In the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena, otherwise known as 'The Summitt' to die-hard Lady Vols basketball fans, there now hangs a sixth retired jersey number of not only a former two-time national champion but a two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player as well.
Candace Parker, who ranks third on the all-time Tennessee scoring list with 2,137 points, joined the elite group of Lady Vol greats on Thursday night and now has a spot in history beside Tamika Catchings, Chamique Holdsclaw, Daedra Charles, Bridgette Gordon, and current head coach Holly Warlick.
With a night off from playing professional basketball overseas, the Los Angeles Sparks superstar returned to her old stomping grounds. Alongside friends and family, including her four-year old daughter, she received the ultimate homecoming with nearly 15 thousand of her biggest fans in attendance to witness her No. 3 jersey be placed in its final resting spot before the Lady Vols tipoff against LSU.
"It means a lot to me," the 27-year old said before her jersey retirement. "It truly hit me this afternoon when I was explaining to my four year old daughter what tonight was. I asked her 'Lailaa what's tonight' and she said 'mommy your number three is going in the sky' and I said 'yeah' with a laugh.
"It's amazing to share this moment with so many familiar faces, family and friends and past players and my coach that I really and truly respect."
In her three-year playing career at Tennessee she started 109 out of 110 games. During her time hooping for the Lady Vols she averaged 19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 1.9 steals per game, while also becoming the all-time leader in blocks (275) and dunks (7).
Parker also met the expectations of a fan base that was thirsty for another National Championship. In fact, she exceeded them as she brought back-to-back titles to Knoxville in 2007 and 2008 and was a part of 101 wins and only 10 losses when she took to the court.
The first championship came when the Lady Vols defeated Rutgers, 59-46. The 6-foot-4 power forward poured in 17 points to cap off a season in which she averaged 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
She considers her first championship to be her most defining moment, especially after her team's season came to an end in the same city where they beat the Scarlet Knights the year before against North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
"I remember after that first championship because it was ironic that Cleveland was where we lost the year before we were able to go back and seek redemption and win where we lost," she said. "I remember going in the stands and finding my dad and giving him a hug because he knows from the time we lost in Cleveland to that next year we busted our butt to work hard and continue to do as much as we could do to be in the best position to win the National Championship."
The next season, Parker helped the Lady Vols win their second-consecutive championship when she scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a 64-48 victory over the Stanford Cardinal, all while battling a left shoulder injury.
She also became just the fourth player to win back-to-back Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors along with Diana Taurasi, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Cheryl Miller.
The Naperville, Ill. native's time at UT was not all about creating a name for herself, but bringing titles to her team and to a coach that helped shape her as a young woman.
"When I looked up in the rafters when I was playing here I was dribbling and shooting and picturing a National Championship banner, it wasn't my jersey in the rafters," she said. "The only time I came to Tennessee thinking that was when I was on my first unofficial visit with my dad and he was like is your jersey gonna be up there in the rafters. Once I got here it was all about winning National Championships."
While Coach Summitt was one of the top reasons that Parker attended the University of Tennessee, current LSU head coach and former Lady Vols assistant coach Nikki Caldwell was also a major factor why she decided to play at UT.
"It's very fitting that my jersey is being retired on this night in a game against LSU," she said. "Nikki Caldwell was a huge reason why I came here and wanted to be a Lady Vol. She was the main person that recruited me. It was an honor to play under that coaching staff for four years."
Despite six years removed from her playing days for the Lady Vols she still puts it in her agenda to talk to her former team and give them advice.
"I talk to a lot of the girls on the team," she said. "Ariel Massengale is from around the same area I am, I talk to Isabelle Harrison a lot and Meighan played on my Aces basketball team. I told the team this year you are what you repeatedly do. You have to develop your personality and character now, because when the postseason comes you can't just turn it on. That's the time when you know you're ready and go out and have fun because you know you are prepared."