Parker, Sparks eye WNBA title

There was a time when Candace Parker despaired of the idea of following in the two sets of big-brother footprints she felt dwarfed her. Marcus and Anthony -- athletic and bright and older -- seemed like giants she couldn't hope to measure up to.

"I was like, 'What am I going to do? I'm going to be a failure!'" Parker recalled of her days as a competitive-but-worried little girl. "But my mom sat me down and said, 'You can do anything. You can have it all.'"

Even the most confident of moms couldn't know how right that was. And it does cast the "Ready for your close-up, Candace?" question in a little different light. Taking over as truly the face of the Los Angeles Sparks -- who start the WNBA season Saturday (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET) against defending champ Phoenix -- with Lisa Leslie retiring is not the first time Parker has stood up to filling big shoes.

It's not even the second time, actually. After all, once she established herself as more than Marcus' and Anthony's little sis, Parker next had to take a torch at Tennessee that was a long time in being handed off.

Chamique Holdsclaw won the last of her three titles with Tennessee in 1998. Then it was nine years before the next Orange Reign in women's college basketball, a fretful amount of time for the program. But Parker didn't shirk from that challenge, either.

"That's what makes great players great," Parker said of winning the 2007 and 2008 NCAA titles. "I would never have thought of myself as measuring up to the level that a player like Chamique was at if I didn't win a championship."

Now, Parker hopes to win something that Holdsclaw still hasn't won: a WNBA title. Parker recalls that last summer, when Anthony signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he called her and teasingly said, "Ready, set, go: We're racing to a pro championship, and I'm going to beat you!"

The events of Thursday night mean that now the ball's back in Candace's court, so to speak, in that regard. The Boston team of her husband, Shelden Williams, beat the Cleveland team of her brother in the NBA's Eastern Conference semifinals.

Not that Candace will rub it in now, when the sting of Anthony's defeat is so fresh. But … if she and the Sparks can take the WNBA title this season, you expect she might remind him that the "race" to a pro title is over.

"Every day, that's what I think about: getting a championship," Candace said. "I love being a part of basketball. I love the arena, the game-day feeling, when the fans are there and the lights come on.

"That's when I've always turned it on the most. But what I've been working on is turning it on that way in practice, too. So every time my teammates see me on court, it's with that same kind of enthusiasm and focus."

If that sounds like a particularly insightful and mature way for someone who is already a star to talk about improving her game, it is. But it's not surprising, especially in light of how Parker has spoken about how she and Shelden's daughter, Lailaa, changed so much of how she approached things.

The little girl was born last May, delaying the start of Parker's season a year after she'd been both MVP and rookie of the year in 2008. But Parker seemed to take only a grand total of about one game back to get her bearings. She finished the season averaging 13.1 points and 5.7 rebounds as the Sparks made it to the Western Conference finals.

There, though, they lost to Phoenix, and after the decisive third game, there was a sense that much more was up in the air for the Sparks. Co-owner Kathy Goodman came into the locker room to thank the team for a strong season, but some of the players -- contemplating their disappointment and their future -- barely seemed to hear her.

Among them was Tina Thompson, who almost appeared to be saying farewell as she spoke of the uncertainty she had about coming back. DeLisha Milton-Jones talked about how the Sparks had been missing the right kind of point-guard leadership that the team needed with so many great post options.

And Parker was emotional, knowing Leslie was departing and that she herself had fallen short of the perfectionist goals she'd maintained even in a season during which she gave birth.

What was unknown then was how many dominoes would fall that could impact the Sparks' 2010 league title chances. Such as:

• The move of the powerful three-time WNBA champion Detroit Shock to Oklahoma, where the franchise feels like a hybrid between a relocating and an expansion team. It's not to say the Shock are totally eliminated as a threat to win it all this season, but they aren't expected to do that in Tulsa nearly the way they likely would have been in Detroit. At least not this soon.

• The end of the Sacramento franchise, which meant consummate Monarchs' point guard Ticha Penicheiro could join the Sparks.

• Thompson's time playing in Romania, after which she knew that as long as she's not forced to play 38 minutes or something ridiculous like that, she'll be OK contributing to the Sparks this season.

• The move of Cappie Pondexter from Sparks' rival Phoenix to New York, which if nothing else, will cause the Mercury to come up with some different ways to win.

• Jennifer Gillom leaving the Lynx to take over as head coach for the Sparks.

"I think the chemistry is great," Gillom said of a recent practice. "The tone we set for the beginning of training camp. I'm just ecstatic about where things are."

Thompson is also pretty excited, because in Penicheiro she has one of the more crucial reasons for her to come back.

"That definitely had something to do with it," Thompson said, laughing. "Having that in my mind helped in my decision. Here we have the veteran point guard that we've wanted and needed, and she's so proven."

You could say the same for Thompson, too, in her 14th year in the league, but also for Parker, even though she has competed for only two WNBA seasons. Parker went to Russia in January, along with her mother and daughter.

Parker said playing overseas for her was about staying sharp and getting in repetitions, edging back into being the player she was before her daughter's birth. Actually, becoming an even better player.

"I believe that we have a lot of options," Parker said of the Sparks, an especially pleasant thing to be true, even despite the absence of Leslie. "DeLisha and Tina weren't able to post up as much last year as a result of me and Lisa being down there. I think they should be able to do that this year."

And Parker? To paraphrase what her mom once told her, she just might be able to do anything for L.A.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.