The past two months have provided basketball fans everywhere plenty of captivating headlines, however one of the biggest stories has yet to receive the attention it deserves from the media. From the Boston Celtics’ 17th franchise championship earlier this month, dozens of college basketball players working out for NBA teams in preparation for the draft on June 26th and Team USA basketball director Jerry Colangelo work towards finalizing the American Olympic basketball team for the 2008 Beijing games, there has been plenty of news to keep basketball fans riveted to their television sets and ESPN. But there is one particular woman quietly making some significant headlines of her own, and that is Los Angeles Sparks center/forward, Candace Parker.
Parker’s collegiate career under Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee was nothing short of spectacular. After taking a medical redshirt during her initial year on campus, she started every game during her freshman year, and averaged 17 points and eight rebounds. Not only did she earn All-American honors, but she hit the winning shot in the SEC title game to give Tennessee the SEC title. Unfortunately, the Volunteers fell short of winning it all that year, as they fell to North Carolina. Parker was unable to help her team during that game, as she was saddled with foul trouble. That would be the last year she would end a collegiate season without a title.
During her next two seasons at Tennessee, Parker led Tennessee to two titles, made the All-American team twice, and joined Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw and Cheryl Miller as the only players to have won the Most Outstanding Player (MOP) award twice. She was able to lead her team to the title in 2008, despite playing with a badly separated shoulder, which could have easily postponed and even jeopardized her WNBA career. She chose to forgo her final year of playing eligibility, because she wanted to graduate on time and leave for the WNBA. Her record at Tennessee? An impressive 101-10, which translates to an 83% winning percentage.
Just one day after winning the NCAA title, Parker was drafted first overall in the WNBA Draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sparks were able to draft first, because they had played their entire season without megastar, Lisa Leslie, who took the year off to have a baby. The talk before the season centered on how well Leslie and Parker could co-exist. Both players were used to being the number one option, both played center, they were basically the same height (Parker is 6”4, Leslie is 6”5), and both players were coming off situations that could affect their play in the 2008 season. Leslie had been inactive for a year since having the baby at the age of 36 and Parker was still affected by the shoulder she had separated while still at Tennessee.
In her WNBA debut on May 17th, Parker defiantly answered any doubts there may have been about her co-existing with Leslie or her shoulder. Against the WNBA defending champion Phoenix Mercury, Parker put up numbers that would make Jason Kidd envious, registering 34 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Not to be outdone, Leslie scored 17, grabbed 12 rebounds herself and had five steals, to lead the Sparks to 99-94 victory. Gone was the buzz of any conflict between Leslie and Parker, and the talk now turned to the level of dominance they would be able to achieve together. But there was also a substantial buzz about how easy Parker had made things look in her WNBA debut.
Since her stellar debut, Parker has been able to duplicate the success, statistics-wise, that she had in college. Currently, she is averaging 17 points, nine rebounds and, in what is rare for a center, four assists. As of June 23rd, the Sparks sat atop the Western Conference with a record of 9-3. More importantly, though, Parker’s dominance hasn’t diminished Leslie’s game at all, as she too averages 17 points and nine rebounds. Sparks head coach Michael Cooper, who played on the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, has commented that Parker’s all-around game on the court reminds him a lot of Magic Johnson’s.
Additionally, her appeal and star power are not simply limited to her on-the-court exploits. Parker has earned endorsements from Gatorade and Adidas. The attendance for Los Angeles Sparks games has more than doubled, as have the road attendance at their away games. Parker’s jerseys are selling more than any other jersey in the WNBA’s 11-year history, and ESPN and ABC are reporting a boost in their ratings. Parker has achieved the status of Michelle Wie, Tiger Woods and even Sidney Crosby. Non-WNBA fans may not know much about the sports, but they will definitely check the box score, or tune into the game to see if history will be made. On June 23rd, in the Sparks’ victory over the Indiana Fever, 77-63, Parker did just that by becoming the second woman since Leslie, to dunk in a WNBA game
Candace Parker has a commercial that she did for the WNBA, when in tongue-in-cheek fashion she slams the WNBA, and says that no one watches, and no “new blood” has come to the league in 10 years. She ends the commercials by saying, “expect great” and on the surface she seems to be talking about the WNBA. However, after watching her dominate the WNBA for the first two months, and lead her team to first place, one can assume she was talking about herself too.
Photo Credit: Icon Sports Media