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LOS ANGELES -- They didn't talk much, if at all.
But if there was one person in the world who could relate to what was going through Maya Moore's head as she took the court for her WNBA debut Friday night at the Staples Center, it was the 6-foot-5 woman with the full-length gold sleeve down her left arm standing across from her: Candace Parker.
|Maya Moore had 21 points, four boards and four assists, while Candace Parker tallied 19 points, 10 boards, three assists and three blocks.|
In a league that has survived 15 seasons, survived on the cache and charisma of its stars, no two young stars are expected to burn brighter and do as much as Parker and Moore.
Three years earlier, it was Parker debuting to a nationally televised audience, needing to prove all the hype and hope invested in her was justified.
Now three years wiser, it was Parker standing across from Moore as the Minnesota rookie began her own journey. Ultimately, Parker would get the last laugh as the Sparks rallied from a 10-point, second-half deficit to win 82-74 in front of 13,589.
Before the game I asked Parker if she had any advice for Moore.
She paused a minute before answering as a Sparks medical trainer massaged her surgically repaired left knee inside the team's training room.
She has spent too much time in there these last three years.
"That's a good question," Parker said. I wasn't sure if she was thinking of a good answer or deciding whether to offer advice to a player who will surely be one of her chief rivals for years to come.
"I would just say that the toughest thing about this is knowing that you're going to have ups and downs. It's how you handle those ups and downs that matters.
"It's how you bounce back that matters."
It was sound, honest advice from a fierce competitor who usually cedes any kind of advantage to a rival about as often as she spells her first name with an "i."
[Candace Parker] was really good before. But now she looks like she's about the bring the heat. She looks that good. Her outside shot, her handle, her moves to the basket are great. I don't see her favoring anything when contact comes. It's because she's finally healthy. Her shoulder is finally 100 percent, her knee is 100 percent.” -- Sparks general manager Penny Toler
But more than anything, it was a window into her soul as she returned to a WNBA court for the first time since last June.
Parker played an entire season in Russia in the meantime, so we knew she was healthy. But there was still something to be said for stepping in front of an American audience and proving she was not only back but better and healthier than ever.
"It's crazy for anybody to say they don't listen to what anybody has to say, or hear what other people have to say," Parker said, acknowledging that talk of how she'd bounce back from shoulder and knee surgery bothered her a bit.
"But I just feel like this is a chance to go out and play like it's my rookie year again. I need to go out and prove myself again."
Parker did more than that with 19 points and 10 rebounds Friday night.
"Oh yeah, she's all the way back," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "And she's hungry. That's a tough combination."
Though Parker and Moore rarely guarded each other Friday night, they were matched up for what proved to be one of the most important plays of the game. With the Sparks up 80-74 with 44.9 seconds to play, Reeve drew up a play for Moore to take a 3-pointer. It was a big call in that situation, but Moore had earned her coach's trust with 21 points and four rebounds on the night.
"We've got a couple of go-to players," Reeve said. "But Maya was playing well and shooting the ball well, which was big for us because she struggled a bit in her two preseason games."
Moore came off a screen and caught the pass with a clear look at the basket for a second. In the time it took her to catch the ball and face up, Parker had switched off the screen and jumped out on her.
For a half-second, the ball was exposed. Parker saw it and poked it loose. It was just the second turnover of the game for Moore.
|Tina Thompson's Sparks overcame a 10-point, third-quarter deficit -- and Maya Moore's 21 points on 7-for-17 shooting.|
"But it was a big one, right?" Reeve said.Moore admitted she was annoyed by the ill-timed turnover.
"I fumbled it a little bit," said Moore, who shot 7-for-17 from the field but hit just 4 of 11 3-point attempts. "I think I rubbed [the ball] off of her leg or something. I think I had it down [low] and it knocked off her leg. I wish I could've gotten the shot off right away."
It was one play, but it was a big one because the Sparks just had to make their free throws to close out the victory.
Afterward, the only consolation Moore could find was that the two teams will meet again on Sunday, giving her a chance to make adjustments and amends.
"I think the pressure I put on myself is more than anybody else can put on me," Moore said simply.
In the other locker room, the one person in the world who could so completely relate nodded her head when asked about Moore's debut.
"I thought Maya played great," Parker said. "For us, it was just about limiting what she wanted and what she likes to do. I think she'll do great things in this league and be a tough matchup for everybody."
Parker has been to that place in which a great game doesn't mean anything unless it results in a win and leads to a championship. Those are the shoes she has walked in her whole life.
Her first year in the league, Parker won the rookie of the year and MVP awards. But Los Angeles fell one game shy of the WNBA Finals and she came out feeling like she had fallen short.
At the time, it seemed as if she'd only have to wait until the next WNBA season to make amends. But life -- a new life -- had other plans, as Parker missed part of the 2009 season to have her first child. Last year she played in just 10 games before pain in her shoulder became too much and she was shut down to have surgery.
"I guess I just realize now that nothing is promised," Parker said. "As much as I've had injuries, my knee could've been more serious than it was. My shoulder could've been worse.
"I played a full season over in Russia and did well. Didn't really have a lot of pain. When it rains, it's going to hurt. But it doesn't rain that much in Southern California."
The hardest part for Parker is feeling as if she's really only had one crack at winning a title.
"Me and [former coach Michael Cooper] talked that first year. He said to me, 'How many titles are you going to win?' And I was like, 'I don't know, seven or eight?'
"But this league is tough. Things really go up and down. I don't know that I've really had a great shot at it except that one year when we were one shot away from the finals."
In the eight months she had to recover from surgery, Parker found a bit of peace with it, though.
"I needed shoulder surgery since I first injured my shoulder in 2008," she said. "They told me immediately that I needed surgery, but I wanted to play in the Olympics, then I got pregnant with my daughter, then I wanted to come back right after having my daughter; I always put it off.
"So I really think this was God's way of saying, 'You need to take care of your body. You need to do this. Don't put it off any more.'"
As hard as it was to be without her last season, Sparks general manager Penny Toler said she's glad Parker took the time to get her body healthy.
"She was really good before," Toler said. "Really good. But now she looks like she's about the bring the heat.
"She looks that good. Her outside shot, her handle, her moves to the basket are great. I don't see her favoring anything when contact comes. It's because she's finally healthy. Her shoulder is finally 100 percent, her knee is 100 percent.
"I can honestly say when she came into camp this year -- and I would never tell Candace this -- even I was over there saying, 'Oh my gosh, the girl is dropping it like it's hot right now. This girl is hungry.'"
So no, Candace Parker didn't say much to Maya Moore on Friday night. But if Moore has paid any kind of attention to what Parker has been through, and the way she has bounced back, there's really no need to say anything.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.