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PHOENIX AT SPARKS

New And Exciting

Sparks rookie Candace Parker is living up to hype, with strong start and near celebrity status. Her home debut is tonight.

June 06, 2008|Dan Arritt | Times Staff Writer

Before the host at the Marina del Rey restaurant even took a step toward seating her, Candace Parker, the WNBA's most prized rookie in 12 seasons, was approached by a middle-aged man with a cellphone pressed to his ear.

"Can you sign my T-shirt?' " he asked. "It's for my friend on the other line.' "

In those 12 seasons, members of the Sparks, other than maybe Lisa Leslie, could have worn their uniforms in public and still go unrecognized. Not so for Parker, a three-time All-American at Tennessee who was drafted No. 1 overall by the Sparks eight weeks ago.

Now, not quite three weeks into her WNBA career, Parker already has boosted the league's popularity to its highest level and placed herself on the fringe of Hollywood celebrity status. When she makes her home debut tonight against the defending champion Phoenix Mercury at Staples Center, she will have played in five consecutive road sellouts, a first for any franchise.

When asked Thursday about tonight's game, she told reporters, "I'm very, very excited to play in this building and it was great to come back and see our court. . . .

"I don't think there's any nerves, really, when you're at home. We've got our work cut out for us, but we're going to have the best fans in the WNBA behind us."

How popular is she? Her player page on WNBA.com received more views during the first week of the season than any NBA player that week, with the exception of Kobe Bryant.

Initially, the nonstop attention overwhelmed the 22-year-old, but she says her life is gradually slowing down and that has given her the opportunity to get to know her rapidly growing fan base.

"The thing that's so great is, I didn't realize how many people watch the game," she said, twirling her fork in a steaming plate of beef stroganoff (no onions). "A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'Congratulations,' and they're coming to such and such game, so it's exciting."

She has lived up to her reputation right from the opening tip. In her first game, Parker scored 34 points, the most in a WNBA debut. She also had 12 rebounds and eight assists in the 99-94 victory at Phoenix over the defending champions.

In her third game, she produced 16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, five steals and six blocked shots in a double overtime loss at Indiana to become the first WNBA player to total at least five in each of those statistical categories in one game.

After five games, she is the only WNBA player ranked in the top 10 in scoring average (17.8), rebounding (10.6) and assists (5.2).

Not bad for a player who wasn't interested in basketball until the seventh grade.

"I wanted to be an Olympic soccer player," she said. For one of the few times during the hourlong lunch, she seemed serious.

But then she joked about her "crazy childhood" growing up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, a time spent tagging along with her older brothers, Anthony, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, and Marcus. They nicknamed their father "Joe Jackson" because of the way he pushed them to be their best, much like the famous father of the Jackson 5.

She giggled as she recalled their frequent outings to city parks with their father, Larry Parker, and how they would always choose to play at a court close to home.

"He won't think you're working out hard enough and he'll just get in the car and leave and be like, 'Be home in an hour,' " she remembers. "We're like, 'Dad, we're like 10 miles away from home.' "

It was on those same courts, though, that she developed her own brand of precociousness.

Anthony, who is 11 years older and played for Bradley University, always seemed to have his worst college games against Southwest Missouri State. When she wasn't allowed to play in his pick-up games, Candace was quick to holler out, repeatedly, "Southwest Missouri State," in an effort to throw Anthony off his game.

"Just being obnoxious," she said. "Finally, after they finished their game, I'd get out there and play."

She is quick, however, to credit her family for her success.

Her father coached her teams through high school and insisted that she play point guard at a young age, even though she was much taller than her peers. He wanted Candace to develop ball-handling skills, "just in case I stopped growing," she said.

Now that she's in the WNBA, her height -- 6-feet-4 -- and point guard experience have created mismatches, allowing her to do what she does best. It is a reason the Sparks are 4-1.

Though much of the teasing has subsided, her brothers are still her harshest critics. They also remain her most valuable advisors and defenders.

Her mother, Sara, recalls how a sports broadcaster once spoke negatively about Candace while she was in college, and how Marcus fired off an e-mail.

"Marcus just told him, 'You'd better be careful with some of the things you're saying, you don't really know her,' " Sara Parker said. "So, they're pretty protective of her at the same time.' "

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