Summitt 'optimistic' that Parker will return

Candace Parker hasn't stepped on the court for Tennessee this preseason. She hasn't participated in a single drill.

And yet, with the start of 2004-05 quickly approaching and one exhibition game already in the books, coach Pat Summitt insists Parker is "ahead of schedule."

"We are very optimistic about Candace's chances of playing this season," Summitt said Monday in a phone conversation.

For as much as everyone wants to know how well Connecticut can do without Diana Taurasi this season, Parker's status and whether she'll be able to play might be the second hottest question in the women's college basketball world.

Parker underwent two surgeries in 13 days -- the most recent on Sept. 8 -- to repair cartilage damage in her left knee, the same knee that sustained a torn ACL in June 2003. Doctors deemed the second surgery a success, and found the ACL to be in "excellent condition."

At the time, Summitt acknowledged that Parker might be forced to redshirt, and that a possible return depended on how Parker's knee responded to the post-surgery rehabilitation.

Two months later, however, Parker remains on the injured list, though team trainers say the knee is in good shape. Parker's return, in fact, hinges not on her knee as much as the weakened muscles around it, particularly the left quadriceps.

The good news for Tennessee is that Parker just last week was finally able to work on strengthening her lower body (she has been working to stay fit and also lifting to strengthen her upper body). This recent development in her rehab is what has Summitt so hopeful. Now trainers will finally be able to gauge Parker's improvement and whether the quad is developing.

Still, Summitt says the decision ultimately will be up to Candace, and Summitt will be the last person to urge Parker to come back too soon.

"If she's not ready, she's not ready," Summitt said. "I want four years of Candace Parker."

Parker played four years of high school ball, although some say that's where the trouble started. Some believe Parker came back for her senior prep season too soon from the ACL tear, but the claim's unfounded. Though her five-month rehab was brief, the time it takes to come back from an injury like this varies widely from athlete to athlete. Years ago, the rehab process could typically take up to a year, but as we've seen -- right in Knoxville with Kellie Jolly Harper, actually -- some people can come back in as little as 2½ months.

Still, Summitt wouldn't commit to any timetable the Lady Vols might have for Parker.

But the odds might be in Parker's favor. She's a supremely gifted and hard-working athlete, and that can only work to her advantage.

Rehab is a process, sometimes slower than we'd like, but you can bet Parker is in good hands and getting the best treatment possible. Jenny Moshak, Tennessee's assistant athletics director for sports medicine, has been one of the best trainers out there for many years.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.