TheGrio's 100: Candace Parker, basketball's leading lady

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In a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg sort of way, you’re oft left to wonder if the WNBA’s bold, new slogan of ‘Expect Great’ was conceptualized to mark the dawn of the Candace Parker era, or if it only came to life after the powers-that-be began to earnestly discover just how far her prowess might lead them.

In either case, the woman named in 2007 by People magazine as one of its 100 Most Beautiful People unquestionably stands as the league’s leading attraction. ‘’Candace’s game is a history changer,’’ Hall of Fame Tennessee coach Pat Summitt told ESPN in 2009 of the star who led her Lady Vols to back-to-back NCAA titles and later became the second female (after Lisa Leslie) to dunk in a WNBA game during her history-making 2008 MVP and Rookie of the Year season with the L.A. Sparks.

Then again, Parker has long had the magic touch. Just ask older brother Anthony, now a teammate of LeBron James with the title-contending Cleveland Cavaliers, whom she grew up more than holding her own against during countless mano a mano backyard scrimmages.

By the time she faced off against future NBAers Josh Smith and J.R. Smith as a high school senior in the 2004 McDonald’s Slam Dunk Contest, the backyard moments seemed like, well, just another day in the park.

Parker went on to win that slam dunk battle, as she has virtually every other in its wake. In addition to all the NCAA banners she helped raise down in Knoxville, she won gold as a member of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Team and has been named all-league in her first two WNBA seasons.

Not bad, even for someone who grew up on the borders of Chicago, studying and emulating the game of Michael Jordan. It’s that road map that Parker has used en route to becoming one of the most recognizable female faces in all of sports.

“I wouldn’t mind being the female MJ,” she told ESPN in 2009. “I want to have major crossover appeal.”

And yet, Parker also longs to be an everywoman. She recently married NBA player Shelden Williams and gave birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Lailaa Nicole.

Less than two months after giving birth, all eyes were again cast on Parker when she returned for the 2009 season’s second half to lead the Sparks in a spirited run to the Western Conference Finals.

“Talent drives attention,” WNBA commissioner Donna Orender once said of the league’s signature performer. With that, you start to crystallize just why Candace Parker, all 6-4, 195 pounds of her, always seems to tower at the center of it.