough where you can play a couple of months overseas no matter how much it grows.
Q: What have you learned about your game at Tennessee?
CP: This summer, I definitely worked on my face-up game. Getting in the gym and getting more shots, stuff like that. But I think every year, I've tried to find something new to improve, some area I need to work on, go into the offseason and do that.
Q: How did tearing your ACL before your senior year of high school affect you?
CP: It was definitely a tough situation, but I always try to make a positive out of anything, you know? What can you do? I just got stronger, I got in the gym. I mean, I really sat out two years, because I missed my senior year of high school, then sat out my freshman year here. So I really just tried to focus on what I needed to improve and get mentally tough. Because I think a lot of the game is about your mind. You can't sit around and dwell on it. You have to get past it and get stronger.
Q: You're engaged to Atlanta Hawks forward Shelden Williams. Have you set a date?
CP: No, not yet. But I'm excited!
Q: Any ideas about where you're headed for your honeymoon?
CP: That's not my job! He's supposed to surprise me and tell me where we're going!
Q: How many interviews have you done this season?
CP: Oh, gosh. Um ... It's not every day, but maybe four or five a week.
Q: So do people leave you alone around campus, or are you surrounded everywhere you go?
CP: Well, it's something that you just have to deal with. I wouldn't have it any other way. It's better than playing somewhere where nobody cares, where it might be like, 'Oh, she's tall, she must play basketball.' People actually know who we are -- not just me. I think that's just a testament to just how far this program has taken women's basketball.