Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Candace Parker's impact on all of women's basketball

The ally-oop arched high above the Ford Center court toward Candace Parker.

She leapt, eyeing the basketball, hanging in the air. The only thing that kept her from tipping the ball in as planned was a foul. As the Tennessee phenom stepped to the free-throw line, a voice rang out from the stands.

"She's not Michael Jordan!”

Who knows what's more telling — that someone thought the Volunteers set up Parker for a dunk or that she actually could've thrown it down.

Candace Parker is Michael Jordan.

Women's basketball has had its share of great players, but none have transcended the game like Parker. She has stretched the bounds, not just with her dunks but with her dynamics, too. The 6-foot-5 multi-tasker plays the point and the post with equal aplomb. Dribble. Pass. Shoot. Defend. She can do it all.

Parker is not only the face of the game but also the future of it.

It all started here in Oklahoma City.

Parker introduced herself to the sports world right here in our fair city. This is where she won the 2004 McDonald's All-American Dunk Contest, beating out the likes of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, becoming the first girl to best the boys.

Parker considers that weekend the start of her college career.

"I feel like when I came on the scene, people were like, ‘Oh, that's the girl who can dunk,'” Parker said. "Now, people recognize that my game is not just that.

"That was my whole intent coming to college, not to just be a one-dimensional player.”

Mission accomplished.

And now in the city where her college days began, Parker will take one of her final steps as a collegian. Even though she has one more year of eligibility remaining, the fourth-year junior has decided to leave Knoxville and turn her attention toward the Olympics and the WNBA.

Tonight at the Ford Center, a trip to the Women's Final Four is up for grabs against Texas A&M.

Parker could add to her lofty status with another national title.

Thing is, her ascent hasn't always been easy.

Parker had been on campus at Tennessee only a short time when she started having problems with her left knee. A year earlier, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament but returned to lead Naperville Central High to an Illinois state championship. The knee was swelling, though, and a pair of surgeries revealed bad news — cartilage fragments as well as cartilage damage.

Parker, perhaps the most heralded recruit in Tennessee's storied women's basketball history, was forced to redshirt and rehab.

It was a life-changing experience.

"You take the game for granted, then you tear your knee up and all of a sudden you think, ‘I love this game more than I knew and I want to get it back,'” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who tore her own ACL once upon a time. "Of all the players on this basketball team, she puts more time into her game. She invests in her skill development on a daily basis.”

Parker could rely on her natural abilities. Quickness. Length. Instinct.

Instead, she works. And works. And works. "I told her when we took a break, ‘Don't go in the gym,'” Summitt said.

The coach smiled.

"I whisper to a couple of them, ‘You can get in the gym, you know?'”

She doesn't have to with Parker.

"With her,” Summitt said, "she's all about getting better.”

Perhaps that explains how Parker has thrived on the court despite being pulled in so many directions off of it. There are autographs to sign and expectations to exceed and interviews to grant and fans to impress.

Heck, Parker is even doing the long-distance-relationship thing. She is engaged to Shelden Williams.

Yes, that Shelden Williams.

Parker met the former Midwest City High standout while on an official recruiting visit to Duke, where Williams starred. They struck up a friendship, then eventually began dating. They have been engaged for almost a year.

"It helps a lot both being in basketball,” Williams said via phone from Sacramento, where he now plays for the Kings. "We've both been in each other's situation.”

Parker's mother, Sara, said: "Each of them understands what the other's going through. Shelden understands the college schedule, and because of Anthony, Candace's brother (who starts for the Toronto Raptors), she understands the pro schedule.”

They catch each other's games on television, cell phones in hand. They text as they watch, then those comments are waiting on the other when the game is done.

"Candace would need a strong, confident young man; Shelden is that,” Sara Parker said. "You have to have a lot of confidence to handle a lot of the things that she's going to be faced with, and I think he handles it very well.”

Much like Parker. She didn't meet expectations at Tennessee. She exceeded them.

Ask Summitt about her, and the coach minces no words about the star.

"First thing I want to say is Candace Parker is the best player in the women's game,” she said. "There have been a lot of questions or suggestions who is the best player. The big question should be, ‘who is the best player in the world?'

"Is it Candace Parker, or is it Lauren Jackson?”

Jackson, by the way, is a two-time Olympian for Australia and a two-time player of the year in the WNBA.

"How many 6-5 players have you seen ever in the women's game play the way Candace Parker plays?” Summitt said. "She brought a whole different dimension and package.”

Sure, Parker can dunk, and that's still a big deal in the women's game. Thing is, she is the biggest deal nowadays not because she can jam but because she can flat-out ball.

Oklahoma City first came to know Candace Parker as the girl who could dunk. Now, she is the Michael Jordan of women's basketball.

My, how she has grown.

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