- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Candace Parker was lounging on the sideline, getting ready before her practice with the West team, when Brittney Griner walked past and playfully interrupted the 27-year-old.
"Get out of here!" Parker said, smiling at the rookie center. "You're interrupting my interview!"
Parker had been in the middle of explaining how it feels to be playing in her first WNBA All-Star Game, a surprising factoid considering the power forward is in her sixth season with the Los Angeles Sparks, has scored 2,356 career points and is one of the best women's basketball players on the planet. (After a stellar career at the University of Tennessee, Parker was the No. 1 pick of the 2008 WNBA Draft.)
Yet on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m., ABC) at Mohegan Sun Arena, Parker will make her first appearance in the WNBA's version of the Midsummer Classic, an event she has previously missed because of the Olympics and various shoulder and knee injuries. "It means a lot to me to finally be a part of this," said Parker, who is having the best season of her career. "This is something that is very special and something that I obviously grew up watching."
Through 18 regular-season games, Parker is averaging 18.1 points and 9.2 rebounds, leading the Sparks to a record of 12-6, good for second place behind Minnesota in the West. After career setbacks that included a torn meniscus in her left knee and shoulder surgery, as well as a much happier event before the 2009 season in the birth of her daughter Lailaa, Parker has the Sparks back in contention for a title. Los Angeles has won two championships in franchise history: in 2001 and '02, both on the shoulders of star center Lisa Leslie.
Coincidentally, the player who interrupted Parker on Friday, the 6-foot-8 Griner, is unable to play in Saturday's game because of a lingering injury to her left knee. And just two days previously, rookie forward Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky, the leading vote-getter, was knocked out of the game after suffering a concussion in her team's final game before the break. Fans of the WNBA know all too well how tough it is to get all of the league's marquee players together, and healthy, on one court.
"It sucks that I can't play right now," said Griner, of the Phoenix Mercury, who will watch the game from the sideline. "I hate it. But I guess I'd rather play in my season than play in one game and chance hurting it again."
Parked echoed that sentiment, saying it was always best to err on the side of caution.
"I'm sure it's tough for them," Parker said. "But you're going to have injuries in your career. I, for one, know that. But it's how you come back from them. It's a situation, and it's unfortunate, but it's not how you start, it's how you finish the season. And I think their teams are smart with wanting them to be able to be healthy for the season."
Former WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, now an analyst with ESPN, says that before the injuries to Griner and Delle Donne, this was one of the deepest All-Star Games in years. "It's really a shame that Elena and Brittney aren't playing, because whenever you look at an all-star game, usually you can find one player who is missing who should have been on the team," Lobo said. "But that wasn't the case this year before those two got hurt -- it seemed like the teams were perfectly picked. It's a bummer. But there is still a phenomenal amount of talent out there."
Although Parker has never played in the WNBA All-Star Game, she has played in plenty of others. And she knows exactly how these types of gatherings go down.
"It doesn't get serious until the last quarter," Parker said. "That's when we'll all try to win, because we're so competitive. It's truly an honor to be a part of an All-Star Game and to be here. I think a lot of us have that attitude where maybe you want a break, but then if we weren't named an All-Star, we would be upset. That's kind of how it is."
On Friday, once Parker got onto the floor to practice with her West All-Stars, head coach Cheryl Reeve broke the two teams into "youngsters" (such as Connecticut's Tina Charles and Minnesota's Maya Moore) and the "oldies" based on their number of years in the league. Reeve sent Parker to the end with the older group, with players such as Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi and Los Angeles forward Tina Thompson, who have 15 All-Star appearances between them.
Parker is seen as a veteran in pretty much every other context. But on Saturday, she'll be a rookie.
The Los Angeles Sparks star has not played in the WNBA All-Star Game in her previous five seasons for various reasons, including injuries and the Olympics.