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KURT STREETER

A Spark for the WNBA

Rookie Candace Parker is just what the league needs to ignite interest

May 18, 2008|Kurt Streeter

PHOENIX -- If for Candace Parker the rest of the WNBA season goes anything like it did during the Sparks' opening game here Saturday, folks like me are going to be in deep trouble. By season's end, the descriptions will be exhausted. How many times can you write the words fantastic, superb and perfect?

Laden with expectations and playing in her first WNBA game after coming to the Sparks as the league's top draft pick, Parker was as good as advertised in the Sparks' 99-94 win over the defending-champion Mercury. In fact, she was even better.

She ended up two passes shy of a triple-double stat line. Going into its 12th season, no rookie in the women's pro league has ever debuted with a triple-double. Only one NBA player had -- a pretty fair guard named Oscar Robertson.

Parker not only led the game in scoring with 34 points, she snatched a game-high-tying 12 rebounds and added eight assists and a block.

More, when the game was on the line, Parker's veteran teammates leaned hard on the svelte, 6-foot-4 rookie to bring them safely down the homestretch.

Fantastic? True.

Superb? You got it.

Transcendent? As in, is she the kind of player women's professional basketball must have as it seeks to embed itself in the public consciousness? Might seem a stretch this early in a career, but Parker, a two-time national champion at Tennessee regarded by many as the greatest college player ever, may prove just that.

Not that she was getting ahead of herself when this game began. She admitted that a storm of nerves had racked her before tip-off, the same queasy feeling she'd experienced in her opening high school and college games. On both occasions, she recalled tossing up air balls when first attempting to score.

This time was a bit different. In the opening moments of Saturday's game, with nearly 14,000 in attendance and a national TV audience focused on her every move, she drew a deep breath, gathered the ball near the baseline and turned to the basket. From there, she "just prayed for my first shot to hit the rim." The shot missed, but hit the rim it did.

Turned out to be one of the only times she clanked one off the iron. Quickly, she settled, making 12 of 19 shots the rest of the game as she flashed a remarkable repertoire. There were three pointers, scoop shots and turnarounds. There were fade-aways and bankers and fastbreak layups.

Scoring, though, was only part of what she brought to this encounter. Much the way it is when Kobe Bryant takes the floor, all game long it was nearly impossible to take your eyes off of the pony-tailed Spark wearing No. 3.

Partly, it was her well-oiled smoothness. Partly, her sheer talent. "Best all-around female athlete I've seen, ever," said Tim Dixon, a scout for the WNBA's Atlanta Dream, who sat near the scorer's table during the game, eyes agape. "She's got it all. First step. Explosive movement. Shooting. Can do anything with the basketball. Amazing."

Partly, too, it was the kind of magnetism she displayed, the kind possessed by only the best -- the champions, not the pretenders. You saw it all game long, Parker dribbling down court, Magic-like, head up, smiling, joyous, loving the challenge. You also saw it in the scowls she flashed when the referee's calls went against her, and in the executioner's glare she wore as the game wound down. She doesn't just want to win, she needs to win, which makes her a lot like our hometown favorite, a certain Lakers guard who just won MVP.

Her teammates certainly took notice Saturday. "Candace wants me to clear out so she can have a lane," shouted one of them to Sparks' Coach Michael Cooper, when the game was still nip and tuck.

"It's OK," said Cooper, looking content. "It's OK." Translation: let the kid do her thing.

The last few minutes were instructive, a window into what we may well be seeing in Los Angeles for years to come.

After a Mercury guard tied the score, 85-85, Parker insisted on the ball, got it, went between the legs and swooped toward the hoop for a basket of her own. Less than a minute later, she got the ball again and rose for an off-glass jump shot and another two points.

The Mercury was a stubborn opponent, league champs don't just whither away, and with under two minutes it drew close again.

Parker scowled, called for the ball and got it from Lisa Leslie. She curled through a thicket of defenders and stuck a layup.

"CP3! CP3! CP3!" came a loud chant from a section of Sparks fans, shouting out their new favorite's nickname.

The game was nearly locked up, but not quite. The crowd rose, cheering, stomping, pleading. A Mercury guard took the ball, hoping for a tie with a three pointer. It was Parker who guarded her tightly, Parker who forced a miss.

Game over.

Not a bad debut, not bad at all.

"I've got goose bumps still," Parker said in the Sparks' locker room afterward. "I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight. Everything that went with today, it could not have been anymore perfect."

Yes, perfect, an apt description of a superb debut.

--

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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