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Diane Pucin on sports media

Candace Parker could be the next big thing

The Sparks star stands tall in sports, marketing, magazine covers and motherhood.

March 12, 2009|DIANE PUCIN | ON SPORTS MEDIA

Candace Parker is wearing a simple white dress and the biggest smile imaginable. She is cradling her belly, which carries her unborn child, as she poses for this cover of a magazine aimed at readers who expect to see LeBron or Manny.

But on the cover of the issue of ESPN the Magazine that will be on newsstands Friday it is Parker, the Sparks star, who will look the buyer in the eye beside the headline, "How Big Can Candace Parker Get?"

"I'm proud of my child, excited about my child and I'm excited about the opportunity to have a child and be an athlete," said Parker, 22, on Wednesday. She is home in Los Angeles now, settled in to wait for this first child for her and husband Shelden Williams, a forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Parker's pregnancy, announced in December, surprised many, including Sparks management, some of her teammates and the editor of ESPN's magazine.

Gary Belsky, editor in chief, said the story had been planned and photos shot just before Parker's pregnancy became public -- or noticeable.

"We don't do a lot of female athletes on the cover," Belsky said. "Candace has made it more interesting. She's got Adidas, McDonald's and Gatorade as sponsors; that's a pretty strong big three. But it's still tough to put a woman on the cover for us.

"But ESPN is participating in women's sports month in March, so we thought this would be a good way. But when we found out she was pregnant we had to call and say, 'We can't run these pictures in March.' "

So photo editor Catriona Ni Aolain reconceived the photo and spoke to Parker. "She was a little nervous," Ni Aolain said. "She wanted to know we wouldn't make fun of her in any way."

Ni Aolain, who said she had her own baby a few months ago, said her idea was to make Parker look "radiant and athletic."

She put Parker in a white dress to make the photo more dramatic, but until Ni Aolain looked at the photos she thought another would turn into the cover shot. "At first I thought we'd use one of her in her uniform or holding a basketball. But I saw this one and it was the right one."

Parker isn't the first female athlete to be on the cover. Tennis players Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, disgraced track star Marion Jones and snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler have had the spot. But Parker is the first pregnant athlete to be shown.

Belsky said the target audience of the magazine is the 18- to 34-year-old male.

"I'm anxious to see how those people respond," Parker said.

"Response to my pregnancy from people in my circle of WNBA fans has been positive. I hope the readers see the cover and then read the story."

Belsky said Allison Glock's story focuses on the potential impact Parker can have from a marketing and sports standpoint.

Parker, whose child is expected in early May, said she has stayed in good shape and is eager to play this season. The Sparks play their first game June 6 against Detroit.

"I'm great," she said. "I'm working out three or four times a week. The hard part about being an athlete is learning that when you feel tired you can't push yourself."

In a move made to shore up the lineup for however long Parker is missing, today the Sparks are expected to formalize the signing of Tina Thompson, the WNBA's second all-time leading scorer. Thompson will be joining the all-time leader, Lisa Leslie, when she signs.

Like Leslie, Thompson starred at Inglewood Morningside High and then at USC. Leslie has already announced this will be her final professional season. Thompson became an unrestricted free agent after her previous team, the Houston Comets, folded in the off-season.

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Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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