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Thursday, June 5, 2008
Red-hot Parker looks to keep rolling as Sparks raise curtain in Los Angeles

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Candace Parker is on a path any athlete would envy.

She's gone straight from her second NCAA championship to No. 1 draft pick to WNBA title contender to potential gold medalist this summer in Beijing.

All that would make a fine career. But the 22-year-old is doing it in a span of six months.

In an already memorable month-old season, she has turned in a sparkling 34-point debut game, averaged 17.8 points and 10.6 rebounds while leading Los Angeles to a 4-1 start, and celebrated a win before friends and family in her native Chicago.

Now she'll finally get to play a home game.

Parker makes her Staples Center debut as the resurgent Sparks host the defending champion Phoenix Mercury on Friday night.

"We've been on the road for a while. I'm very, very excited to play in this building," Parker said, relaxing in the seats near the basket after practice Thursday.

In her 34-point, 12-rebound debut, Parker led the Sparks in spoiling the championship ring ceremony of Diana Taurasi and the Mercury.

Even in the Sparks' lone loss, a double-overtime defeat at Indiana, Parker had 16 points, 16 rebounds, six blocks five assists and five steals, becoming the first player in league history to get at least five in each of those categories in a game.

The Sparks could hardly find themselves in better circumstances after a dismal 2007 when the team went 10-24. Parker's arrival in Los Angeles coincided with the return of Lisa Leslie, who took a year of maternity leave following her third MVP season.

"Sometimes good things come out of a bad situation," Sparks coach Michael Cooper said.

Instead of the traditional early struggles for a No. 1 pick, Parker has found herself in a spot similar to Magic Johnson, the NBA's first pick 28 years ago who joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers.

"I really wanted L.A. I was very excited when they got the first pick," Parker said. "Not many rookies are in the situation I'm in, especially No. 1 draft picks, coming into a situation where your team's expected to win."

Add to that duo DeLisha Milton-Jones -- who spent three years in Washington before returning to the Sparks this year and scored 24 on Tuesday night -- and players and coaches were forced to use some heady analogies to describe their good fortune.

"It's definitely a fairy tale," Leslie said.

Cooper calls Leslie, Parker and Milton-Jones "Smooth, Silk and D-Nasty," and said, "If you had asked Santa Claus for something, it would have been for those three elves."

Parker was 10 years old when she watched Leslie win her first Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, and now she'll play alongside her in Beijing.

"I was sitting on my couch watching the 1996 Olympics with tears in my eyes saying I'm going to be there one day," Parker said last week when the team was chosen.

But concerns of burnout loom for Parker, who was forced to play through a dislocated shoulder during the NCAA tournament. By the time of the WNBA playoffs in October, after a monthlong league hiatus for the Olympics, she'll have been through what amounts to a single, grueling season that's lasted a year.

"She's been ready for this for a long time," Cooper said. "It's just up to us as a coaching staff to kind of gauge her minutes and bring her along slowly, but how slowly can you go when she has a game like she did the first game of the season?"

Parker said she's got nothing but good guidance around her, from her vaunted Tennessee coach Pat Summit to Cooper to her brother Anthony Parker of the Toronto Raptors.

"I've had so many people in my ear," she said. "It's tough, but I've learned that I've got to take care of my body, watch what I eat, get the right amount of sleep."

Leslie said Parker needs to learn not to lean too much on her talent alone.

"She has to really learn to work hard every day," Leslie said. "She's a phenomenal player who can just turn it off and on, but we've got to have her turning it on more often and really staying challenged, because the game comes to her so easy."

Leading up to the game against the Mercury (1-4), Parker has found a good way to relax -- watching Cooper in his skinny playing days in a Los Angeles uniform as old Celtics-Lakers finals are re-aired leading up to the NBA finals.

"I've been watching ESPN Classic the last couple days, and seeing him in them short shorts," Parker said gleefully.