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Sparks' Candace Parker keeps the balls in the air

The reigning WNBA most valuable player juggles being a new mom with trying to get her team into the playoffs and winning a title. She's got help and a good sense of what it takes to make it all work.

September 08, 2009|Mark Medina

She is on the clock and needs to move.

"What's the quickest way to get to UCLA from here?" Candace Parker asked a van full of fellow volunteers. "I don't want to get stuck in traffic."

The WNBA superstar and reigning most valuable player has to watch the clock these days as she does the impossible: balance her career with being a new mom.

At this moment, in June, she has finished redecorating apartments in Inglewood for domestic violence victims. Before that, she scrambled home to feed her baby, Lailaa. Before that, she practiced with the Sparks for the first time this season -- and none too soon in her view, having missed the first eight games in the 34-game season.

Her day was not over, though. She still had to pick up her godbrother Kenny, who was in town to visit her and her husband, Boston Celtics forward Shelden Williams.

Parker, 23, calls this juggling act a "process."

"It's difficult in any situation, when something new happens, to balance it," Parker said. "Sometimes when you're juggling something, you lose sight of other things."

She hasn't lost sight of the one thing that eluded her and the Sparks last season: a title.

With three games left in the regular season, she enters tonight's contest against the San Antonio Silver Stars averaging 12.7 points, a WNBA-best 9.2 rebounds and a league-leading 1.96 blocks per game.

Being MVP and rookie of the year, having the league's top-selling jersey and signing lucrative endorsements indicate a popularity WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender says "continues to grow."

Parker knows all eyes are on her. But she is not alone in this balancing act. There are 13 mothers playing in the WNBA, a list that includes four other Sparks, Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson among them.

Williams, who is a hands-on dad, said it has worked out fine.

"I haven't seen her overwhelmed," he said. "It's hard for her, but she hasn't pulled her hair out."

She has had plenty of people to keep her calm. Last winter, when an anxious Parker told her brother, Marcus, she was pregnant, he laughed and told her, "You try to write an amazing comeback story every year."

She knew he was right. In high school, she came back from a torn ligament in her left knee to lead Naperville (Ill.) Central High to its second state title in a row. As a junior at Tennessee, Parker won her second national title while wearing a sling to support her dislocated left shoulder.

Then there was the advice of Thompson and Tennessee women's basketball Coach Pat Summitt to write her own script. She did, though Parker's expectations were occasionally beyond her doctor's.

She shot 150 jumpers and rode the elliptical machine 30 minutes every day until three days before the May 13 delivery, and resumed two weeks later. When she asked to play in a June 21 game, her doctor said no. Her family thought she was pushing herself too hard.

"Candace is always a very goal-oriented person and wants to set dates," her mom, Sara Parker, said. "I wanted to let her make sure if that day comes and she doesn't feel physically prepared and ready, that it's OK to take extra time."

She finally got the OK to return to the court. Parker's dad, Larry, wanted her to wait but Coach Michael Cooper thought she looked fine at practice, and Parker said she felt ready. It was July 5 and her rust showed.

In her first four games, she averaged 4.75 points on 34.7% shooting and four rebounds -- far below her clip of 18.5 points on 52.3% shooting and 9.5 rebounds per contest last season.

"Some of the things she couldn't do made her frustrated," Cooper said.

She struggled with her timing, stamina and staying low to the ground to protect the ball.

"I got ahead of myself a little bit and didn't realize that it's not just your body performing one time," Parker said. "It's your body performing over and over again with the strain and rigor of a Cooper practice, and the strain and rigor of travel."

But coming back so quickly was "the right decision," she added. A league-leading 12 double-doubles support that. If the Sparks (15-16) make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 16, she expects to be in full form.

"Where I am now is hundreds of percents better than where I started," she said.

The balancing act got a bit easier Aug. 13. Parker arrived at a 9 a.m. practice with a jump in her step. The reason? Lailaa had slept through the night.

Yet even if Parker no longer needs to wake up at odd hours, she still does. She calls the habit part of her "motherly instinct" that also includes singing to Lailaa when she's crying, her favorite song being Will Smith's "Just the Two of Us."

Parker slept 15 hours a day during her pregnancy, and 12 hours a day in college.

"If I get five hours now, I'm good," she said, laughing.

There was another reason she felt awake on this particular day, though. She had eaten breakfast.

"That's a major sign of maturity," Leslie said. "I was spoon-feeding her oatmeal last year and was like, 'You have to have breakfast.' "

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