TAMPA — Candace Parker was about 7 years old when she learned she could grow up to be whatever she wanted.
One day young Candace went to her mother, Sara Parker, with serious concerns. She was nearly in tears as she spoke.
Candace astutely pointed out that her brother Marcus (who is eight years older) was "really, really smart" in school. And she knew her brother Anthony (who is 11 years older) was a great athlete. So Candace had one critical question for her mother.
"What in the world am I going to do?"
"I told her, 'You can do it all,' " Sara Parker said last week as she recalled the conversation. " 'You can work hard and be a great student.' And I said, 'You can be a great athlete, and you can do it all. … You have your whole life ahead of you, and you can be anything you want to be, and you can be the best at it. You just have to work.' "
Seemingly relieved, Candace smiled at her mother and said, "Oh, okay."
And then she went to work on becoming one of the best players in women's basketball.
Unmatched work ethic
Tennessee's Pat Summitt has coached more than her share of talented players — 12 Olympians, 19 Kodak All-Americans and 66 All-SEC players. None, she said, matches Parker in one aspect: work ethic.
"Coming out of high school, watching her play and just seeing what a great upside she had to her game, I didn't know at that time that she was going to be the great player that she has become, because I didn't know how hard she was willing to work," Summit said. "I think the thing that has allowed her to elevate her skills and her game overall is her commitment. I've said this many times, but she is the one player on our team that has been in the gym the most, and worked on her ballhandling, her left-hand hook, her right-hand hook, her jump shot, playing off the dribble. She's really expanded her game through her commitment of getting into the gym. She's very focused on getting better all the time."
That work ethic can be traced directly back to Sara and Larry Parker. In the Parker household, the rule was, if you chose to participate in something, you were going to see it through to the end.
"From an early age, I always worked hard," said Candace, who has persevered through two knee surgeries. "I was at the kitchen table doing work before I could go out and do basketball. But my parents always said, 'You work hard, that's what you do. There's no try. You either do it or you don't.' So that's how I've always grown up."
She considers herself lucky to have had two excellent examples at home: Brother Marcus is now a radiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and Anthony plays for the Toronto Raptors (and lives in Wesley Chapel during the offseason).
"I have great role models in my brothers," Candace said. "They showed me how. Some of my greatest memories as a kid are working out with my father and working out with my brothers. I'm very fortunate. They taught me work ethic and also to be humble. And my brother Anthony really helped me with my faith. He's big in FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), and he's been big in sharing that with me."
Just plain Candace
Candace Parker knew the bright spotlight that she was stepping into when she arrived at Tennessee. She was an instant phenom when she became the first woman to win the dunk contest at the McDonald's All-America Game. And from the moment she arrived at Tennessee, she has been the subject of constant media attention. But with fame and success inevitably comes criticism, something she's had to learn to deal with.
"I think the hardest thing that I had to adjust to — and I just realized it probably in the last two years — is that you're not going to please everybody," she said. "Somebody's going to have something to say about whatever. So it's just about pleasing yourself and the people that you love. I'm my toughest critic. My coaches and my parents, those are the people that I respect and admire, and those are the people whose opinions matter to me."
She has been called the new face of the women's game. A senior academically but a junior in eligibility, she will bypass her final season and be the first to do so to enter the WNBA draft. She is expected to be the No. 1 pick in Wednesday,'s draft. The sky is the limit with endorsements. But to those around her, she's just plain Candace.
"We treat her like a normal person," said teammate Nicky Anosike, who said the two are so close they expect to be in each other's weddings one day. "To us, we don't see Candace Parker, lights, camera, action, superstar. .… We just see her as the person she is. So I think she feels like she's down to earth with us and she doesn't have to be anything else but herself around us. And I think that has helped her become comfortable with herself and who she is."
Those who know Candace say her competitive nature is second to none. But she also has a softer side. She's funny, loves children and animals, and never meets a stranger. The young woman she has become, when the jersey is off and the cameras aren't around, is what makes Sara Parker most proud.
"I do marvel at how she's able to handle it and stay grounded," Sara said. "I wish I could take credit for that, but I think that's part of her personality and her spirit. She's such a spiritual person. She genuinely cares about people, and she understands that what she has is a blessing and a gift. And she's very thankful."
Greatest of all?
At 21, Parker has become the subject of a great debate: Is the three-time All-American the greatest to play the women's college game? Different eras and changes in the game make the argument difficult. But if you want to discuss who's the best player today, Summitt will take you on.
"Candace Parker is the best player in the women's game," she said. "If you watch Candace play and what she brings, obviously she brings a game of being able to post up, being able to score in transition by running the floor, being able to score off the dribble. Her skill set is so strong, and how many 6-foot-5 players have you seen ever in the women's game play the way Candace Parker plays? She's brought a whole different dimension and package."
When Sara Parker hears talk about Candace's place in the game, she can't help but think back to that day when the little girl wanted to know whom she would one day become.
"I think that whether she is or isn't (the best), the fact that they mention her means she's worked very hard," Sara said. "And I think what's most important to her, and myself as well, is that she's the best she can be. And if that happens to mean that she's the best, that's great.
"But I tell her all the time, it's more important that you be the best you can be, that when it's all said and done, and you walk away, you know that you gave everything you had, you worked as hard as you could and you left it right there all on the court. Whether it be the game, the possession or the season, you have to know you left it all out there."
Expect Candace Parker to do no less tonight.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.