David the bus driver is like a lot of people. He knew about girls high school basketball, he'd heard about Candace Parker. But Dave never had watched her play.
"You can't really understand what she's like until you see her," Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said.
So after driving Nussbaum's team to Normal for the Class AA girls state finals last season, David decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. His response after Parker had led Central to a quarterfinal victory on the way to its state title was predictable:
"Now I understand what everybody's been talking about," he told Nussbaum.
Now a lot of people--players, coaches, passionate fans and casual fans--know what Parker is all about. After leading her high school to a second consecutive state title, she has been named Ms. Basketball of Illinois for a third consecutive year.
No player in the state, boy or girl, ever has won the award three times. The lone two-time winner before Parker was Marshall's Cappie Pondexter. But Parker, as even Tennessee coach Pat Summitt knows, is special.
"I think she's going to add an awful lot to the women's game," Summitt, who will be coaching the 6-foot-3-inch college freshman next season, said a few days ago when told of the award. "It's going to be fun to watch her develop and help take this game to a different level. And you're going to see a player who is unique."
In being acclaimed the state's best girls player for the 2003-04 season, Parker had to come back from a torn ACL that forced her to miss the Redhawks' first 11 games. She then led her teammates, who had been on a six-game winning streak, to 24 more victories in a row, a 33-2 record and back-to-back state titles. Central was unbeaten in the last
58 games Parker was in the lineup.
Parker averaged 24.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game for the season and finished her high school career with 2,758 points. Had she not missed those 11 games, Parker would no doubt have become one of six girls in Illinois to go over
the 3,000-point mark--an amazing accomplishment for a player who rarely played more than three quarters in games Central dominated.
Some coaches and fans wondered if Parker, who suffered her knee injury last July, would even be in the running for Ms. Basketball.
"I had that doubt," Parker said. " `Well, it's just too bad,' people would say to me. `We thought you could've repeated as Ms. Basketball.' "
Instead of being an also-ran, Parker became the most decisive winner of the award, which will be presented at the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association banquet in Normal on April 24. Her 203 first-place votes and 1,091 points dwarfed the numbers of runner-up Kassie Drew of Anna-Jonesboro (15, 185).
As a sophomore, Parker's point total of 350 was only 23 more than runner-up Johanna Solverson of Lake Zurich. Last season she received 805 points to the 524 of Fenwick's Erin Lawless. As a freshman, Parker finished 16th behind Pondexter.
"I'm really excited, it's a tremendous honor," said Parker, who already has been named winner of this year's Naismith and McDonald's awards as the best girls player in the nation. "I can remember back to my sophomore year when Nuss came into my class and told me. I've got that same feeling right now."
The daughter of former Iowa basketball standout Larry Parker and sister of 1997 first-round NBA draftee Anthony from Bradley, she entered Central as a highly touted freshman and scored her first two points eight seconds into a 55-22 victory over Batavia. Parker had 20 points, seven rebounds, six steals and four assists in less than three quarters.
"She's already, in my 13 years, the best player we've ever had," Nussbaum said after the game.
But it was as a sophomore that Parker's impact was felt nationally. Her dunk on Dec. 27, 2001, against Rockton Hononegah in the Dundee-Crown Christmas tournament was the first by a girl in an Illinois high school game and said to be the second in the nation.
That season ended on a sour note with a loss to Benet in the state playoffs, but Central would not lose in Parker's junior year. It ended with a 35-0 record and overtime victory over powerhouse Fenwick in the state championship game.
Summitt, in her 30th season with Tennessee and the nation's winningest women's coach, saw Parker early in her high school career. Asked her first thought about the developing star, she said, "Boy, I hope we've got a shot at her. I do not want to play against this young lady."
She and millions were tuned into ESPN this past October when the 17-year-old Parker became the first high school girl to ever have her college commitment televised nationally. This week she'll play in the McDonald's High School All-American game in Oklahoma City on Wednesday and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's version of that game in New Orleans on Saturday.
Parker's farewell to the high school game could be summed up in the farewell she came up with in eighth grade with club teammate Jenee Graham, who went on to star at Bolingbrook: Peace, love, jump shot.
Nussbaum says goodbye to her, but not farewell to her influence at Central and all of girls high school basketball. "There's a bit of a Midas touch she had," he said. "It can't help but have been a positive experience for our players--and even some of her opponents."