It would rank among sports' all-time highlights, but, sadly, no cameras were on hand when Candace Parker, a 6-ft. 4-in. women's basketball prodigy at the University of Tennessee, took on a member of the men's team this summer one-on-one. At one stage, Parker, 19, drove to her right and leaped toward the basket. Her opponent rose to block her shot. What followed had probably never before happened in the history of hoops: Parker dunked the ball over the player's outstretched hand, as several men playing a pickup game nearby froze, jaws agape. A girl had dunked not only on a guy but on a guy who played major college basketball. Her victim? "I promised him I would not tell you that," says Parker. "He's already got it bad around campus. If it gets out there, it's going to be real bad. I can't do it."
One might call this discretion ladylike. But there's nothing demure about how Parker plays the game. She vaulted onto the sports scene in 2004, when she became the first girl to win the McDonald's High School All-American slam-dunk competition, beating two future NBA first-round draft picks in the process. Only three college women and one WNBA player have ever dunked during a game; Parker first slammed as a high school sophomore. Although her dunks fetch the most attention, her game is complete: she dribbles like a point guard and throws no-look passes from the post, and during one workout, the right-hander hit 22 out of 30 three-pointers--shooting left-handed.
With more young women playing organized basketball today--there are more than 472,000 high school and NCAA participants, up 21% over the past 15 years--and refining their ability, Parker represents a new wave of skilled female stars. "Candace will be the next player to change the sport," predicts Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. "In 10 to 15 years, there will be a lot of Candace Parkers. But right now there's only one, and she's going to set the bar high. Young girls will strive to be her."
The sound of squeaky sneakers rang in Parker's ears even when she was a young child. Her mother Sara cradled 2-week-old Candace in a gym while watching eldest son Anthony play an A.A.U. game (Anthony, 30, spent three years in the NBA and now plays professionally in Israel). Growing up in Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb, Parker initially rebelled against the family passion, until seventh grade, when her height practically demanded that she take up the game. Her father Larry, who played at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, doubled as her A.A.U. coach. "My dad was so hard on me that I didn't think I was good," says Parker. Another older brother, Marcus, 27, knocked not-so-little sister around in late-night games one-on-one. The tough love paid off: Candace is the only person--male or female--to have won the Naismith national High School Player of the Year Award twice.