Parker set the stage for Clark

Before Caitlin Clark, there was Candace Parker.

As Parker, the pride of Naperville Central High School, enjoys her first week of retirement from a hall-of-fame WNBA career, Iowa’s shining star is about to take the league by storm with the Indiana Fever. Clark’s first preseason game is tonight.

Clark’s bringing record-breaking college scoring numbers — not to mention record jersey sales, television ratings and ticket demand — along for the ride.

People hang on every word at her news conferences. She can’t take a step without someone recording whom she’s following on social media, whom she’s dating or what outfit she’s wearing.

Clark has entered a rare realm of celebrity status enjoyed, or maybe dreaded, by very few. It’s a Taylor Swift kind of status where every move is monitored.

Somehow, though, I feel like I’ve seen this before. A less aggressive version of it, anyway.

Twenty years ago, Candace Parker was like Caitlin Clark. At least to the level it was possible without TikTok, Instagram or whatever Twitter is called these days.

During her time at Naperville Central, especially after her legendary dunk as a sophomore in 2001, Parker was nationally known. She was hounded for autographs after games and made high profile media appearances with an amazing level of savvy and grace for someone still a teenager.

Sound familiar? Twenty years before anyone heard of Clark, Parker was lifting women’s basketball onto her shoulders and carrying it into a new era of exposure.

Parker did it with a primary focus on winning. Naperville Central rolled to two IHSA state titles, including a 35-0 record her junior year. She garnered USA Today, Gatorade and Naismith national player of the year honors.

A Tribute to Naperville Central’s Candace Parker was placed in the hallway of Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville to commemorate Parker’s dunk in the 2001 Charger Classic. Daily Herald File Photo

Parker went on to play at Tennessee under legendary coach Pat Summitt, earning more player of the year awards and leading the Volunteers to two national titles. In three seasons she scored more than 2,100 points.

Parker won two Olympic gold medals and, after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, won three WNBA titles. One came with the Chicago Sky in 2021 during a triumphant return to the area.

She even became the first women’s basketball player to appear on the cover of the NBA2K video game. She signed multimillion dollar deals with Adidas and Gatorade.

Sound familiar? Clark is trying to open doors for other women’s basketball players, much in the same way Parker did years ago.

Former Naperville Mayor George Pradel celebrates with Candace Parker, who was named the 2004 Gatorade National High School Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Daily Herald file photo

I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to cover Parker a handful of times when she was at Naperville Central. Every game was a marquee event because you might be watching the greatest women’s basketball player of all time.

Looking at the scrutiny surrounding Clark, I can’t help but wonder if Parker considers herself lucky for missing out on that level of microscopic attention.

Clark seems to embrace her role as the rising tide lifting all boats in women’s basketball, but she also seems like someone who just wants to play ball and win titles.

As much attention as Parker drew as a superstar, the intense social media scrutiny didn’t exist 20 years ago. On the other hand, the world instantly knows when Clark blocks Antonio Brown on social media.

Imagine being watched that closely.

Parker got a taste of it, at a younger age no less. Can you imagine the number of Parker’s high school highlights that would’ve bombarded YouTube had it existed?

It’s something we need to remember as Clark continues on her own journey.

Candace Parker, third from right, and members of the 2021 Chicago Sky celebrate winning the WNBA championship at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Courtesy of the Chicago Sky
Candace Parker poses with the John Wooden Award after earning the honor with the University of Tennessee in 2008. Associated Press
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