Tuesday, March 30, 2004
By Pete Thamel
Special to ESPN.com
MIDWEST CITY, Okla. -- There are moments, stunning indelible moments, that transcend sport, crumble barriers and create icons.
There's Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome in 1973. Brandi Chastain clinching the Women's World Cup in 1999. Annika Sorenstam teeing off at the Colonial last May.
On Monday night, in a cozy high school gymnasium southeast of Oklahoma City, a 17-year-old high school senior named Candace Parker turned in the latest moment. Parker beat out five male competitors to win the Slam Dunk contest of the McDonald's High School All-American Game.
She won with aplomb, too, darting down the left side of the lane, covering her eyes with her left arm and flushing home a right-handed dunk. At 9:06 p.m. CT, Parker sparked a raucous ovation, chest bumps from her teammates and officially launched herself as the female answer to LeBron James.
Parker, who will play for Tennessee next season, stands just a shade under 6-feet-4 and can play all five positions on the floor. The first two-time winner of the Naismith National Player of the Year award, Parker already was billed as the most ballyhooed women's high school athlete ever. That's before she joined James, Carmelo Anthony and Vince Carter on the list of McDonald's Dunk Contest winners.
"I'm not surprised, she really plays at the rim," Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said Tuesday afternoon after learning of Parker's winning performance. "Obviously, Candace is a very special player. She's going to be good for the women's game. She's the kind of individual who has a lot of charisma and personality."
Yes, Parker's performance suggests she could usher women's college basketball further into the mainstream with the sport's sexiest play -- the dunk. Only five dunks have been recorded during a women's college game, three by Tennessee's Michelle Snow. There has been only one in the WNBA, a Lisa Leslie flush in 2002.
Candace Parker became the first female to win the slam dunk contest at the McDonald's High School All-America game.
"That would be my dream," Parker said. "For 10 years from now for three or four girls entering the dunk contest and it's not a big deal."
Parker has dunked twice in high school games, the first time coming as a sophomore. She's one of two known high school women to dunk in a game. The scary part about Parker's performance Monday is that she's capable of much better.
Just weeks ago, Parker couldn't even throw down because of the lingering effects of an ACL tear last July. Parker, who led Naperville Central High School in suburban Chicago to consecutive state titles, missed the first 11 games of the past season. She still wears a sleek silver brace over her left knee, her plant leg for jumping.
This summer, before the injury, Parker could leap and do one-handed reverse dunks from under the rim and a lean-in dunk where she got above the rim and could quickly snap the ball into the basket.
But you wouldn't know that talking to Parker, who downplayed the whole night.
"It was totally unexpected," she said. "I was just trying to get out there and get one down."
Where Candace stands: A sampling
of past McDonald's Slam Dunk winners
LeBron James 2003
Carmelo Anthony 2002
DeShawn Stevenson 2000
Ronald Curry 1998
Baron Davis 1997
Vince Carter 1995
Jerry Stackhouse 1993
Truth be told, even if she hadn't won the contest, Parker still would have caused a stir. The night's second best moment came when she tore off her red warm-up top and walked to the middle of the court to attempt her first dunk.
She strode confidently with the ball palmed in her hand like she was carrying a loaf of bread.
"She's very calm and poised," said Jennifer Azzi, a former Stanford and WNBA star who was one of the contest's eight judges. "This is a pretty big deal and she has a presence that will help her be successful."
As Parker sized up her first attempt, a stunned hush went over the crowd, the kind that precedes a giant buzz. People turned to each other and gasped, "A girl is in the dunk contest?" The crowd roared, instantly rose to its feet, and Parker jammed home two of her first three attempts to advance past the opening round.
Just landing a dunk in the contest would have been a landmark moment. Duke freshman Brittany Hunter failed to get one down in the dunk contest last year.
Parker not only bested Hunter, she beat out a few guys who are considering a leap to the NBA. Her signature flush, a replica of the one that won Dee Brown the NBA Slam Dunk contest in 1991, beat out J.R. Smith (who has signed with North Carolina), Darius Washington (Memphis) and Joe Crawford (Kentucky).
Admittedly, Crawford had a good chance to beat Parker in the end. But he couldn't stuff home his final two attempts, leaving Parker her place in history. Her male McDonald's counterparts couldn't have been happier for her, though.
"It's not every day that a girl can dunk," Washington said. "And she does it with creativity."
"That was big," added Glen "Big Baby" Davis, an LSU-bound forward. "I saw history tonight, right before my eyes."
While Parker's performance delighted her parents, it didn't come as a shock. Success is expected in the Parker family. Her father, Larry, played at Iowa, the final two years under Lute Olson. Her older brother, Anthony, was the 21st pick in the 1997 NBA draft out of Bradley, spent parts of three years in the league and now plays professionally in Israel. Her other brother, Marcus, is finishing medical school at Johns Hopkins. No surprise, Candace carries a 3.59 grade-point average.
"This is special," Larry Parker said, "but those guys keep her [grounded]. Success is relative."
Parker's success Monday dovetails perfectly with the flourishing game of women's college basketball, which for years was viewed as Connecticut, Tennessee and 300-plus other programs fighting to keep up.
But a quick peek at this year's NCAA Division I Women's Tournament shows an across-the-board upgrade in talent. A No. 13 seed, Middle Tennessee State, pulled just the third 13 vs. 4 upset in tournament history. Eleventh-seeded UC Santa Barbara reached the Sweet 16 before falling to UConn, 63-55.
Appropriately, fourth-seeded LSU clinched a spot in the Final Four about the same time Parker was hoisting her trophy from the dunk contest. Seimone Augustus, the Lady Tigers' sophomore star who scored 29 points for the second consecutive game, is the heir apparent to graduating stars Diana Taurasi of UConn and Alana Beard of Duke.
Augustus, who can dunk but has yet to in a game, will share the SEC spotlight with Parker the next two seasons.
"That's unbelievable," Augustus said of Parker. "Good for her. That's a big step for the game of women's basketball. We don't get as much publicity as the men do. Maybe this will open people's eyes. The game is changing."
Just listen to the questions Parker deflected about jumping directly from high school to the WNBA to see the change. The league has a rule that doesn't allow high school players to make the jump, but Parker hinted that she thought about challenging it.
"Being realistic, if the WNBA was going to offer her $10 million over three years, she'd look at it," said Sara Parker, Candace's mother. Larry Parker noted the salary differences between the women's and men's game. The maximum WNBA player contract is $85,000 a season.
All that said, Candace is still just a kid three weeks shy of her 18th birthday. As she answered questions at a news conference, she sparred with her mother over the location of her warm-up pants, which had gotten lost in the post-game fray.
"Put on your pants. It's cold out," Sara Parker told her daughter as she left the building.
Candace issued a typical teenage sigh and walked out into a sea of autograph seekers. They were old and young. Men and women. Black and white.
"Candace, just sign this one thing."
"Candace, I've been waiting here all night."
"Candace, you da man."
No, but she proved she can hang with them -- and from the rim, too.