All-American Parker to pursue Olympics and pro career

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Candace Parker, the Tennessee All-America forward who made dunking in women's basketball almost commonplace, ended all the speculation.

Parker, the first woman to win a national slam dunk contest, will skip her final season at Tennessee for the chance to play professionally.

"This was the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, but my family and I think this is the best choice for me," Parker said Wednesday.

"I've been blessed with great coaches and teammates, an outstanding education and the best women's basketball crowd support in the country. I will miss Tennessee, but I am eager to take this next step in my career."

The redshirt junior will graduate at the end of this season and plans to participate in the summer Olympics and pursue a professional career, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. Parker redshirted her freshman season to recover from surgeries to repair a torn knee ligament.

Parker will be honored as part of the third-ranked Lady Volunteers' senior night activities before the Feb. 28 game against Florida.

"Obviously we'd love to have her another year," Summitt said. "Who wouldn't?"

The 6-foot-4 Naperville, Ill., native leads the team in scoring with 20.6 points per game and rebounds with 8.8 and is one of six women to have dunked in the college game.

Kara Lawson, a Sacramento Monarchs guard and former Lady Vols star, said Parker's experience at Tennessee has prepared her to play at the professional level.

"Playing for coach Summitt, the opportunity to play with the players they have there, the tough non-conference schedule all gets you ready," she said. "You look at the success of the players who have gone there and what they've done at the next level."

In 2004 Parker beat five male competitors to win the slam dunk contest as part of the McDonald's High School All-American Game.

Since then she has dunked seven times, becoming the first women's player to go above the rim twice during a game and in a NCAA tournament game.

After leading the Lady Volunteers to their seventh national championship last season, Parker played with the U.S. national team during her summer break as the team earned its 2008 Olympic bid.

"Candace was ready for the pros two years ago," U.S. team coach Anne Donovan said. "I think it's an exciting day. Tennessee's had her long enough."

Parker also earned the women's 2007 John R. Wooden Award.

Parker likely would go in the April WNBA draft as the top pick to the Los Angeles Sparks, which would give Parker the opportunity to play alongside Lisa Leslie and former teammates Sidney Spencer and Tye'sha Fluker. A spokesman for the Sparks declined to comment about Parker entering the draft.

Playing in Los Angeles would also put her just a few hours away from fiance Shelden Williams, who was traded Saturday from the Atlanta Hawks to the Sacramento Kings.

Donovan said Parker plays at a higher level whenever she's around top-notch players such as Leslie.

"With Lisa coming back and Parker coming out that's going to be a formidable combination for years to come," she said. "I know L.A. is dancing in the streets right now."