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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Women don't dunk.

That's the naysaying phrase that hounds women's basketball, where only Lisa Leslie has slammed home a basket in the WNBA and where the collegiate game has had only one dunker in each of the past three decades.

But that might change starting Sunday when redshirt freshman Candace Parker makes her long-anticipated debut for Tennessee, after missing last season because of two knee operations.

By winning the PowerAde Jam Fest slam-dunk contest against some of the nation's best male preps in 2004, Parker was likened to the teenager who took the NBA by storm, LeBron James, and given the nickname SheBron.

The 6-4 forward from Naperville, Ill., got a sense of the expectations that await her during an exhibition game last week when, with a clear path to the basket, she elected to shoot a simple layup.

"Everybody went, 'Ohhhh,'" Parker says. "I'm like, hey, that's still two points."

The fans at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena have set numerous attendance records and cheered six NCAA championship teams as Pat Summitt has amassed college basketball's all-time record for coaching victories. But they have never seen a woman dunk there.

"There's no sense of urgency," says Parker, who first dunked as a high school sophomore. "We want to win games."

But Shanna Zolman, a senior guard for the No.1-ranked Lady Vols, doesn't expect the wait to last long.

"She wants to do it, just to get it over with, because of all the hype," says Zolman, who also wants to get that first dunk out of the way.

Zolman has tried to temper the weighty expectations her 19-year-old teammate faces.

"She's an awesome kid and she's an awesome player, but she's not a god," Zolman says."Everybody is putting on these unfair expectations. She's a great person to hang out with, somebody who is very humble, but it's not like she's going to single-handedly come here and lift us up to a national championship."

Yet ESPN commentator Nancy Lieberman, the dominant woman player of the late '70s and early '80s while leading Old Dominion to two national titles, says flatly: "I'm telling you, I've seen a lot of great players, but nobody who will change and dominate the game like Candace."

Lieberman praises Parker's athleticism and passing ability but says the public will savor Parker's ability to dunk without benefit of an unguarded, breakaway sprint.

"She's going to come down and dunk on you," Lieberman says. "That's the one you need to count. That's when you need to have TiVo."

Adds Summitt: "She's the type of player who can be inside the paint and go above the rim. ... There's not a lot of players who do that."

Parker agrees that's the element she can bring to women's college basketball but isn't boastful about it. When discussing the power game, she has a meek voice as she says, "I want to be the first one to bring it to the halfcourt game."

First of many who will dunk?

John Wooden, the coach of 10 NCAA championship teams at UCLA, once said the women's collegiate game was the "purest basketball" because it relied on teamwork and didn't have dunkers. Naperville Central High coach Andy Nussbaum agreed with Wooden and bristled at the demand for a female dunker, until Parker threw down her first one.

"Our attendance doubled immediately. It was unbelievable," says Nussbaum, who won two Illinois state championships with Parker. "Initially, I was kind of angry. But after a while, I thought if it takes the possibility of a dunk to make people come out and see women's basketball, then that's fine."

With a television presence that includes five regular-season Lady Vols games scheduled on ESPN2, Nussbaum says, "What Candace is able to do is going to be beneficial not only for Tennessee but everybody in women's basketball. I think some people will tune in out of curiosity, and come away impressed."

Summitt once had to endure fallout with her only other player who dunked. Michelle Snow had three dunks during her Tennessee career -- all in road games -- including a game-ending one at Vanderbilt in 2001 off a full-court pass.

Some in the Vanderbilt crowd booed, and afterward Summitt faced media questions about whether the rare dunk by a woman was an example of rubbing in a victory.

"If this were a men's game, you wouldn't even ask that question," a clearly angered Summitt said. "I guess it's not ladylike."

Summitt says there still might be some fans who are opposed to women dunking, but she adds, "I definitely think there will be more people watching, in the gym or turning on the tube, because it is still unique to our game. It doesn't happen very often, and I think people want to see it."

But Summitt also says if she were to list all of Parker's attributes, dunking would be "way down, probably at the bottom of my list."

"I just saw a player that first of all loves to play the game," Summitt says. "How fluid she was on the floor, how versatile she was, what a great passer ... just her court vision, just her skills overall."

Dee Romine, coach of the Stetson team that faces Tennessee on Sunday, says, "Truthfully, I hope our games get to that point (where the dunk is common). More power to the individual players who are capable of doing those kinds of things."

Although Romine hopes Stetson can keep Parker in check, she also says, "It kind of would be exciting to watch. But it's not going to make or break our season if it happens."

Lieberman says the old-schoolers had best get ready for a change because there are plenty more dunk-capable high schoolers coming up. At a Nike camp for high school juniors in June, Lieberman says she saw six girls dunk without a run-up.

"It's phenomenal to see these kids. They don't know how good they are," Lieberman says. "They expect to dunk. Candace is just the apex. She's the top of the mountain."

Finding her niche at last

But even though Parker was a mountainous 24 inches long at birth, she grew up sometimes feeling small at home. Her oldest brother, Anthony, was a first-round NBA draft choice out of Bradley in 1997. After stints with Philadelphia and Orlando, he became a European League MVP last season for Tel Aviv.

Her other brother, Marcus, excelled in the classroom and is in residency as a radiologist at Johns Hopkins.

Parker's father, Larry, was Iowa's first freshman starter in basketball, in the '70s, and played two seasons there for Lute Olson. Her mom, Sara, wasn't a college athlete but has taken up a basketball career as the office manager and assistant to the CEO of the WNBA's Chicago Sky.

With all that basketball in the family, Parker initially focused on soccer, "Because neither of my brothers played it."

Feeling like Anthony had claimed basketball and Marcus academics, Parker once asked her mother, "What am I going to do?"

Her mom said, "Why don't you do both?"

Parker's reply was "OK," her mom says.

Despite sitting out last season, Parker still was named to the Southeastern Conference's All-Academic freshman team and is considering a double major in business finance and business marketing. She dropped plans to major in communications when she realized the endless interviews at Tennessee would give her plenty of on-camera experience. She also stayed in Knoxville for two summer school sessions.

The one question about her future is whether her left knee will hold up. She was a stellar volleyball player in high school but gave that up because of the pounding. Already this season she has had to sit out some practices because the knee swelled.

Besides the two operations in 2004, Parker suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in 2003 in an AAU game. Summitt was in the crowd and instantly turned to her son Tyler and said, "She just tore an ACL."

Parker's father was coaching his daughter, and his wife was his assistant.

"It was the coach's fault, I can tell you that much," he says. "We were up by 20 points. I don't know why I put her back in."

But he doesn't expect his daughter to back off this season.

"Players have got to play," he says. "You've got to have a certain amount of reckless abandon to play the game at the level I think she can play at."

Although he could define his daughter's toughness by recounting the one hard afternoon of practice it took to make her a dunker, he chooses different examples: The seventh-grade picture Parker posed for with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck and the time she picked up a baby alligator during a family vacation.

Parker's mother has similar stories about her daughter's bug collection.

"She's absolutely fearless," Dad says. "I don't think there's anything too big for her. She doesn't say,'I can't.'"

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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