Russia toughened up Candace Parker. The cold, sure. It gave the Sparks' star forward thicker skin. Once the temperature drops past zero degrees, "you just put a coat and a hat on and keep moving," she said of her recent four-month stint.
That thicker skin may have developed on the court too, as her game toughened up because of the physical style of play prevalent in overseas basketball.
"You're allowed to get away with more defensively" overseas, she said Monday during the Sparks' media day. "You're allowed to push a little bit more. The refs give you some leeway when posting up."
Parker added, "Here, when you put your hand on somebody, it's immediately a foul. Overseas, they give you three or four times to put your hands on somebody, and if you displace them, then it's a foul."
As such, her game is now more rugged, a change Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom likes as the team's WNBA season begins Saturday at Phoenix.
"Candace is definitely a finesse player and usually when you go overseas and get that experience, you come back being a much more physical player because it's just a different style of game," she said.
Gillom played overseas in Italy, Turkey, Greece and Spain and said it changed her dramatically.
"I used to be a player like Candace," Gillom said. "I wanted to shoot the three-ball, come off the screen and do everything from the outside. But when I went overseas, I became more of a physical presence inside."
That's precisely what the Sparks need from Parker with the loss of legendary center Lisa Leslie, the three-time league most valuable player who retired at the end of last season. But Parker said that playing overseas also improved another part of her game: shooting.
"All you do over there is shooting work, so it's good for your game in terms of shooting and being able to hit your open jump shot," she said. "I improved my three-ball tremendously over there. And just in terms of putting the ball on the floor for a pull-up jump-shot. Stuff like that."
Parker also built a Russian vocabulary that is about 20 to 25 words deep and learned that McDonald's is often considered an American haven overseas.
"That's so true," she said. "I probably won't eat McDonald's for a while being back. But it definitely is the American embassy overseas. When in doubt, McDonald's is where you go. Seriously."
But her diet wasn't solely hamburgers while there. Her mother helped cook, using American spices, though. "My mom did a good job," Parker said.
Karina Figueroa thought she would get picked in the WNBA draft. Her agent told her as much. But, the Long Beach State graduate didn't.
Then the Sparks called with an invite to training camp. Now, the 5-foot-8 guard who often hears herself being compared to the Phoenix Suns' two-time MVP Steve Nash is fighting to stay on the roster before it's cut to 11 this week.
"She's a great passer," Gillom said. "She has come in and has showed us some really good things."
Figueroa said just being with the team has been "a dream come true."