Paris' enthusiasm for life as impressive as her numbers

NORMAN, Okla. -- Courtney Paris watches a lot of HGTV when she can. She's a homebody, an introspective person who writes fiction, notices small things of beauty and isn't interested in her press clippings (which could take a long, long time to read).

A "fun" weekend for her would be spent sprucing up the house in Norman that she shares with Ashley, her twin and an Oklahoma women's basketball teammate. That's where HGTV comes in handy, giving her ideas about shapes and colors and designs.

She doesn't need or even particularly enjoy being "out on the town," knowing everyone in this Sooners-crazy city recognizes her. That's a status usually bestowed on those who tuck, toss or tackle on the OU football field, something many of them over the decades have found exhilarating and affirming: "Yes, I'm the big man on campus."

Courtney Paris is a "big woman," both on campus and wherever she goes, 6-foot-4 with a powerful build. And she doesn't mind the "big" part, in its literal sense, one single bit. But she doesn't care much about the "big" part that means the celebrity and special status so many athletes crave.

Still … she has that status as much as any female athlete at Oklahoma ever has. She understands it's part of "the job" of being a first-team All-American center going into her junior season and the "face" not just of women's basketball at OU, but also in the Big 12.

For that matter, Paris and her fellow preseason All-Americans, such as Tennessee's Candace Parker and LSU's Sylvia Fowles, are the "faces" of a new generation of the sport. And they've learned a lot from the time they've spent with older players on the U.S. senior national team.

"Those guys love to talk about everything, and it's one of the best experiences I could ever have," Paris said. "Hearing all their advice on basketball, what you should do as a pro, how to invest your money. I really appreciated them doing that."

Paris, Parker and Fowles are players who are like a bridge -- they'll be the connection between the "oldies" who know what it was like without a U.S. pro league to look forward to and the youngsters who never will play alongside or against that WNBA pioneer group.

Paris realizes she and her peers are about to receive a torch they can't afford to mishandle. Even the fastest group of runners in history couldn't win a relay race if any one of them dropped the baton.

"We're excited about it and trying to get ready for it," Paris said. "We feel the responsibility of it, too."

Paris feels it as a Sooner, as a future high WNBA draft pick and as a likely Olympian -- if not in 2008, then 2012.

So if she goes to Wal-Mart and ends up in a 15-minute conversation with a star-struck stranger wondering how the Sooners are going to do this season … no problem. Why sweat a relatively small chunk of time when it means so much to someone? Why not share in the happiness, hope and excitement you bring to a community, a state, an entire sport?

Paris is just 20, but already she can envision when she won't be playing competitive basketball. It's very far away, sure, but she can see it. And it doesn't frighten her. Perhaps that's part of why she can enjoy the game so much now. It's there to be enjoyed, to work hard at, to allow her to make non-verbal "statements" about being proud of herself to younger girls who are big like her.

Basketball is a way to pursue excellence … but it's also a way to inspire others to do the same at anything they choose.

"Without a doubt, she is a person who is not defined by how she plays," OU coach Sherri Coale said. "And that is so rare, particularly with superstar players. Who they 'are' is who they are as a basketball player. But Courtney is not like that.

"That's enabled her to handle the scrutiny, the attention, the accolades. Basketball is what she does, but it's not who she is. I think it keeps her from feeling the pressure and stress; it keeps her balanced."

Coale doesn't recruit anyone to OU just to play basketball and get a degree. There's another thing she's looking to help develop. It's impossible, really, to sum it up in one phrase. But as an observer of OU players in Coale's 11 seasons, I'd say she wants them to learn how to continually nourish their souls.

Everyone who passes through the program will experience it in some way. But Paris embraces it and will benefit from it as much as anyone who has worn that uniform.

"The great measuring stick for me is this: After I coach a kid for four years, do I want to go to dinner with her and sit and talk for two hours?" Coale said. "I had dinner with [former Sooner and aspiring physician] Caton Hill in Augusta, Georgia; she's doing her orthopedics rotation at the military hospital there. And that's about as good as it gets for a coach.

"I know I'll want to go to dinner with Courtney, and it will be as enjoyable as going with my best friend. She's a person who is 'full.' She's innately curious, achievement-driven, interested in people -- just the total package."

Courtney and Ashley, who also will be an important part of the Sooners' attack this season, came to OU from their California home because they knew it was a place where being the "total package" really would be appreciated.

Obviously, they also came with the hope of winning a national championship. The Sooners have lost in the Sweet 16 the past two years, and they've taken that hard. They also lost six seniors from last season's team, and they will be missed.

OU starts this season against Maryland, Tennessee and Arizona State (whew!) and will face stiff competition from the likes of Texas A&M and Baylor, in particular, in the Big 12 in 2008. Then the Sooners will try to find the right formula for the NCAA Tournament.

But all that time, Paris will be writing and thinking and laughing and growing, the way "full" people do.

Will she keep this ridiculous streak of 61 double-doubles going, too? Probably. But if it ends, she will be upset only if it happens in a loss.

This summer, she worked on versatility -- playing away from the basket, while keeping in mind, of course, that the low block still is where she will spend most of her time.

"I want to be comfortable with my jump shot," she said. "I want to be natural with that and make it a part of my game enough to be confident in it."

What Coale wants is for everyone -- in Sooner Nation, especially -- to really appreciate what they are seeing and not take it for granted.

Paris has 1,563 points and 1,065 rebounds in just two seasons of college basketball. If she maintains similar numbers as a junior and senior, she will shatter the NCAA career rebounding record (Drake's Wanda Ford had 1,887 from 1983-86) and likely will be No. 2 on the scoring list (Missouri State's Jackie Stiles had 3,393 points from 1997-2001).

Combining those two statistics, one could make a good case that Paris is on her way to being the most productive player in NCAA history.

"Last season in Colorado, someone asked in a press conference about Courtney having a 'tough' night the game before [against Oklahoma State] because she had 'only' 17 points," Coale said. "And I said, 'You know, we got off the plane and on the bus and drove to our hotel here, and we're all like, 'Oh, my God, look at the Rocky Mountains! They're incredible!' But how many of you guys who live here even looked at them today? You don't even know they're there. You're so accustomed to them that you don't appreciate them.'

"I think we have to fight to not be numb to things that are fabulous, just because they're right in front of us and we get used to them. What we have in front of us in Courtney is something none of us may ever see again."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.