"It was kind of exciting because it was my first practice on Tennessee's floor," said Parker, who's listed at 6'3 but looks at least an inch taller. "I practiced out in New Jersey, but I had not practiced here. I was really excited to get here and actually practice on the floor."
Candace Parker, who had surgery on her left knee, wasn't cleared to practice until Dec. 26. Her first session on the floor with her Lady Vol teammates came in New Jersey, where Tennessee traveled after Christmas to play Rutgers.
Her first surgery was Aug. 26 to remove loose cartilage fragments. The second surgery was Sept. 8 to repair the lateral meniscus and lateral articular cartilage. She has spent the last four months in rehab while watching her teammates in individual workouts, official practice and then games.
On Friday, she participated in nearly every full-court drill and put on an offensive display with power plays under the basket, a hook shot, reverse layup, three-point range and transition buckets. She also played solid defense, rebounded and had a couple of steals. The few spectators in attendance were somewhat awed. So was the head coach.
"It's almost like I try not to even look because I can't count on her yet," coach Pat Summitt said of her star freshman forward from Naperville, Ill., who is cleared to practice but not yet ready to play.
Parker must endure several practices without swelling in her knee before she will be green-lighted to appear in a game. Tennessee doesn't want to use her in a game or two, have the knee not hold up and then lose a year of eligibility. She practiced for more than two hours before being pulled to ice the knee. She also took a few breaks during practice to apply ice.
"I'm feeling great, didn't get tight, just trying to keep the swelling out, kept icing it when I had a chance," Parker said after practice ended.
Parker, everybody's All-American and the consensus national player of the year from Naperville Central High School, is the most-decorated recruit to ever attend Tennessee. She can play all five positions on the floor, but is likely to play small forward or power forward for Tennessee. She practiced at both positions Friday.
"It doesn't matter. Wherever coach puts me on the floor," Parker said of her position. "I'm not used to either one right now (but) it feels great."
She had vowed in September to play this year, but her status had remained up in the air. Her return is still dependent on her knee not swelling, but Parker is counting on not having to take a redshirt year.
"I hope so. Pray for this knee," Parker said while sitting courtside on the scorer's table and gesturing to her ice-packed knee.
Parker has an almost incalculable future when it comes to women's basketball. The next Olympics are in 2008, and eventually the WNBA and its accordant endorsements will come calling. One of the biggest questions about Parker was whether or not she would return for a fifth year if she had to redshirt.
"When the time came I would make that decision," Parker said. "I love it here at Tennessee. If the time is right I may leave. But if things are going good I definitely would stay" for a fifth year.
If you want a short answer from Parker, ask her about her game. If you want to see her eyes light up, ask her about the team or Jenny Moshak, the associate athletics director for sports medicine who led Parker's knee rehab. She credits Moshak for her return to the court and her teammates with helping her once she got there.
"My teammates are helping me out a lot, talking me through the action, and film has helped a lot," Parker said. "My teammates really helped me out a lot; they did a good job, telling me where I needed to be."
As Parker started to feel better in the latter part of December, she kept sneaking onto the court to try to do more basketball drills such as barely leaving her feet when she wasn't supposed to jump or playing very low-key games of one-on-one. Moshak would catch her and haul her off the floor. Parker was asked if she tried to dunk – she won the PowerAde Jam Fest at the McDonald's High School All-American Game while competing against men – or otherwise headed to the gym while home over the Christmas break and away from the watchful eye of Moshak. She said no.
"I've learned to just obey Moshak. Seriously. I'm not going to argue with the woman," Parker said. "She knows what she's doing. Whenever she gives me the green light. I just need to put a couple of practices together, and I think I'll be alright."
Moshak has already placed Parker on her All-Rehab Team, along with former Lady Vols Jody Adams, Kellie Jolly, Nikki McCray and Daedra Charles.
"She is the best physical trainer out there and why wouldn't I work hard for the best," Parker said. "She's out there giving it as much effort as I am every day trying to get me back. We're really close. That's my buddy. I'll do anything. She has my best interest at heart."
Parker was familiar with rehab. She missed the first six weeks of her senior year in high school in 2003-04 while recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. She went on to lead Naperville Central to a second straight state championship and averaged 24.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocked shots and 3.3 steals per game.
It was hard waiting for her senior year in high school to start, but it was harder having her freshman year in college delayed.
"It was the hardest," Parker said. "At Naperville Central I had already played. I had already been a part of that team so I still felt I had been there, kind of done that. Yeah it was my senior year but I knew I was going to be able to come back. With this injury, it's like you're so eager to start playing and being part of the team and start fitting in, and you're a freshman. It was really hard."
Despite the layoff, Parker displayed a lot of fluidity and familiarity on the court Friday. She had court awareness in terms of talking on defense, and on offense finding open teammates and calling for the ball with her hands constantly up because the perimeter players were looking to feed her. She almost dunked twice and more importantly, landed with ease.
"At this level you have players that are capable of finishing," Parker said. "They're here at Tennessee for a reason. My dad always says that you always have to have a move and a countermove. I feel like I can score. Coach always says look shot first, then pass, so that's what I try to do. We have players on our team that are capable of doing it as well."
Parker doesn't hesitate to point out her teammates' play, even if the discussion is initially about hers. She is most excited about playing with point guards Loree Moore (who should return next week to practice after a tonsillectomy), Alexis Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.
"You have no idea," Parker said with a big smile. "Some of the lobs they threw today in practice – that's just the beginning – and some of the passes that they see. You flash (open) here, and the ball's there. I'm really excited about the tempo we're going to play."
The arrival of Parker will have to wait a little while longer. It is highly unlikely she would be cleared to play against Old Dominion on Sunday and still unlikely she would be cleared to play against UConn on Jan. 8. The target date for now is Jan. 13 against Arkansas, UT's first home game since the Dec. 21 win over Stanford.
But it's the Dec. 29 loss against Rutgers in Piscataway that still has Summitt concerned. Tennessee fell 65-51 in a game that wasn't that close and only scored 16 points in the first half. Summitt was especially disappointed that several players didn't compete and promised to shake up her starting lineup.
After Friday's practice, Summitt said she had decided on three starters: Shyra Ely and Tye'sha Fluker who have started all but one game this season and Brittany Jackson, who has started only one game this season. Jackson has earned Summitt's praise for her defensive intensity and offensive aggressiveness.
Fluker would play center, but Summitt said Jackson might play at the wing or small forward positions. If Jackson plays small forward on the perimeter, that would move Ely to the high post in the paint. If Jackson plays the wing, then Ely would likely stay at small forward. That would leave usual starter Sidney Spencer at the high post, but Nicky Anosike or Dominique Redding can also play there, and Spencer has repeatedly been chastised for her hesitancy to shoot the ball.
The other two starters have been Hornbuckle at the point but the freshman has drawn Summitt's ire for a lack of effort on defense, and Shanna Zolman on the wing, who has been in an offensive slump.
So it appears Summitt is trying to figure out who will run the point – and Hornbuckle is still in the mix to start – and how she will juggle the perimeter and post positions. With the return of Wiley-Gatewood from knee injury two weeks ago and the improved play of Jackson and Redding she clearly has more choices. But another option, center Sybil Dosty, who can play the high and low post positions, remains day-to-day with a foot injury.
So for now it's Fluker, Ely and Jackson for sure.
"Those three are all I know right now," Summitt said.
Friday's practice was encouraging and boosted by the return of Parker. The players were more vocal, and the seniors demonstrated leadership – Jackson and Ely on the court – and Moore from the sidelines. Moore helped the freshmen point guards Hornbuckle and Wiley-Gatewood with the intricacies of the offense.
"We did some good things," Summitt said of Friday's practice. "I do feel better. We've got to get more on the defensive end from Alexis. She's just got to pick it up."
Hornbuckle is 5'11 and lightning fast with a long wingspan so she is well equipped to play defense. But she's also got her hands' full running the offense.
"She is built to play defense," Summitt said. "Maybe she's got a lot going on in her head offensively. She's got to be able to do both."
Wiley-Gatewood, who has been called a natural point guard by Summitt, has completed two weeks of practice and although learning fast is still putting the offense together.
"She's a little better. She just needs reps," Summitt said.
Zolman, one of the team's best shooters, has sometimes struggled to get open shots this season and has struggled to hit them when she is open. So far Zolman is 35-103 and is shooting 33.9 percent from the field. She made 1-4 shots against Rutgers and didn't shoot a 3-pointer. Against Stanford she nailed a running 3 from just past center court with 1.5 seconds left to lift Tennessee to victory, 70-67.
"I think Shanna has gotten open; she hasn't shot the ball very well," Summitt said. "Obviously she's gotten looks, maybe not as many as we would like or she would like. Sometimes offenses will get players shots. Sometimes players have to get players shots. Initially we didn't screen as well as we're screening right now. I think, too, she's just a marked woman."
The good news for Zolman is that she was getting a lot of open looks in practice Friday or else was finding the open player.
"I thought today was a much better day for her," Summitt said.
Tennessee will be looking for better days from everyone against ODU.