Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The sweet reward for curiosity this year was Candace Parker. On a jammed sports scene with endless channels to choose from and a political campaign to satiate other competition cravings, Parker did something extraordinary: She made you look -- at women's basketball, of all things.
She displayed a magnetism that was one part attributable to the unfathomable amount of hardware she collected along a route from Knoxville to Beijing to L.A. -- including a Naismith trophy and an NCAA title at Tennessee, an Olympic gold medal in China and the WNBA's Rookie of the Year and MVP awards with the Sparks -- but the real pull of Parker was the gravity of her meaning.
She became a culture bender in 2008 during a journey worthy of SI's Sportsperson of the Year. As a 6-foot-5 forward with Magic Johnson's skill set, Parker put a face on women's hoops 2.0, representing the updated version of a game that is far removed from an inferior product stigmatized by yellowed images of push shots. This isn't about her ability to play above the rim -- though Parker does jam -- but the way she assembled a consistently superior body of work during a year that went beyond a sublime spurt of glory at the Olympics or a mesmerizing single season or a grand play in a big game.
Think of her as an inspirational chain letter that was passed around from month to month and that no one dared break. Nothing deterred her, not even a dislocated shoulder as she played through pain to lead the Lady Vols to their second-consecutive national championship in April. Nothing fatigued her, not even an excellent China adventure that ended in gold this summer. Nothing rattled her, not even expectation as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft who debuted with 34 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
She was a woman for all seasons. Her extended visibility set the stage for a bonding period with fans, reaching audiences that grew more intrigued by Parker as they came to know her story. She was the little sister of the Raptors' Anthony Parker and engaged to ex-Duke star Shelden Williams of the Kings. Candace Parker was eloquent and attractive but mostly she was all ball, whether in an ad for Gatorade or a highlight on SportsCenter.
The recognition Parker received was measurable by the time the Sparks reached the Western Conference finals last month. She had helped the WNBA gain a 19 percent spike in television ratings this year and fueled a 35 percent uptick in merchandise sales. Little girls -- and more than a few young boys -- were wearing her Sparks jersey. With the WNBA at a crossroads, Parker steadied the league with her flamboyant style and grit. (She was, as many witnessed on YouTube, involved in an on-court skirmish at the Palace.) As a collegian, Olympian and a pro in 2008 -- the trifecta of multi-tasking -- Parker morphed into what had been an elusive figure in women's basketball: a mainstream draw. The curious were hooked.