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Lady Vols honor Parker, retire jersey

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

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Candace Parker didn't think much about having her jersey retired when she played at Tennessee, saying she was more concerned about putting national championship banners in the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.

Now she has both.

Parker, who led Tennessee to national titles in 2007 and 2008, had her No. 3 jersey retired Thursday night before the fifth-ranked Lady Vols' game against No. 16 LSU.

''I'll tell you one thing, it feels great to be home,'' Parker said to thunderous applause after her jersey was unveiled.

Parker, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the reigning WNBA most valuable player, joined Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, Lady Vols head coach emeritus Pat Summitt for the midcourt ceremony.

After Parker's career highlights played on the overhead scoreboard, the banner was unfurled. Parker, now a forward with the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, also received a framed version of her No. 3 Tennessee jersey.

When Parker finished speaking, her 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Lailaa, joined her at midcourt. Lailaa then clapped her hands, jumped up and down and raised her arms in triumph as they all posed for photographs.

''I will always bleed orange — always,'' Parker said.

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Before the game, Parker said it was appropriate the ceremony came when the Lady Vols played LSU because it gave her an opportunity to reunite with Lady Tigers coach Nikki Caldwell, who worked as an assistant at Tennessee during Parker's college career.

''It's very fitting,'' Parker said. ''Nikki Caldwell was a huge reason why I came to the University of Tennessee and why I became a Lady Vol. It was an honor to play under that coaching staff.''

While speaking to the Big Orange Tip Off Club earlier in the day, Parker called signing with Tennessee ''the best decision I ever made in my life.'' She told the story of how she was in the seventh grade when her father gave her a Tennessee hat. Written inside the hat was the message ''I don't coach effort,'' a slogan attributed to Summitt.

''Ever since I got that hat, I think that's kind of when I fell in love with basketball,'' Parker said. ''That's kind of when I wanted to devote my time. Instead of going to the movies with my friends, I was working on my jump shot. ... Instead of going to the mall, I was working on my dribbling handles.''

Parker joins Warlick (No. 22), Chamique Holdsclaw (No. 23), Tamika Catchings (No. 24), Bridgette Gordon (No. 30) and Daedra Charles (No. 32) as former Tennessee players to have their jerseys retired. Summitt also has a banner raised in her honor. Parker attend Summitt's banner-raising ceremony last year.

Although she only played three seasons for Tennessee, Parker ranks third on the school's list in career points and sixth in rebounds. The three-time All-America selection dunked seven times during her college career and was the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game.

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The banner-raising ceremony continued a busy few weeks for Parker.

Parker plans to leave the States on Friday to head back to Russia, where she plays during the winter. Parker spent Christmas in China, where her husband, Shelden Williams, is playing. She also visited family in Chicago before heading to Knoxville. Parker said all that traveling had been ''quite a whirlwind,'' but the chance to return to campus made it all worthwhile.

''This night couldn't get any more special,'' Parker said.

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