High school basketball in the west-suburban DuPage Valley Conference is all about solid screens and midrange jumpers, so when an underclassman dunks during a varsity game, the fans still go nuts. Especially when that underclassman is an underclasswoman.
Last season, as a 15-year-old sophomore, Naperville Central forward Candace Parker became the first girl in Illinois (and the second anywhere) to dunk in a high school game. She repeated the feat later that season, then shattered the school's career scoring record; now, midway through her junior year, she has amassed more than 1,700 career points. She is considered the top female high school player in the nation by many scouting services, and the Parker family mailbox is overflowing with recruiting propaganda--50 letters a day by her father's estimation, many from elite programs such as Tennessee, Duke, and Connecticut. She is Illinois' reigning Ms. Basketball, a Street & Smith's First Team All-American, and the captain of the undefeated Naperville Central Redhawks, ranked seventh in the country by USA Today.
"Big kids usually come into their own later," says Clay Kallam, publisher of the women's basketball magazine Full Court Press. "But Candace is already so good. If you rate players on their ceiling, their ability to change the game, then Candace is the one. A lot of people feel that she could revolutionize the women's game."
So far, however, it appears the revolution will not be televised. Unlike Ohio's LeBron James, Parker's accomplished all this in relative quiet--no ESPN announcers to swoon courtside, no Sports Illustrated cover, no free throwback jerseys or tricked-out Hummer to get her into trouble. Her parents let her drive their Topaz, though.
It's just after 11 AM on Martin Luther King Day, bitterly cold, and Parker steps off the team bus at Willowbrook High School, walking slowly and listening to Jay-Z on her Discman. Naperville Central is scheduled to play at 1:30 against Chaminade-Julienne of Dayton, Ohio--another nationally ranked team--in the 13th annual Chicagoland Girls Prep Classic. The Redhawks are dressed head to toe in gear provided by Adidas, including sweatshirts lettered with a modified Eminem lyric: "We've only got one shot" on the front and "Success is our only option, failure is not" on the back. Whatever it refers to, most of the starters in fact have more than one shot: six-foot forward Courtney Peters is the only senior of the five.
The game before theirs pits local powerhouse Fenwick and its six-foot-two senior star, Erin Lawless, against a team from Beavercreek, Ohio, led by six-foot-six senior Alison Bales. The teams are warming up as Parker enters the gym. As she weaves through the crowd, preteen girls angle for a better look, adults snap pictures, and fans in the bleachers point and announce, "That's Candace." Parker doesn't appear to be flustered by the attention, smiling down at a gaggle of young admirers as she walks along the sideline.
Raven Gengler, a Fenwick guard, glances over her shoulder; she doesn't see Parker, but she spots Parker's father, Larry.
"Hey, where's Candace?" she calls, pointing to a basketball that's wedged between the rim and backboard. "We need some help."
He laughs politely, and a Fenwick player dislodges the stuck ball with another ball.
Candace and her teammates hit the bleachers to watch the Fenwick-Beavercreek game. Most scouting services rank Lawless and Bales among the top 25 high school girls in the nation, and both of them have already committed to top-tier women's programs for the fall--Lawless to Purdue, Bales to Duke. Lawless is wiry and athletic, active on defense, and she cuts across the lane tirelessly on offense, launching short turnaround jumpers. Bales is a good interior passer, and though she's inert on defense, she's really tall, and that works in a largely terrestrial game. She hits robotic half hooks over a defense that can't reach her, but Fenwick leads 31-20 at the half.
Chaminade-Julienne and Naperville Central take the floor to shoot around during intermission. All the college coaches--about two dozen of them, sitting along the sidelines in sleek nylon jogging suits--stay put. Parker drains jump shots while gabbing with her teammates. She has a long, slow shooting motion, but everything falls. She and Peters are laughing as Peters tries to guard her beyond the three-point line. Parker fakes with her head, takes a quick behind-the-back dribble, then goes up for a fadeaway. She catches herself on a courtside table as the ball drops through the net.
The second half of the Fenwick-Beavercreek game begins with several more of Bales's untouchable short shots, then settles into a tense series of similar possessions: lots of motion, disciplined passing, little improvisation. Bales and Lawless do most of the shooting. The game ends with a Fenwick miss, and Beavercreek wins, 48-47. Bales ends up with 18 points, Lawless 25. A nice game, but it's not the main event.
Naperville Central and Chaminade-Julienne return to the court to warm up for real, and the Willowbrook announcer individually welcomes the college coaches in attendance. The roll call lasts several minutes. There are coaches from Miami, Arizona, and Stanford, as well as staff from seemingly every local school. Northwestern is here, and so are SIU, NIU, and ISU. Illinois head coach Theresa Grentz is here, as is DePaul's Doug Bruno. Parker is not the only hot prospect on the floor: Chaminade is led by five-foot-ten senior Brandie Hoskins (who's bound for Ohio State) and six-foot sophomore Aisha Jefferson.
Parker bats the opening tip-off toward a teammate, but Hoskins intercepts it. She manages two field goals in the early minutes, and then Parker introduces herself by blocking--catching, really--one of Hoskins's shots and firing a quick outlet pass that freshman guard Erika Carter converts with a layup. But Parker misses her own first two shots, drawing contact on each but no whistle, and Naperville calls a time-out.
After that Parker controls the quarter. She catches a pass at the post surrounded by three defenders, dribbles out along the baseline, then passes to Rachel Crissy, a five-foot-eight junior, at the top of the key. Crissy holds the ball, she and Parker make eye contact, and Parker streaks toward the basket. Crissy lobs toward the rim as Parker leaps, catches, adjusts in midair, and lays it in, drawing the foul.
Parker blocks another shot, receives the ball at midcourt, freezes Hoskins with a hesitation move, then flies past her and draws a foul on the attempted layup. It's a scary quick move, and the assembled college coaches are straightening up in their metal chairs, nodding, writing in their notebooks. On defense, Parker won't give Jefferson any space in the lane; she plays in the middle of the Redhawks' zone, but flashes to the wings with speed that effectively freaks out the opposing perimeter players, who won't shoot. At the end of the first quarter Naperville Central leads 15-9, and Parker has nine points.
A boy in the bleachers, maybe 10 or 11 years old, chirps, "Dunk it!" every time Parker gets the ball. He sighs theatrically when she opts for layups.
The second and third quarters are an extended display of Parker's versatility: she weaves through Chaminade's zone and lays the ball in left-handed; she spins around a flat-footed defender and scores again; she traps a Chaminade guard along the baseline, scaring her into a time-out; she hits a 17-foot jumper; she draws two charging fouls on Hoskins; she leads a fast break, loses her defender with a one-handed ball fake (she can palm a regulation men's ball), and glides through the lane to score. In the final seconds of the third quarter she runs down the clock out on the right wing; when she decides it's time, a quick sequence of jukes, ball fakes, and behind-the-back dribbles frees her for a 16-foot jumper. She's hacked on the wrist, but she hits the shot and then the free throw. Naperville leads 42-31 entering the fourth quarter. Parker has 25 points.
Nobody in the gym expects a tight finish, but when the game resumes Parker picks up her third and fourth fouls in quick succession, attempting to cut off drives by Jefferson and Hoskins. (After the game she'll grouse about these calls, but they're fair--unexpected in a physical game, but not undeserved.) Redhawks head coach Andy Nussbaum pulls her out--there are six minutes remaining, and they're up 48-36. But the team looks tentative on offense without her, and Chaminade forces some turnovers. Hoskins bulls into the lane for consecutive layups, and her teammates find room to shoot.
Nussbaum sends Parker back in with 5:07 left, and Hoskins takes advantage of her precarious foul situation, aggressively diving through the lane for another layup and cutting Naperville Central's lead to just four points. Parker beats the defense down the court and scores, then rips down a defensive rebound, elbows swinging. She catches the ball in the post, draws a foul, and hits one of two free throws; she makes a quick baseline move for another two. But Hoskins continues her fearless bombing, hitting a short jumper to pull her team within two with 11.8 seconds remaining in the game.
The Redhawks inbound the ball to Parker, and she's immediately fouled. She has struggled uncharacteristically from the line all day, missing 6 of 17 free throws, but she calmly hits this pair and hurries back on defense. Chaminade sends the ball to Hoskins, who drives and then dishes to a teammate in the corner. Parker anticipates the pass, intercepts it, and takes off. The "dunk it" kid stands expectantly.
But a Chaminade player deliberately smacks Parker on the arm as she races across midcourt. Parker hits one of two free throws to secure the Redhawks' win, 59-54. She finishes with 38 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks, and three steals; in her last five minutes of action--playing with four fouls--she collected ten points, five rebounds, two blocks, and the game-clinching steal.
Although there are four games to go, Naperville Central isn't scheduled to play again today, and the crowd thins. Parker handles postgame questions from the daily prep reporters like a cagey veteran, dropping cliches and dutifully framing her performance within the team's: "We were really ready for this game....I've never seen this team so focused....I'm just happy that we're learning and winning."
Then she turns her attention to the gathering throng of young girls. They want autographs, they want pictures. They sheepishly compliment Parker as she bends down to sign shoes, programs, T-shirts. She poses for snapshots, her long arms draped around girls half her size. It's a sweet, generous exchange that lasts as long as it needs to, until everyone is satisfied. She's still at it when the next game starts.
"Candace can play any position, one through five," says Bret McCormick, a former coach at Marshall University who now scouts basketball talent for All-Star Girls Report. "She doesn't seem to have weaknesses." He compares Parker to Cheryl Miller, a three-time national player of the year when she was at the University of Southern California in the 80s: "She played inside and outside and dominated the game like Candace."
Like Miller, Parker comes from a basketball family. Miller's younger brother Reggie is in his 16th NBA season with the Pacers; Parker's older brother Anthony played three seasons with the 76ers and the Magic and her father, Larry, was a standout player at the University of Iowa in the 70s. (Another brother, Marcus, also played at Naperville Central; he's now in med school at Johns Hopkins.)
Unlike Miller, Parker was too young to mix it up with her brothers on the court, but she was often nearby, attending their games or shooting around while they practiced. "I remember running around underneath the bleachers while they played," she says. "I've always been around basketball."
She says her dad is responsible for her unusual ability to play well at both post and perimeter. "I was the tallest player on the youth team that my dad coached, but I played point guard," she says. Larry continues to coach her Amateur Athletic Union team and often attends Redhawks practices, serving as a de facto assistant coach.
She also credits him with getting her airborne. "One day my dad said, 'Candace, you can dunk,'" she says. "The first time I tried I didn't come close. The second time I surprised myself, I hit the rim. That was pretty good. Finally I got one over--it rolled around and went in. I was so excited. I called [Marcus] and told him, 'I can dunk before you could.'" She repeats this last phrase, pretending to hold the phone and taunt her sibling: "I can dunk before yoo-ou."
Parker hasn't dunked yet this season; on defense she primarily plays post and therefore gets few fast-break opportunities. But if she keeps growing, dunking might not require a running start. Fearful of being pigeonholed as a post player, she's evasive on the subject of her height: "In the paper, I'm six-three," she says, looking down at this six-foot-three reporter. This modest deception is unusual in high school basketball, where the heights of top-tier prospects are often exaggerated.
Parker's athleticism could've just as easily made her a soccer or volleyball star, but she gave up both those sports when she committed to the year-round basketball regimen required of top players. After Naperville Central's season ends, there will be AAU competition, all-star camps, and tournaments. These gatherings of elite talent actually seem to create as much kinship as competition between participants. Alison Bales's family stayed with the Parkers during the Willowbrook tournament, and Parker has grown tight with Alexis Hornbuckle, a five-ten West Virginia prep star considered by most analysts to be Candace's near equal. "Those two talk every night, sending messages on the Internet," says Larry.
Parker wouldn't mind teaming up with Hornbuckle in college, but, she insists, "we're not going to give up any individual goals." Parker's an honor roll student, so academic standards aren't likely to narrow her choices. She expects the daily barrage of recruiting correspondence to diminish in the days ahead, when she reduces her list of acceptable suitors to 20. (The WNBA requires draftees to be 22, to have finished college or exhausted their collegiate eligibility, or to have played two seasons of pro ball somewhere else--in case you're wondering.) "I want to have a good relationship with my coach, the team, and I want a good college life," she says. "I don't want it to just be class-practice-dorm, class-practice-dorm. I want it to be fun."
Two days after their victory over Chaminade-Julienne, four of the Naperville Central starters appear with Coach Nussbaum on CLTV's Sports Page. Parker is home sick, but she participates in the segment by phone. Good thing, since it's the Candace Parker Show: they run her highlights from the game, and host Lou Canellis and the Trib's Bob Sakamoto hammer her teammates with variations on a single question: "What's it like to play with Candace?" Crissy uses her airtime to invite a boy to the winter dance, and Sakamoto seizes the opportunity to ask Parker if she, too, plans to attend the dance. (She does.)
It may seem unfair, keeping those girls up late on a school night just to talk about their teammate, but if you were watching the show--assuming you aren't the boy that Crissy's pursuing--for a second you cared about her dance plans too. And so might a lot more people, when they finally get a chance to see her play ball.
"If they're going to put LeBron James on ESPN, they definitely ought to put Candace Parker on there," says Bret McCormick. "And you should put that in the paper."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jeoff Davis, Chuck Cass, Sun Publications.