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Candace Parker has already proven herself to be a WNBA superstar. In her first professional game in 2008, Parker, the top pick in that year's draft, recorded 34 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists in a 99-94 victory against the Phoenix Mercury -- the greatest rookie debut in WNBA history. She went on to win both the Rookie of the Year award and the MVP award that season (the double was another first). In a sports world where women's basketball is often marginalized, Parker's achievements generated unprecedented buzz and attention-grabbing headlines.
Over the next two seasons, however, Parker played in just 35 regular-season games. The start of her 2009 season was delayed by the birth of her first child (though Parker returned to competition just 48 days after her daughter was born). Then in 2010, a shoulder injury cut her season short. Now preparing to enter her fourth WNBA season, Parker is, in a sense, reinventing herself.
"This offseason [after shoulder surgery] has been a blessing in disguise because I've had a chance to really focus on getting healthy and improving my game," Parker says. "I had a busy regimen filled with rehab, weightlifting, and basketball workouts. After missing most of last season, I feel I have a lot to prove and was hungry to get back on the court."
This isn't the first time Parker's felt that way. After she and her husband, Denver Nuggets forward Shelden Williams, welcomed daughter Lailaa in 2009, Parker was determined to get back to the top of her game by the start of the 2010 season. And she did, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor in the 10 games she played before her season-ending shoulder surgery. Parker says that becoming a mother ultimately made her a better player.
"The balance was tough at first, but I have the hang of things now," she says. "I have an extremely good support system in my family and friends, who help me in any way I need them. When I became a mother, I knew it wasn't about me anymore. The times of sleeping until noon and being able to just do what I want were over. I do not feel in this day in age you should have to sacrifice your career for being a mother and vice versa. Obviously, being a mom comes first, but basketball is extremely important to me. I have never spent a night away from Lailaa and I thank God that she is a fantastic traveler and an even better kid."
Like the vast majority of her peers, who supplement their WNBA salaries by playing professionally overseas, Parker lives abroad for almost half the year. Parker plays for the UMMC club in Ekaterinburg, in central Russia.
"The team I play for is extremely accommodating and understanding of my situation of being a professional athlete [who is] also a mother," says Parker. "My cousin, Kellie, is overseas and watches Lailaa for me while I am at practice or games. Lailaa is an amazing child that adapts to every situation that she is in. She has more stamps in her passport and frequent-flier miles before her second birthday than most people get in a lifetime. Playing basketball and being a mom takes a lot of patience, but it is extremely rewarding."
For a player who has accomplished so much already, it's hard to believe Parker would have anything left to prove. The Los Angeles Sparks have made it to the playoffs in each of her three years in the league, and she has consistently found herself among the league leaders in points, rebounds, and field-goal percentage. Still, she feels the pressure of expectations from Sparks fans, who haven't seen their team win the WNBA championship since 2002.
"From the time I was in high school, my dad, who was my coach as a child, challenged me to improve my game by 25 percent every offseason," says Parker. "He told me to take something you are great at and make it fantastic. And take something you are just alright at and make it great. No doubt about it -- I want the Sparks back on top where we belong."