It should be clear by now that Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker is rapidly becoming the female athlete with the broadest and most authentic mainstream appeal in the U.S., if not already at the top of the women's sports landscape.
In addition to becoming the first player to win both the WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2008, she won the 2009 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice award, and was named one of the Most Powerful Moms in Sports by Working Mother magazine. With recognition piling up from so many directions with differing levels of sports significance, it might even be possible to argue that she has yet to even scratch the surface of her marketability.
So it's not necessarily a statement of hyperbole or blind fandom to argue that the 24-year-old Parker is already one of the most significant female athletes in the last 25 years. As the 2010 WNBA season approaches and she prepares to assume full responsibility for the success of the Sparks with legendary center Lisa Leslie retiring at the end of last season, it's safe to say that there's plenty more "upside" on the court as well. In the meantime, she can add one more honor to her resume.
Swish Appeal has learned from a Gatorade representative that Parker will be named as the greatest all-time Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year early next week as part of their larger 25th anniversary celebration. The award was established to recognize America's elite high school students for their athletic achievement, academic excellence and exemplary character, according to Gatorade's website. Among the other All-Time winners announced thus far are former Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith and 2009-2010 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic.
Several thousand Gatorade customers voted in an online poll to select Parker, who was the 2003-04 Girls Basketball Player of the Year. All of the past 25 award winners were eligible for the honor, including former Sparks teammate Leslie, University of Connecticut junior Maya Moore, and Stanford University sophomore Nneka Ogwumike. While there are valid arguments in favor of any of the other nominees, this particular award is also symbolic of the moment that catalyzed Parker's ascent to the upper echelons of the women's basketball landscape.
Even after only playing a year and a half in the WNBA, it's quite possible that Parker's impact on the WNBA will end up being seen as her biggest contribution to women's sports. As I once wrote in 2008, Parker "received so much hype before even playing a WNBA game that her debut against the Mercury was almost like a formality for her entry into superstardom."
Then-Sparks coach Michael Cooper hyperbolically compared her to his former Los Angeles Laker teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy wrapped in one package. While Cooper's claim is obviously overstated, underlying the hyperbole is an undeniable truth: Parker's unique combination of athleticism, skill, size, and versatility that at first seemed to defy position -- Cooper played her at just about every position in her rookie year -- made her a talent that was previously almost impossible to imagine.
And she's only getting better.
After returning from pregnancy last season to play 25 games for the Sparks in 2009, Parker was still arguably the most statistically productive player on the team (if you dismiss the first four games of her return in which she averaged under 22 minutes, those numbers look even better). Although there is some uncertainty about the Sparks' chances for success this season with the retirement of Leslie, a veteran women's basketball journalist who has watched Parker play with the Euroleague's UMMC Ekaterinburg during the off-season relayed to me the other day that she is not only playing well, but has perhaps even improved in all areas of the game: ball-handling, rebounding, shooting. With Sparks mainstay Leslie departed, Parker will be relied on heavily to carry the team of former WNBA All-Stars so her performance abroad is encouraging. Yet even with all she's accomplished on the court so far in her pregnancy-interrupted career, she stands to accomplish even more in 2010.
However, Parker's role in elevating the standing of women's basketball in the public consciousness definitely began in high school.
Parker was a four-time First Team All-State selection for Naperville Central High and led Naperville to back-to-back Class AA state titles in 2003 and 2004. After setting a school record by scoring a total of 2,768 points (22.9 per game) and 1,592 rebounds (13.2 per game) as a four-year starter, and being named a two-time USA Today National Player of the Year, she was also named as a McDonald's High School All-American. Perhaps the most memorable moment for sports fans -- though not a factor in her selection for the Gatorade Player of the Year award -- was her participation in the 2004 Slam Dunk contest of the McDonald's All-American Game.
Parker beat five other male competitors in the contest -- including current Denver Nuggets guard JR Smith -- and ESPN.com contributor Pete Thamel compared the event to "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 [in May 2003]." And of course, within women's basketball, Parker's dunk came after those of Georgeann Wells, Michelle Snow, and Lisa Leslie, who had the first WNBA dunk in 2002. As Parker herself stated, other girls had entered the contest. Yet although Parker's accomplishment wasn't a first in terms of competing against men in sports or dunking in basketball, what made this particular moment significant is that people took notice of this one.
Parker's dunk title a win for women's hoops - Women's College Basketball - ESPN - March 30, 2004
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."
Regardless of whether the observation of Davis -- who coincidentally ended up with the Boston Celtics, one of the most storied NBA franchises -- or anyone else at the time was "accurate", the nationwide perception was that something unique had happened. The moment definitely left an impression: four years later when the Sparks drafted Parker first in the 2008 WNBA Draft, it wasn't uncommon to hear people identify her as "that girl who won the dunk contest".
It's difficult to say whether that perception and ensuing excitement came as a result of Parker's unique talent beyond dunking, the unique mixed gender stage of the All-American game, or the fact that she seemed to be doing something that people simply didn't imagine women doing. In discussions with other members of the "coveted" 18-35 year old male sports fan demographic that honestly hadn't paid women's basketball much attention since the early half of the Houston Comets' dynasty, the most significant thing might have been a mix of all the above elements: Parker's confidence, swagger and obvious talent amongst the boys forced us to respect her on some level as a ball player, not "just a women's basketball player". Those intangibles may be the thing that define the entirety of Parker's basketball life.
Parker's dunk title a win for women's hoops - Women's College Basketball - ESPN - March 30, 2004
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."
Even as a 17-year-old, Parker had a special "presence" about her that just seemed to exude success. Winning the contest only confirmed our suspicions and had to put additional pressure on her to succeed. Somewhat circularly, the "presence" she displayed on that night has likely to contributed to her ability to handle the burden of stardom that has come since.
As one of the few female athletes approaching household name status -- recognition by even the average sports fan, if not the average U.S. resident -- perhaps it's fitting that Parker receive an award for highlighting the historical significance of her high school career prior to embarking upon what could be her biggest season yet. In the eyes of the mainstream sports world, Parker's ascent and path to superstardom arguably began with her "presence" at the 2004 All American dunk contest.
Although many of the other 25 Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year award winners -- including Leslie -- would be well-deserving of this honor on the basis of basketball merit alone, what sets Parker apart is the significance of her high school basketball career to making women's basketball relevant in the mainstream, if only for a moment.
Voting for the remaining awards will continue with Boys Soccer voting opening on May 17th and Girls Soccer on May 24th.
- Chiney Ogwumike, who will be attending Stanford with sister Nneka this fall, was named the 2009-10 Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year. As reported by Swish Appeal, the two became the first sibling duo to win the award.
- There have been a number of critiques of images of female athletes in the media and particularly, Parker's ESPN the Magazine cover last year. Working Mother explained their reasoning for their Most Powerful Moms list:
At Working Mother, we herald the new and continued strengths of working mothers everywhere and we point to those on top on our Most Powerful Moms lists for several reasons. Their positions and their work-style are aspirational for those on the way up, and their names should be known to all of us, so we know who the women are who are making important decisions with national policy, regional choices, our health and well-being, our economy, our futures and our children’s futures.
- Further illustrating Parker's significance to women's sports at large is a recent article by Jill Painter of the Los Angeles Daily News columnist comparing Parker's decision to come back from pregnancy so quickly to LPGA golfer Lorena Ochoa's decision to retire. While there is certainly cause for disagreement with Painter's assertion, it does represent the extent to which Parker is becoming the model for the modern female professional athlete, even outside of basketball.
PAINTER: Retiring women's golfer Ochoa should be playing for the kids - LA Daily News
Sparks star Candace Parker had a baby and six weeks later was packing a breast pump in her purse so she could play in the WNBA again.
When Parker returned to play in 2009, she said: "I'm trying to show (my daughter) she can do whatever she wants by doing this. I'm working hard. I know now I'm her biggest role model."
It stinks for the LPGA that Ochoa retired suddenly. She's the world's No. 1 player and at 28 is in the prime of her career. She has long said she'd retire to have a family, it's just the timing that is shocking.