Candace Parker returned to her alma mater last weekend – and received the reception she deserved. The legendary Tennessee basketball player attended the Lady Vols and Gentlemen Vols games and posted this on Instagram: This is LEGACY son. We bleed orange, love hard, support the ones we love, and always visit HOME!
Her words were addressed to her son, Airr Larry Petrakov Parker, who will turn 1 year old on Feb. 11.
When Parker emerged from an arena tunnel Sunday and walked to the courtside seats reserved for her, her family and friends, the 9,772 fans in attendance noticed, and the cheers grew louder the closer she got to the floor. Parker’s journey was interrupted several times when she saw people she knew and stopped to talk, including longtime media relations chief Debby Jennings, who Parker invited to sit with her.
“We love Candace and love that she continues to be a part of this program,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said after the 68-55 win over Georgia to keep the team undefeated in SEC play at 6-0. “She’s one of the greatest to do it ever, and she is ours.”
Parker, who continues to train for another season in the WNBA this summer – it will be her 16th after she briefly pondered retirement – also is part of the NBA on TNT broadcasting crew and calls games for the Los Angeles Lakers in her second hometown. The first, of course, is always Chicago. Parker also owns a production company, has her own shoe and clothing line with adidas and is one of the owners of the Angel City FC, the new professional women’s soccer team in Los Angeles, along with Serena Williams and other luminaries in sports and entertainment.
She made time to fly to Knoxville to watch Chris Lofton’s No. 5 jersey be retired by the Vols basketball program on Saturday – both played at Tennessee from 2004-08 – and it now hangs in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena with Parker’s No. 3 jersey, which was raised to the roof in 2014.
Parker’s wife, Anna Petrakova, accompanied her on the trip, as did Airr, whose nickname throughout Petrakova’s pregnancy was Goose, and the moniker has stuck. During Sunday’s game, several fans slipped over to Parker, and security personnel, as is their job, intervened, but Parker waved them on to her. Two young girls carrying a mini-basketball and Smokey mascot stuffed toy approached Parker for autographs. It likely would be their only shot to walk right up to Parker, and they took it.
When Parker was among those honored at halftime for being a Title IX trailblazer, she held Airr in her arms. The honorees included Bettye Giles, one of the founders of the Tennessee College Women’s Sports Federation and the first women’s athletics director at UT Martin; Missy Kane, Lady Vol track athlete and 1984 Olympian; Elizabeth Henderson, tennis singles and doubles national champion in 1977, 1978 and 1979 at UT Chattanooga and former Lady Vols coach; Jennings; Tennessee softball coach Karen Weekly; and Joan Cronan, UT women’s athletics director emeritus. Mary Ellen Pethel, author of “Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories,” presented a copy of her new book to the honorees.
Parker’s Instagram album, which can be seen here, includes photos of Airr at the Pat Summitt statue and on the court; with Petrakova and Lofton; longtime friend Justine Brown – a former Lady Vol basketball student manager – and broadcaster Holly Rowe; former Lady Vol teammate Cait McMahan; former Vol basketball star Allan Houston; and a throwback of daughter Lailaa wearing Parker’s No. 3 jersey as a baby.
Lailaa, who will be 14 in May, couldn’t make the trip because she had a volleyball tournament and Parker said in the voice of every parent with a teenager: “Apparently, she has her own life now.” On a sidenote, when Parker was in high school and received her first recruiting letter from Tennessee, she was so excited. When she opened the letter, it was from the volleyball program as she excelled in that sport, too.
Ultimately, of course, she ended up playing basketball for Pat Summitt, the death of whom shook Parker to her core. Parker has spoken about how she wants to just pick up the phone to ask Summitt for advice, as she was there for every major decision until she died in 2016 of Alzheimer’s disease.
“I know she was really close to Pat,” Harper said. “I know they had a special relationship. She also has that relationship with the program. She loves the program. She loves the university. I am so happy that she is part of our family.”
A video clip of Harper talking about Parker can be viewed here on Twitter and has 16,700 views and counting.
Parker attended Tennessee’s practice Saturday and told Airr to look up at the national championship banners – she put two up there in 2007 and 2008 – and dined at Kefi in the Old City. In true Southern fashion, folks noticed Parker – at 6-5 she can’t be missed – and glanced at her table but left the group alone to eat in peace.
Tennessee debuted its “Summitt Blue” uniforms on Sunday, which honors the legendary coach and is officially one of three accent colors on Tennessee Athletics’ official palette as explained in an earlier column that can be read here.
Summitt loved the blue color and it had been featured prominently on uniforms and in official team attire while she was head coach.
Over the years, the blue had gotten smaller and less noticeable. Tennessee wore all blue on Sunday with Lady Vols script across the chest.
Parker visited the team locker room – with Airr of course – and took part in the post-game celebration with the players and coaches. While the current players were either in pre- or elementary school when Parker last cut basketball nets 15 years ago as a Lady Vol, her sustained Olympic and professional success, high-profile in broadcasting and Los Angeles and love of all things Tennessee mean she still resonates with the youngsters.
“There were a lot of photo ops in the locker room after the game,” Harper said. “I think it’s a reminder of who we are, and it’s a reminder of the pursuit of excellence, tradition and the expectations here.
“It also reminds them who their family is, and that is a cool family member.”
Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.