The Hanns-G ‘Go Beyond’ 2008 WNBA Rookie of the Year rookie award was completely expected and was a unanimous vote by a national panel of 45 sportswriters and broadcasters. But the MVP nod was a surprise, at least to Candace Parker.
“I definitely was shocked,” Parker said. “Obviously it’s a huge honor to be named those two, and it’s awesome. It’s something that I dreamed of forever, and it’s a huge, huge honor.”
Perhaps Parker should not have been surprised even though the double honor has never been done in the WNBA, and only Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld accomplished the feat in the NBA.
Her first-year per-game pro numbers proved her worthy of both the No. 1 pick in the draft and the postseason awards – 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 33.6 minutes. She led the league in double-doubles with 17, scored more than 20 points in 12 games and collected more than 10 rebounds in 17 games. She scored 30 or more points three times, including a career-best 40 points July 9 against the Houston Comets. Parker led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in points and second in blocks, trailing only Sparks teammate Lisa Leslie with 2.9 bpg.
Parker first game as a pro underscored what was to unfold by season’s end. It was the best rookie debut in league history with 34 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Parker made history again on May 29 against the Indiana Fever when she recorded the first “5×5” performance in the league with 16 points, 16 rebounds, six blocked shots, five assists and five steals.
Her No. 3 Sparks jersey outsold every rookie all-time and every veteran this season. A whirlwind year that began with her final season at Tennessee ended Friday with Parker getting her assorted awards at game two of the WNBA Finals in San Antonio.
Parker would have preferred to be playing immediately after the presentation, but the Sparks were eliminated in the Western Conference finals by the Silver Stars, which have fallen behind 2-0 in the best-of-five championship series after dropping two at home to Detroit. Parker’s allegiance is now with her former teammate, Alexis Hornbuckle, who, as a player for the Shock, has a chance to become the first in history to win NCAA and WNBA titles in the same year.
“I want her to definitely have that record,” Parker said. “It’s a great opportunity, and it would be fun for a Tennessee player to have that record.”
Parker was joined on the All-Rookie Team by Nicky Anosike, a former teammate at Tennessee who was drafted in the second round by Minnesota and became a starter for the Lynx. Anosike had per-game averages of 9.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.3 assists.
“She was huge,” Parker said.
The high school class of 2004 was loaded, and it showed in the draft of 2008 as luminaries such as Parker, Hornbuckle, Tasha Humphrey, Sylvia Fowles, Crystal Langhorne, Erlana Larkins and Candice Wiggins entered the league.
“I think in another draft class Nicky would have been top three, top four,” Parker said. “She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. There are a lot of things that she does that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but she is an amazing player, and I think she did a lot for Minnesota this year.”
Friday reminded Parker of draft day as she was ushered from room to room for three hours for press conferences, photo shoots, TV appearances and phone interviews with out-of-town media. By the time she called Knoxville a few minutes before tipoff of the Shock-Silver Stars game, Parker estimated she had done about two dozen separate interviews.
“It’s like draft day all over again,” Parker said.
With the Sparks season completed, Parker can at least finally take some time off the court. She played for USA basketball in September 2007 in the Olympic qualifying tournament, started her season with Tennessee in October 2007, climbed a ladder for the second time in college to cut down the net and claim a national title in April 2008, got drafted hours later at the Innisbrook golf resort in Florida, headed to Los Angeles, graduated in Knoxville, began her WNBA season in eye-popping fashion as she nearly recorded a triple double, won a gold medal in Beijing and returned stateside to finish her rookie campaign.
“I haven’t had a chance to process it, but I think with this time off I really will have a chance to realize how blessed I’ve been this year and how great it is to be here and experience all the things that I’ve experienced in 2008,” Parker said.
One of her funnier experiences – at least based on the fact she couldn’t quit laughing when she talked about it – was when Pat Summitt and Holly Warlick, her coaches at Tennessee, came to Los Angeles to sit courtside with the team owners and watch a game.
Both coaches apparently tried to sit still but instincts took over, and they were shouting instructions and directing traffic. Three former Lady Vols were on the court in Parker, Shannon Bobbitt and Sidney Spencer. Parker could really hear Summitt.
“It was very nice for her to be sitting courtside,” Parker said. “It was kind of weird because I had her sitting courtside on one side and Coop on the other. You were like, ‘OK … ’ because you’re used to taking directions from one.”
Parker felt like her head was on a swivel as she heard an old familiar voice and the new one of her current coach.
“It was tough, but it’s nice to have her there supporting me,” Parker said, still laughing at the recollection.
The expectations on Parker weren’t understated when she arrived in Los Angeles.
“Coach (Michael) Cooper set this goal for me early on, and I looked at him like he was crazy,” Parker said her at press conference in San Antonio on Friday when she accepted the MVP award. “He’s like, ‘You’re going to win Rookie of the Year, you’re going to win a championship, and you’re going to win MVP.’
“I just looked at him like, ‘That’s what you expect of me already?’ He pushed me every day at practice, he played me 30 something minutes a game and I really appreciate it. My teammates, every day in practice they push me … they push me to new things, things I didn’t know I could do. And obviously Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones were very instrumental in my development as a rookie.”
Parker fell short of the championship, but that means she has an unrealized goal for next season.
“I just thank the city of Los Angeles, as well,” Parker said at that same press conference. The fans supported us all the way, and we’re looking forward to bringing them a championship in 2009.”
Parker will now focus on rest and supporting her fiancé Shelden Williams as he did during her pro season. Williams is a forward for the Sacramento Kings and was courtside at her games all summer. It was the first time the two could spend significant time together because their seasons overlapped when Parker was in college.
“It was great this summer for him to be there and with me being able to have an off-season now and being able to be there for him is great,” Parker said. “It’s awesome to have the type of relationship where he supports me, and I support him. It’s a great situation.”
Parker also must make decisions about her balky left shoulder that she twice dislocated in the NCAA Tournament and whether or not she will play overseas. Parker had heard about Summitt’s shoulder surgery – the result of a dislocation after a confrontation last March with a raccoon on her back deck – and she may have to go the same route.
“I haven’t made a decision yet,” said Parker, who played all season with her shoulder in a protective brace. “Obviously it’s in need of surgery, but it’s a decision I’m going to make with my family and my agent as well.”
Parker could play overseas in Russia, where contracts for American superstars can reach six figures, but she hasn’t finalized those plans yet.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do in the off-season yet,” Parker said. “I won’t do anything until January.”
That means Parker will be in Knoxville in November for the Lady Vol game in which the 2008 national title banner will be raised to the rafters.
“I’ll be there,” said Parker, who quickly noted the date, Nov. 15, against San Francisco. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
It will be Parker’s second banner and she had said after the first one that a second one would solidify her class’ legacy at Tennessee.
“It means a lot to me,” Parker said. “It means a lot, a lot, a lot.”
Nothing is official this early, but it seems unlikely that any player will ever wear No. 3 at Tennessee again – it was not assigned to any of the incoming freshmen this fall – so a banner with Parker’s name and jersey could also hang in Thompson-Boling Arena, joining those of Warlick, Bridgette Gordon, Daedra Charles, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings.
“I hope it does because it would mean a whole bunch to me,” Parker said. “I always tell Pat and anyone who asks me, ‘My kids will go to Tennessee. My kids’ kids will go to Tennessee.’ ”
Needless to say that doesn’t always sit well with Williams, who went to Duke. Parker had joked after she received her first national title ring that she wanted to show Williams what one actually looked like.
“Shelden gets so upset because I bleed orange,” Parker said. “Every time football is on, every time anything Tennessee is on I watch it. He’s kind of got the upper hand right now because they’ve got a better football record than Tennessee does. I told him it was because Tennessee’s coaches went to Duke. That’s what I told him.”
Parker also plans to return to Knoxville as often as possible – when she’s not courtside at Williams’ NBA games – to see the current team. Parker remains close to her former teammates, especially Vicki Baugh, who has said she leaned on Parker for support after undergoing ACL surgery last May.
“I talk to them all the time,” Parker said. “I talk to Vicki Baugh almost every day. That’s my little buddy. I hope to help her through her times at Tennessee.”
Parker also is intrigued by the newcomers on the team to see how they blend with the returning players.
“I’m huge into them, and I will continue to be,” Parker said. “I totally bleed orange. I will be back and forth to Tennessee. I have a lot of friends there. They have a chance to do something very special because they’re flying a little under the radar. I think that they’re going to be a very special team, and they’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Parker also will maintain her contact with Summitt, whom she exchanges text messages with on a regular basis. When the United States won the gold medal in Beijing, teammate Kara Lawson reached Summitt on her cell phone as the celebration on the court was underway and all three Lady Vols – Catchings also was on the team – took turns talking to their former coach. Summitt has said the moment was an emotional one for her.
“It helps a lot to have her there and to have her in my life; I feel like she continues to care,” Parker said.