Candace Parker chats with IT

The jersey of Candace Parker will be raised to the rafters this Thursday evening as the All-American, SEC and national player of the year and two-time Final Four MVP is honored by her alma mater. The two-time national title winner chatted with InsideTennessee about the honor.

It has been a whirlwind week for Candace Parker as she flew from Russia to China to spend Christmas with her husband, Shelden Williams – he is an overseas pro, too, in the winter – and then on to Los Angeles, her home base since she plays for the Sparks of the WNBA in the summer.

By Thursday, she will be in Knoxville for the ceremony to retire her jersey, likely one of the easiest decisions ever made by Tennessee. Parker's résumé at Tennessee fills pages but the relevant material is already in the rafters – two banners commemorating the 2007 and 2008 national titles.

Parker called InsideTennessee after cleaning out her shed, a rather pedestrian activity for one of the best players on the planet. She and her husband sold their house in California and bought a new one – a moving process that was completed while both are overseas – so she was busy sorting items, unpacking and organizing the house during her brief stay stateside.

"It has more room and a better school for Lailaa," Parker said. "We absolutely love it."

Parker managed to slip away for a few days from her professional team in Russia, the Euroleague's UMMC Ekaterinburg club, but she will depart the day after the ceremony for Yekaterinburg – her flight schedule takes her through her hometown of Chicago – to rejoin her teammates.

"It's kind of something I've adjusted to," Parker said. "My life is always crazy, so when it's not crazy, it's kind of weird. When I don't have anything to do after basketball my husband said there is no way I will be able to just chill. I have to do something. I like it this way."

Williams wasn't able to make the trip to Tennessee, but Lailaa will be present with her mother, grandmother and a host of family members for the ceremony. The 4-year-old is preparing for the event.

"She is extremely excited," Parker said. "She has been practicing ‘Rocky Top,' so she is hoping that she gets the opportunity to sing it.

"I don't think she understands (the jersey retirement), but she knows that we're going home to Knoxville and mommy played there, and she knows about mommy's coach and seeing her, so she is excited."

Pat Summitt, now the head coach emeritus, has been at every home game – she missed one to travel to Nashville to watch Marquette beat Vandy since Tyler Summitt is an assistant for Marquette – so she will be courtside Thursday. Summitt stepped down after the 2011-12 season because of a diagnosis of early onset dementia.

"It means a lot to me," Parker said. "It's funny because I remember how players would come back and talk about how much Pat has impacted their everyday lives and the things that they do. And I don't think there are many people who have impacted my life like Coach.

"And even more so after I graduated I can see that she doesn't just talk. She lives what she is preaching. If there is anything that I have learned from this illness that she has, all the words of encouragement and things that she told me to do, she truly is living that now.

"I think about her a lot when I am making decisions, when I am going through different things. The things that she taught me when I was going to Tennessee definitely come up in my head, and help me and guide me into making decisions.

"She is an amazing and strong woman, so to have her there? It means a lot. I can't even describe it."

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood remains close to Parker. They spent a lot of time together in Knoxville because she was constantly calling Lockwood to meet in the gym for extra shooting sessions.

"I can't tell you how many times she blew my phone up, on a Saturday, on a Sunday, we weren't practicing or it was a (short) practice and she would come in early," Lockwood said. "I loved every minute of it.

"Here is a kid who loved working on her game. I don't think people really appreciated that about her. I think they looked at the talent she had and thought, ‘Oh, she's so talented.' That kid spent time working on her game."

Parker will become the sixth Lady Vol player to have her jersey retired. Her No. 3 banner will join those of former player and current head coach Holly Warlick (No. 22); Chamique Holdsclaw (No. 23); Tamika Catchings (No. 24); Bridgette Gordon (No. 30); and Daedra Charles (No. 32). Summitt also has been honored with a banner to commemorate her college coaching career.

Parker played her last game for Tennessee on April 8, 2008, a 64-48 shutdown of Stanford that gave Summitt her eighth national title. She was the first pick in the WNBA draft the next day and won MVP honors as a rookie. While no official announcement was made until last season, Parker's No. 3 wasn't given to any incoming player after she graduated.

There is no doubt Parker's jersey belongs in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena.

After some transcontinental flights, Candace Parker lands in Knoxville to see her No. 3 fly in the rafters at Thompson-Boling Arena.
(Photo courtesy WNBA)
"No question," Lockwood said. "That is an easy answer for that question. She absolutely 100 percent belongs up there. I would have been shocked if she hadn't gotten it. That's a no-brainer. She is very deserving, and she belongs up there with that group."

When asked for a favorite Parker story, Lockwood mentions the 2005-06 season, her first in orange after a redshirt year to heal from knee surgery. It is a story he tells when talking to players and coaches about the differences encountered when coaching women instead of men.

"About eight or nine games into the season, she was shooting 56 to 57 percent," Lockwood said. "The coaching staff met every day to talk about practice. We have the team stat sheet out, and we're talking about what we need more of, how we're performing.

"One of the things Pat said right away is we have to get Candace Parker more shots. There wasn't a dissenting voice in the room. We were all like, ‘Absolutely.' She was averaging about 15 points a game and doing it on about 10 or 11 shots. Pretty dang productive."

The seniors on the team were Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker, so Summitt knew she would have to convince the redshirt freshman to take over a veteran club. Lockwood, who had coached men for decades before joining the Lady Vols, didn't realize that yet.

Lockwood, who worked with the posts, was assigned to deliver the order to Parker – shoot more.

"Pat said, ‘Dean, I want you to bring her in to watch tape and approach her about this and then I will follow up with it. I am going to really drive it home, but I would like you to approach it with her,' " Lockwood said.

Parker was an avid viewer of game film, so Lockwood called her in to chat.

"She was a visual person," he said. "She likes to see things. We had some great basketball sessions. I have great memories of those.

"We're sitting there, and I said, ‘Candace, I am going to show you something related to you, and what we are going to need from you going forward. I want you to look at the stat sheet, your stats in particular.' She was looking and looking and I said, ‘Now, we're going to need something more from you. What do you think that is?'

"She kind of had a slight grin. She has a pretty high basketball IQ and she said, ‘You want me to probably take more shots.' I said, ‘You're dang right we do!' "

Parker was only a few games into her college career, but chatter had already started about national player of the year honors. She arrived as one of the most decorated high school players in Tennessee history. The fact she should be taking the most shots would be a given on a men's team.

"The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I know Dean, but it's Shanna and Tye's team, and I want them to be OK with it.' "

Lockwood was apoplectic.

"We are talking about somebody who is in the conversation for player of the year," he said. "I said, ‘I think everybody is going to be happy if we're winning games.' That is the one of the things I will always remember.

"Now, if you tell a guy you want more shots, he will step out of that door, and he's in the gym jacking shots. Candace was so team-oriented. That was just Candace."

Parker laughs when Lockwood's story is relayed to her, but she gives a serious answer.

"I think my family definitely keeps me humble," Parker said. "Anything I did as a kid, it was striving to do more and striving to be better. In Coach's words, I never arrived. I think that helped me be the best I can be.

"Obviously, basketball is a team sport and especially in women's athletics, emotions take a lot in the sport. From that aspect I want to make sure everybody is in a good place. Because when everybody is in a good place, it means that it's going to be a good season. You don't all have to like each other, but you have to be OK with decisions."

Parker starts laughing again and adds, "I was young and I was a rookie, and I am a people pleaser. That is a funny story that Dean told."

Parker did get more demonstrative later in her career. Summitt ran drills in which players sprinted up and down the court for at least three minutes and had to make left-handed layups on both ends. If anyone missed – or used their right hand – the clock reset until the entire team completed the drill with no misfires. Parker never missed, but her teammates would.

One day after repeated misses and restarts – the drill was exhausting because it was full court, game speed and came at the end of practice – Parker exclaimed, ‘Come on, it's a left-handed layup!' "

Parker was a gifted player, but she made left-handed layups because she practiced them.

"That was one of the things I think Candace was very underappreciated for initially," Lockwood said. "Now that she has established herself so much in the women's game, I think people know.

"Early on people didn't appreciate how hard she worked on her game. Pratt Pavilion was one of the best things to happen to Candace Parker."

She also was one of the best things to ever happen to Lady Vols basketball, and the program will pay its due Thursday evening. The ceremony will be held at 6:45 p.m. before the 7 p.m. Eastern tip against LSU, which is coached by former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, an assistant coach for the Lady Vols when Parker was at Tennessee.

"What I am the most excited about – and this is going to sound crazy – but I can remember senior day and running out on the floor and being like, ‘This is going to be the last time in Knoxville.' So to get this opportunity again and to be able to do it in front of people I love – my whole family is going to be there – I think it's special from that aspect.

"Knoxville is very special to me, and Tennessee means a great deal to me."

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