WNBA pays the price with injuries
Before you blame Candace Parker for being injury prone, consider this: She is hardly alone among the WNBA's stars and prominent players stitching together a patchwork pro career of fits and starts due to injuries and fatigue.
Parker, one of a handful of WNBA superstars, is expected to miss at least six weeks with the L.A. Sparks after sustaining a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee Sunday in New York.
She's not the only one trading the spotlight for the sideline in the WNBA, the league in which stars disappear with alarming regularity each season.
This year, it's Parker and the Seattle Storm's Lauren Jackson. They are two of the league's biggest names and will be missing in action as the WNBA hits its stride (with a limp) in its 15th season.
Jackson, the three-time and reigning league MVP for the defending champions, is out at least three weeks with a labral tear in her left hip. That's on top of the Achilles injury she sustained in the offseason and a history of back trouble.
Parker's 2008 season saw her win an unprecedented double: league MVP and rookie of the year. Since then, she has been more comet than star, missing 34 games due to injury and pregnancy over the past two seasons. In a regular season of just 34 games, she is certain to miss a big chunk again this year.
The culprit? A pro ball merry-go-round that never really ends for women, whose playing season encompasses all four seasons. If it's summer, it must be the WNBA. Late fall, winter and spring? It's overseas. Any free weeks in between? Your national team is calling.
Sure, no one is twisting those long arms. But when players can make five times their WNBA salaries playing overseas, it's a no-brainer to do so.
Parker's injury is not good for her and not good for the league. Neither is the fact that players have to choose between good health and a healthy paycheck despite the fact most of them are the top female players on the planet.
Parker tried to be careful. She didn't join her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, until January the past two years. Most players start their seven-month international season in October, a month after the WNBA season concludes.
"I just feel like my body needed rest," Parker said.
Of Parker's L.A. teammates, just one, Tina Thompson, did not play overseas this past offseason.
But at least everyone made training camp this spring. Last year, coach Jennifer Gillom was forced to fill in as the 10th player during camp because so many players were missing.
Guys in the NBA (average annual salary: just less than $5 million) don't have to chase the bucks in the offseason and have at least four months to rest. Can you imagine Rick Carlisle posting up Dirk Nowitzki in training camp? Or Kobe Bryant playing in Japan between seasons?
For the women in the WNBA (average annual salary: about $50,000), it doesn't look as if things will be changing anytime soon. The league will be worse off for it.
Take Diana Taurasi, 29, a five-time WNBA All-Star and two-time league champion. The league almost lost her for a season. Her body spent, she considered taking off all of 2011 after playing nearly nonstop for seven years.
A multiyear contract with the Phoenix Mercury put Taurasi back on the merry-go-round. She'll rest between quarters.
Jackson, 30, played for Russia's Spartak this past offseason. In an attempt to extend her career and win elusive Olympic gold, she will take the first half of the 2012 WNBA season off to train with her Australian national team.
Parker is the league's most compelling talent. She can play all five positions, can dunk, is a mom, and has crossover appeal to both male and female fans. Prior to her injury, she averaged 17.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists through seven games.
Her career also has been the most frustrating because we've gotten to see only a tantalizing glimmer of what it could be.
She came into this season fully healthy, "my first healthy season ever in the WNBA," an excited Parker said a few weeks before the preseason began.
Something's got to give. Right now, it's players' backs, knees, shoulders and Achilles tendons. Unless the WNBA can find a way to pay better salaries, the league and its stars always will be playing hurt.