Thursday, March 06, 2008

Candace Parker drawing crowds to women’s basketball everywhere Tennessee plays

Call it The Candace Parker Effect.

Everywhere the Tennessee All-American forward goes, arena attendance swells with screaming girls and people who wouldn’t usually make the effort to watch women’s basketball.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been to an Alabama women’s game,” said 16-year-old Britney Smith from Hueytown, Ala., who attended Tennessee’s 85-58 victory over Alabama last month. “Candace is my favorite player in college basketball.”

Like Michael Jordan once did in the NBA, Parker helps fill seats wherever she goes. Fans want to see the 6-foot-4 junior attempt a dunk or lead the fastbreak like a fleet point guard.

During a recent Lady Volunteers road trip to Mississippi, attendance for games at Ole Miss and Mississippi State was three times the average turnout at the schools.

“When you have a player like Candace—she always has been in contention for player of the year—a lot of folks come,” Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning said. “You have your better crowds whenever a (team like) Tennessee comes into the gym.”

There was no question whom the new faces wanted to see: orange was the color of choice in the pro-Tennessee crowds.

Parker said it’s that kind of support that drew her to Tennessee in the first place.

“Our fans are here, they’re on the road with us, and they are the best in the country,” she said.

While the Lady Vols always draw large crowds at home and on the road, attendance this year at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena was the highest in history at 15,796 per game.

At Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols drew 14,316—7,000 more than the next largest crowd and 9,000 more than the Commodores’ average.

Tennessee drew 7,841 at South Carolina—5,000 more than the Gamecocks’ next largest crowd and 6,000 more than their average attendance.

Parker has also helped draw more television coverage for the third-ranked Lady Vols. Only four of Tennessee’s regular-season games were not televised.

“She’s obviously brought a lot of attention to our program,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “It’s the best attendance in the history of our program and obviously the television exposure is great.”

Fans are running out of time to see her play at the college level, though. With the redshirt junior skipping her final year of eligibility to go pro, only the postseason remains to see her in person.

Summitt said the fan support could carry over to the WNBA, where Parker likely will go as the No. 1 pick to the Los Angeles Sparks and play alongside Lisa Leslie.

“I would think she would have influence in that regard,” she said. “She’s a household name in the game of women’s basketball so you have to believe that.”

Parker also draws fans who want to see one of the few women’s college basketball players who can dunk.

She’s made seven dunks in her college career and is one of only six women who have dunked in a college game. In high school, Parker beat five male competitors to win the slam dunk contest as part of the McDonald’s High School All-American Game.

She rewarded the crowd at the Alabama game with an attempt on a fastbreak. She missed, but that didn’t seem to diminish the enthusiasm.

“When she tried to dunk, she really brought me out of my seat,” said Justin Paschall, a 27-year-old from Demopolis, Ala.

Kendell Stewart, the assistant girls varsity basketball coach at Hueytown (Ala.) High School, said the coaches brought their players to the game hoping the girls might learn a thing or two by watching Parker.

“We came to expose our girls to basketball at a higher level so they can see how hard these girls work and how they communicate on the floor,” Stewart said.

But for 17-year-old Hueytown player Christina Watson, there was only one player who was important.

“I came because I wanted a chance to see Candace Parker play in person,” she said. “She is just awesome.”

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