Candace Parker picked her grandfather.
An assignment in her speech class required her to pay tribute to someone, and she had many influential people from which to choose. People like her father, Larry, who showed her how to dunk a basketball, and her mother, Sara, her toughest critic and constant companion.
Her older brothers, Anthony and Marcus, are also role models. Anthony is playing basketball in Israel, and Marcus is in medical school at Johns Hopkins. Both stay in close touch with their sister.
Parker looks up to all of them, but her grandfather's grit and undying optimism have had an enormous impact on the Naperville Central sophomore.
Her grandfather, William Montgomery, doesn't watch Parker play basketball, except on videotape. He is too ill to leave his home in Des Moines, where he is battling heart problems and cancer, but Parker says his enthusiasm for life remains contagious.
Pride is evident in Parker's voice as she talks about her grandfather's other struggles--and triumphs--growing up in this country during a time when prejudices prevailed and some people believed blacks and whites were better off segregated.
"He overcame barriers so I could be where I am today," she says.
His buoyancy has made a lasting impression on his granddaughter. The glass is always half full and tomorrow will always be a better day, he tells Parker.
He laid the groundwork for Parker's competitive spirit and appreciation for the good things in her life: a tight-knit family, a solid work ethic and a sport that has consumed her almost since birth--basketball.
She attended her first game when she was 2 weeks old, when her parents brought her along to watch her brother Anthony play. Now she's dazzling audiences with fancy footwork that twice elevated her above the rim this season for the state's first slam dunks by a female high school player.
The dunks highlighted a season in which the 6-foot-3-inch forward averaged 22 points, 15 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 3.4 blocks a game.
Although she is only a sophomore, many believe she is the state's best basketball player. She'll soon have the hardware to show for it.
Parker is Ms. Basketball of Illinois for 2002, the second sophomore to win the award in its 17-year history and the first since Tamika Catchings of Stevenson won in 1995. Parker edged Lake Zurich senior Johanna Solverson by 23 points in statewide voting by coaches and media members, each of whom could vote for three players on a ballot. Parker had 45 first-place votes to 41 for Solverson, who led Lake Zurich to an unbeaten regular season and a fourth-place finish in the state tournament.
"It's an honor to be compared to some of the best players in the state," Parker says. "I'm happy my dad pushed me all those times, especially when I couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."
Those days are behind her now. She is playing with the confidence of a fourth-year starter and already has a school-record 1,349 points.
She says she wants to improve her skills 25 percent each year and develop a will to win like that of Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson.
"They have a mental toughness where they refuse to lose," Parker says. "When they do lose, they're devastated.
"I'm developing it right now. We've had two years of being disappointed. My team has gotten mad about losing. We don't want to do that again."
Naperville Central lost a supersectional game to Neuqua Valley last year and a sectional championship game to Benet this season. The Redhawks had been favored to advance to the Elite Eight both times.
Parker and her teammates have watched Neuqua Valley, a cross-town rival that began fielding a varsity team in 1998, finish second and third, respectively, in the last two seasons.
"It stings," Parker says. "But I have nothing but respect for them. If we had played the state tournament in December, we would have gotten farther than we did."
In December, Fenwick, the 2001 state champion, needed overtime to defeat Naperville Central in the state's top girls holiday tournament at Dundee-Crown. Against Rockton Hononegah in the tournament quarterfinals, Parker became the first girl in Illinois to dunk in a game.
She dunked again in a sectional semifinal victory over Glenbard North eight weeks later. Both dunks came off steals and gave Naperville Central a huge momentum swing. Her celebrations afterward were short-lived.
"She walked into practice the next day and acted like it didn't happen," teammate Rachel Crissy said.
Parker couldn't escape the fame that accompanied the first dunk. She humbly obliged autograph seekers and reluctantly posed for photographs.
"The autograph seeking, it actually started before the dunk," Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said. "She's very accommodating, but she can't wait to get the braces off her teeth in terms of the pictures."
That's the endearing part. Parker is only 15 and still relies on her mom and teammates for rides to and from school.
"I'm counting down the days till I can drive," she says, adding that she'll be 16 on April 19.
She is young, but far from naive. Parker says she has received subtle hints from coaches, encouraging her to transfer from Naperville Central. When she took a trip last summer with her parents, her teammates and coaches believed a rumor that Parker was moving to attend Neuqua Valley.
"With a player of Candace's caliber, there are always going to be rumors," Nussbaum says.
But Parker says she has never considered leaving Naperville Central, especially because her brothers played there. She began looking forward to following in their footsteps in grammar school.
She has been demanding perfection ever since.
"Sometimes I'm a little bit too intense," she says.
She wants her teammates to share that intensity but also have the guts to stand up to her.
"She's the best player in the country for a sophomore," Crissy says. "You're not going to say no if she asks you to do something.
"Candace needs someone on the court to help her. Otherwise she's out there alone. I'm still going to kick her in the butt when she needs it."
Naperville Central has averaged 20 victories a season in 14 seasons under Nussbaum, but Parker's abilities have brought on greater expectations. She has two more seasons to make her mark Downstate.
"We want to be as successful as we can possibly be while we have someone of Candace's caliber," Nussbaum says. "I've been around long enough to know she's a once-in-a-seven-or-eight-lifetime player."