The grade of the path from the women's locker room to the court is steep. Maybe 30 degrees. Maybe 35. A bowling ball rolled from the top could do some damage. A Tennessee forward? We're about to find out.
Parker and her teammates aren't giving the big smiles until they win it all.
"Clear out, clear out," says Candace Parker, her foot and knee wrapped in postgame ice, backstage at the arena,. "She's gonna try to roll all the way down," The "she" is Sidney Spencer, Parker's teammate. Spencer lies down on the carpeted floor and, as if coiled up in a rug, tries to roll down the slope.
She makes about three rotations before flaming out--a Jackass stunt gone bad. Parker, Tennessee's all-everything star, covers her mouth, laughing childishly at the failed attempt, and helps Spencer to her feet.
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After her dominating and intimidating performance in UT's resounding 98-62 win over Ole Miss which sent the Vols to the Final Four, it's strange to see Parker acting so goofy. But let's allow the sophomore center these, well, sophomoric moments. As she gets older and the responsibilities mount, they will be harder to find time for.
A team? A sport? A gender? Which of these is Candace Parker hoisting on her shoulders? Since she first slammed a basketball at a McDonald's All-American dunk contest as a high school senior, the Naperville, Illinois standout has become the vessel into which proponents of women's sports pour their hopes and dreams. Billie Jean King, Sheryl Swoopes, Mia Hamm-- Parker's impact is expected to exceed all three.
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So, in actuality, how good is Parker? Seeing her for the first time in person, I'd say she's really good. And no, I don't qualify that with "...for a girl." At 6’4” with a soft touch (for any position), a deft handle (for a big man) and serious hops (ok,...for a girl), Parker plays differently than everyone with whom she shares the court. She's taller than everyone on the court but also the most graceful. As Pat Summit describes, Parker "separates herself."
In Wednesday's win over Ole Miss, Parker finished with 24 points (10-14 FG), 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks in only 25 minutes. Like MJ in Dean Smith's system, Parker has completely bought into Summit's democratic offense. Otherwise Parker would have scored 40 tonight without breaking a sweat. It was sort of unfair, actually, like seeing Wilt playing at Kansas.
Unlike Wilt, Parker has a mean streak. Don't be fooled by her America's Top Model looks or the girly, orange elastic that keeps her hair in place--there's still plenty of street in her game. "Are you serious?" she snarls at a girl after violently swatting the ball into the stands. After another tomahawk block, Parker just glares at the shooter as if insulted by the audacity.
There's a progression of sounds that accompany Parker's play which I've never heard at a sporting event. It occurs every time Parker steals the ball around mid-court. First, a hush, as the crowd internalizes the possibilities of a streaking Parker and an unguarded basket. Then a crescendo in anticipation of the slam. As Parker casually lays the ball off the glass an "Oooh" of disappointment is heard, which evolves into polite applause as everyone remembers the ball did actually go in.
Candace Parker is used to the TV cameras by now.
"Candace! Candace!! Candace!!!" Young girls in #3 Tennessee jerseys that hang like dresses on them squeal as Parker walks past waving after the game. "We love you, Candace," shouts a fan as Parker disappears into the tunnel with a raised fist.
Moments later, while encouraging her teammate to become a human bowling ball, it's reassuring to see Parker being just one of the girls and not "separating herself." There'll be plenty of time for that later.