Candace Parker wants it all, and gets it
Most people know Candace Parker can dunk. She was the first female to do it in an NCAA tournament game, and had been dunking since high school.
Most people know Parker, who stands 6-foot-4, can play. In 2008, she became the first player in the WNBA's 14-year history to win rookie of the year and most valuable player awards in the same season.
But most people don't know that Parker is redefining how to merge the lives of a mother and superstar pro athlete.
Parker, then 22, shocked players and league officials when she announced her pregnancy with husband and NBA player, Shelden Williams, in January 2009.
Some athletes wait until their careers are established, or until they retire, to have kids. Not Parker. She became a mother just a year after her sparkling pro rookie season, as the biggest name in women's basketball and with the WNBA promoting her as the league's star.
Parker, now 25, is not only the famous face of a league, but the face daughter Lailaa most likes to see in the morning. Lailaa turns 2 on May 13.
"I've never spent a night away from my baby," Parker said.
That 730-night streak has taken something of a juggling act. Parker plays four months a year in Russia, where her pro team, Ekaterinburg UMMC, just won the Russian league title, and four months a year playing for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks.
When Parker's in Russia, Lailaa goes with her. One other relative, usually Parker's mom, Sara Parker, an aunt or cousin, will fly over to stay and help at various times.
The biggest adjustment about being a mom?
"You have a schedule, but it's so unpredictable," Parker said. "One day she'll go to sleep for 10 hours, but the day you have a game, or have to wake up at 8:30, she'll wake up four times. Or you're about to go on a trip and she gets sick. Or you're on your way in a game uniform and she decides to puke all over it."
Really? Yes. It happened in the car on the way to a game in Russia.
"She spit up her sippy cup on my uniform," Parker said, laughing again. "I'm like, 'What do I do? Do I go home?'"
She sent her cousin home, where Parker kept a spare jersey.
Parker's hectic playing schedule and her marriage to Williams, the former Duke star now with the Knicks, mean that Lailaa's daily good nights and good mornings with daddy have happened via Skype for the first four months of this year.
You have a schedule, but it's so unpredictable. One day she'll go to sleep for 10 hours, but the day you have a game, or have to wake up at 8:30, she'll wake up four times. Or you're about to go on a trip and she gets sick. Or you're on your way in a game uniform and she decides to puke all over it.Candace Parker on the biggest adjustment about being a mom
For a hands-on dad -- Williams was changing diapers from the start -- that's a little too hands-off.
"The computer kisses don't do it," Williams said, who in late April was counting down the days until his girls returned from Russia on April 29. "I'm more excited than a kid at Christmas right now."
Parker plans to have a relaxing Mother's Day, at home in L.A. "It'll be the my first Mother's Day with my husband," she said. "I'll be with him for sure."
Those who know Parker aren't surprised she started a family during the prime of her career.
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, a Sparks teammate who has known Parker since seventh grade, remembers Parker jumping at the chance to watch Wisdom's younger siblings. In college at Tennesee, where Parker led the Vols to two national titles, she'd often babysit, or have someone's child at her hip.
"She did always love kids," said Wisdom-Hylton, who grew up with Parker outside Chicago.
Seven weeks after giving birth in May 2009, Parker was back on the court with the Sparks.
"Crazy, in my mind," Parker's mother said. "Candace likes to set goals. That's kind of how she's always been."
Lailaa, meanwhile, has learned some Russian, and how to be a world traveler. Parker's team flies on a charter plane to away games, meaning Lailaa can (and does) run up and down the aisle, and even has her own couch for sleeping.
"Everybody says, 'Oh my gosh! How well does Lailaa travel?'" Parker said, laughing. "Well, Lailaa travels great."
Even though she's not yet 2, Lailaa has her own iPad. Parker says it's not a luxury, but a godsend. Lailaa plays alphabet games, colors, draws and watches shows.
"It makes her diaper bag that much smaller," Parker said. "I don't have to carry on crayons, books, DVDs."
Parker said Lailaa has been to more places than many adults: Istanbul, Spain, Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Germany.
"The child's passport has more stamps in it than most people'll have in a lifetime," Parker said.
She's only a toddler, but already knows the routine. Once, unprompted, Lailaa took off her own shoes at the security checkpoint and handed her jacket to her mom, which cracked up Parker. Then there was the time she got perturbed when officers wouldn't wand her.
"She wanted to stand in there and put her arms up," said Sara. "They finally let her."
Parker is asked if she feels stretched too thin, like many moms who feel they're either shortchanging family or work. But she's putting a substantial dent in the belief that professional women -- even one who's the biggest star in her sport -- can't have it all. She's living proof that they can.
Parker has a family and is still able to pursue her passion to play ball. One helps the other.
"Because I'm a mom, I think I'm going to be a better basketball player," she said. "Because I'm able to do both of these roles, I feel like I'm happy. ... I now know I have to work hard, because my daughter is going to be able to pull up YouTube in 16 years, and when I tell her she needs to get down in a stance on defense, she'll be like, 'Mom, but you weren't in a stance here on defense.'
"I feel even more of a responsibility to be a better basketball player for her."
Expect the Parker-Williams family to expand, but probably not right away. Williams' mom was one in a brood of 10, his dad one of 13 siblings.
"I'd like to have a big family," Williams said. "I told her that from the get-go. ... [But] I don't have the final say in that. She's playing too. If I had a normal wife, I'd have two kids by now."
This could be a huge year for Parker, who has missed enough time in the past two seasons that Twitter followers have asked if she's still in the WNBA.
Beset by shoulder problems, lingering from college that limited her 2010 season to 10 games, Parker had offseason surgery last winter. The time also helped heal a chronic knee issue.
The season before that, she took time off to have Lailaa.
"It'll be my first healthy season ever in the WNBA," Parker said. "I'm really excited, I feel like this is a great year for us. We have all the pieces, we just have to put them together. I feel like this team is going to work hard.
"Only playing 10 games last year, sitting out for the WNBA season and then coming [to Russia] and playing just made me more eager and more excited to play in front of my home, in front of the United States."