USATODAY
High school girls' version of James
By Ray Glier, special for USA TODAY
 
Posted 3/5/2003 11:28 PM
 

NAPERVILLE, Ill. Her car would be left to eat the dust of LeBron James' Hummer2. It's a beat-up sedan that would attract a paint crew before it attracted a media camera crew.

Candace Parker is the girls' equivalent of James, the USA's best boys basketball player. He's a senior, she's a junior, acknowledged by some as the best girls player, a phenom since eighth grade like James.

But she doesn't have a Hummer.

"I think my brother (Anthony) would buy me one," she says.

Larry Parker, her father, shakes his head. "No way," he says.

Parker's story has none of the circus atmosphere characterizing the James' saga. "I feel sorry for LeBron James," she says. "He can't enjoy his last year in high school as much with people always following him around."

Plenty of people follow Parker around college coaches, media and fans eager to see something special from the 6-3 player from Naperville Central. She has the size of a center but the skills of a point guard. She shoots three-pointers and blocks shots equally well.

"(She) has the fluidness and the skill and understanding of the game, the personality and drive to warrant this level of expectations," recruiting analyst Mike Flynn says. "She is literally a huge guard. Everybody in Europe knows her name."

Wow factor

The two middle-aged men were leaning back on their elbows, reclining across several rows of bleachers, when Parker starts down the lane with the ball. Dribbling in full stride, she suddenly whips a behind-the-back bounce pass to Rachel Crissy cutting down the left side of the lane.

As Crissy finishes the play for two points, the men bolt upright, looking at each other with amazement.

Moments later Parker takes the ball down the lane again. Two defenders close, but she goes behind the back with the dribble, splits the defense and finger-rolls the ball off the glass for a layup. The men shake their heads. The crowd, even the opposing fans, reacts with excitement.

"When I was younger, maybe 7 or 8, I was a foot taller than the other kids, but my dad had me running point (guard)," Parker says. "Things like that helped me develop some skills with the ball."

Parker can play any spot on the floor. Naperville Central is 32-0, ranked No. 7 by USA TODAY, and three wins from the Illinois AA state championship because Parker is averaging 24.1 points, 14.5 rebounds, three steals and four blocked shots.

At least one analyst thinks her versatility works against her. "Candace can do a lot of things," Joe Smith says. "The only negative is she hasn't picked a position to play."

The college coaches who watched Parker at 12 are watching now that she's 16.

After Naperville Central beat Lake Park 63-37 Monday, North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell came out of the stands and shook hands with Naperville coach Andy Nussbaum.

"We'll be back," Hatchell said.

Parker had 18 points, 16 rebounds, six steals and four blocked shots against Lake Park, yet said, "I didn't play very well."

"There is a lot of savvy there passing the ball," says Lisa Smith, Lake Park's head coach. "A lot of kids her height can't make those passes. She understands the game very well."

Parker learned the game from her father, who averaged 6.8 points and 4.1 rebounds playing for Iowa from 1972-76.

But his daughter also has the physical tools. She stands next to her dad, who is 6-6, and her reach goes above his fingertips. She has large hands and can easily palm the smaller girls basketball.

Her brother Anthony played at Bradley, was the 21st pick in the 1997 NBA draft and now plays in Rome.

While Parker is becoming renowned in basketball, she tries to keep up academically with another brother. Marcus is a medical student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, studying radiology.

Parker is making her mark with a 4.2 grade-point average last semester while taking several honors courses.

"I remember when she was 8, she started crying and said, 'Mom, what in the world am I going to do? How am I ever going to be as good as my brothers and achieve like them' " Sara Parker says. "I told her, 'Candace, you will do it all. You'll be special, too.' "

Parker is a special talent, but she's never given the chance to act special. She does her dishes, helps clean the house.

Nussbaum notices. "She has a completely charming personality," he says. "It's impossible to dislike her. She goes out of her way to make people feel like they are a big part of this team."

Larry Parker just shrugs when someone marvels over his well-mannered daughter. "We're proud of her for the type of person she is. But I don't know that it's so hard to do the right things and act the right way."

Candace Parker has no problem playing the right way. The right way to play, she says, is to not take plays off, to show some leadership and hustle. "You have to play like some parent and their daughter are watching you for the first time.

"That first impression will stick with them, so you have to show them you care and you play hard."