Jan. 1, 2014
By Courtney Fritts
UT Athletic Media Relations
First, the story was Tennessee's national championship drought from 1998 until 2007. Then the story took a dramatic turn to Tennessee's back-to-back national titles in 2008.
But that triumphant drama featured much more than the Lady Vol basketball team winning titles. It showcased the emergence of Candace Parker as one of the program's and the college game's greatest players.
Parker accumulated two NCAA titles, two SEC tournament championships, 45 career double-doubles, 2,137 points, 972 rebounds, seven dunks and 31 collegiate honors among a lengthy list of accomplishments. She has added a truckload of post-collegiate honors to the list, including two Olympic gold medals and an overall number-one pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft.
Some have called her legendary, a superstar and the face of women's basketball. Tennessee is elated to call her an alumna of its eight-time NCAA champion program.
Parker helped redefine the sport of women's basketball by becoming the first player to dunk a basketball in an NCAA Tournament game and also dunk twice in a single college contest. Among her impressive collection of accolades, there is one more to add on Jan. 2, 2014.
Parker's jersey will be retired Thursday night at the University of Tennessee prior to the Lady Vols' SEC-opener against LSU. Her banner will join those of her head coach, Pat Summitt, as well as five other players from Lady Vol history, including current head coach Holly Warlick, Bridgette Gordon, Daedra Charles, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Candace just exemplifies what it means to be a Lady Vol," Warlick said. "She plays hard, she's won championships, she's won awards, she's a great role model, she has her degree and she loves this program. She's what a Lady Vol should be."
Since graduating from UT with a degree in sport management and minors in business administration and psychology, the well-balanced Lady Vol was chosen as the number-one overall draft pick in the 2008 WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. She has played there for all six years as a professional, and has been married to NBA basketball player Shelden Williams since 2008. They have a daughter, Lailaa.
With the Sparks, Parker has led her team to four playoff berths in six years, averaging 17.9 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in 2013 for L.A. Her averages jumped to 25.7 points and 8.7 rebounds during the 2013 WNBA Playoffs.
Since Parker was recruited in high school out of Naperville, Ill., nothing about her basketball career has been ordinary. She won numerous athlete of the year awards in 2008, was named All-American twice, won gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and is now a WNBA superstar. In her first year in the WNBA, Parker was named player of the year and rookie of the year - making her the first-ever athlete to do so.
During her first Olympic reign, USA Basketball wrote that when Parker was a child, she told her mom, Sara Parker, "I'm going to win at the junior high, high school, college, WNBA and Olympic level." And Parker has done all of that, plus some.
Looking back, Parker's time at Tennessee added a new wrinkle to what the Lady Vol program had built before her and set the standard for how future players were measured in terms of athleticism and entertainment.
Despite taking a medical redshirt for her injured left knee her freshman year at UT, Parker came back for three more seasons to become one of the most successful players in Tennessee basketball history. Parker was listed as a guard, forward and center in Tennessee's media guide - the only one of her kind in Lady Vol history.
Just days before winning the 2007 title, Jeff Lippman of the Associated Press wrote, "To err is human, to be Candace Parker is divine. Parker needs water and oxygen to live, she bleeds when cut and must sleep when tired. The similarities to other human beings stop there. Like a god, Parker isn't simply coming into her own as a player, she is becoming. Becoming something far greater than the next WNBA All-Star."
Basketball observers around the country agreed, as did her coach at Tennessee, the legendary Pat Summitt.
"Candace is going to have a great impact on the league," Summitt said during the 2008 National Championship press conference. "With her talent, her skill set, and her ability to play multiple positions, she will go in and be able to have an immediate impact. I'm really proud of how hard she has worked to expand her game. She's worked very hard in all aspects and will be a very positive player in the league."
As her coach said in 2008, Parker hasn't disappointed anyone with her success in the WNBA. Parker won WNBA MVP for the second time in 2013, becoming only the fifth player in history to accumulate more than one honor. In 2013, Parker led the Sparks to a 24-10 record in the regular season, ranking fourth in blocks, sixth in scoring, seventh in rebounding and double-doubles, and 12th in assists.
Without a doubt, Parker has led the Sparks in almost every statistical category, and the ultimate achievement remaining for her, it seems, is a WNBA title.
After her 2007 national championship, Parker said, "I'm about winning a national championship because I feel like all the personal accolades can be disputed, but you can never take away a national championship."
But her personal accolades are unlikely to ever be disputed.
In her three seasons at Tennessee, Parker helped the Lady Vols to a 101-10 overall record, starting in all but one game. In 2008 she won ESPY Female Athlete of the Year and ESPY Female Collegiate Athlete of the Year; she also won more than 10 total athlete of the year awards, SEC Female Athlete of the Year, SEC Player of the Year and SEC Freshman of the Year, as well as All-SEC three times, SEC Tournament MVP twice and even CoSIDA Academic All-American in 2007 and 2008.
Some of the most memorable parts of Parker's collegiate career were her remarkable comebacks from being injured her true freshman season and playing through yet another her senior year.
After redshirting her freshman year due to injury on her lateral meniscus and lateral articular cartilage in her left knee, Parker returned healthy in 2006 and began the quest for NCAA Championships. Claiming an NCAA title in 2007, Parker came looking for a second one in 2008. She and the Lady Vols were well on their way before another injury struck. In the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, she dislocated her left shoulder during the first half. Somehow, she still scored 26 points to lead Tennessee out of a second-half deficit against Texas A&M to a 53-45 win.
"I didn't want this game to be the last time that we played together," Parker said postgame. Summitt, who urged the athletic trainer to find a shoulder sleeve during the game, applauded Parker's toughness as the team continued to the Final Four and won the program's eighth trophy despite its star player's physical limitations.
"Sometimes people see Candace as more of a finesse player, but I think sometimes when you see finesse players, you don't realize just how mentally tough they are until you see them fight through the adversity that she fought through tonight," Summitt said.
Parker was no stranger to injury during her four years and three playing seasons. She fought through her dislocated shoulder, sprained knees, sprained ankles and hip flexor injuries. A story of Parker's resilience even hung in the Lady Vols' training room in Stokely Athletic Center until teams moved to the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex.
Every time she was down, Parker always came back to help her team. In 2008, it was to get to that title game.
"Honestly, in postseason, you've got to come through. That's what great players do," Parker said after Tennessee's win in the 2008 tournament, propelling them to the Elite Eight, then just three games away from the 2008 championship.
"She wants it, and she's willing to step up and make the plays for us," Summitt said in the same press conference after beating Notre Dame.
Time after time, Parker stepped up to the challenge, surprised everyone in her wake and performed greater than many thought she could.
Parker's story now is more than just being a great player - it's also her toughness and mental ability to overcome that astounds the women's basketball world.
A key storyline during her college career also was the slam dunk, coming before 6-foot-8 Britney Griner raised the bar on that front during her career at Baylor.
Parker became not only the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game, she also became the first to record two stuffs in a college contest. She accomplished both feats as a redshirt freshman against Army in Norfolk, Va., on March 19, 2006. She went on to finish with seven dunks for her career, including four during the 2006-07 season.
Now, she's about to add yet another distinction to her résumé, as "CP" becomes the sixth Lady Vol player to have her jersey retired at Tennessee. It's an honor that UT is proud to bestow and one that Big Orange fans have been waiting to witness since Parker walked off The Summitt on Feb. 28, 2008, after helping her team topple Florida on Senior Day.