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Year-round play is becoming hazardous duty for some WNBA players

Players supplement their relatively modest WNBA incomes by playing abroad during the league's off-season, typically for bigger paychecks. But the price may be an increased risk of injuries, such as those suffered by Sparks' Candace Parker and Seattle's Lauren Jackson, the 2010 WNBA MVP.

July 12, 2011|By Melissa Rohlin

The WNBA season was barely three weeks old, and already two of the league's biggest stars were out because of injuries.

Sparks forward Candace Parker, the 2008 league most valuable player, had torn the meniscus in her right knee. Seattle Storm center Lauren Jackson, the reigning MVP, required surgery on her left hip. Parker won't be back for another month or so, and Jackson will be out even longer.

Tough luck?

No, more like the continuation of a trend.

Players, coaches and trainers say injuries consistently plague the league, and they believe they know why: an off-season that really isn't one.

Nearly three-quarters of the league's players also compete abroad, supplementing their relatively modest WNBA incomes with what typically are much larger payments from foreign teams that also might pick up their living expenses and shower them with gifts.

The WNBA season this year began June 3 and could run until the middle of October. Top European leagues pick up at about that time and can run till early May, leaving players scant time to rest.

"If there was a little more resting time in between, we wouldn't see half as many of the injuries we see now," Sparks trainer Courtney Watson said.

Some trainers say female athletes are especially susceptible to certain injuries because of their hormones and larger "Q-angle" — the angle at which the femur meets the tibia — which can lead to knee and foot injuries.

"From my experience working with both men and women, women's bodies take longer to heal," Watson said.

Yet, the year-round cycle is likely to continue because playing overseas can be lucrative. Whereas WNBA salaries range from $36,570 to $103,500, Parker said the league's stars can make more than six times the maximum playing abroad.

Parker reportedly makes about $1.2 million per year with the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg. Though she declined to discuss the details of her contract, Parker said, "It's too great of an opportunity financially to pass up."

There are other perks as well. Although WNBA teams use commercial airlines, top European teams fly on private charters. In Russia, Parker had use of a four-bedroom apartment, a driver and a translator. She also received what she described as "extravagant" gifts, including jewelry and watches. For example, on Women's Day, a holiday in March celebrating female achievements, Parker and her daughter Lailaa, now 26 months old, were each given a pair of black diamond earrings.

Playing year-round does exact a toll, however.

"Physically, mentally, it's a lot of sacrifices to make," Sparks guard Ticha Penicheiro said. "I've been doing it 13 years. Sometimes you play with injuries, but you never have time to recover. It's like you're always playing hurt."

Jackson, for example, barely was over one significant injury before she sustained another. She underwent surgery in February for an Achilles' tendon injury suffered while playing in Russia. Then, about four months later, she sustained the hip injury while playing for the Storm.

And at least two players, Washington's Monique Currie and Tulsa's Shanna Crossley, are sitting out the entire WNBA season after each sustained a torn knee ligament while playing in Turkey.

Occasionally, a player who can afford to says enough is enough.

Diana Taurasi, a five-time WNBA All-Star, created a stir a year ago when she said she was contemplating sitting out the 2011 WNBA season — but still playing in Europe, where she makes much more money.

Corey Gaines, who coaches Taurasi with the Phoenix Mercury, didn't criticize his star player. "When the [NBA players] go to the Olympics, they always complain," he said. "Imagine doing that six years in a row."

Taurasi did not skip a WNBA season, but she is hardly the only woman to have weighed that option, as opposed to skipping a season abroad. But the consensus among players seems to be that there is a direct connection between how well they play in the WNBA and how much foreign teams are willing to pay.

"First and foremost, the reason why we make a lot of money [overseas] is because of the accomplishments and the stature we've branded in the WNBA," Indiana Fever guard Katie Douglas said. "We play to continue that brand."

Most players said they wished the WNBA seasons were longer — and their paychecks fatter — so they didn't need to look elsewhere.

Seattle guard Sue Bird said she regrets missing out on so many important personal milestones because she's abroad for much of each year.

"Everyone knows what my life is like," she said, "which is kind of sad because they don't expect much."

Wanting to spend more time with her family and rest her body, Tamika Catchings of the Fever said in December that she was going to make a financial sacrifice and stay home.

"The two times I've done it are the main two times I've gotten injured," she said of playing a long season abroad. "It took a toll on me emotionally, physically and mentally."

But then a Turkish team offered her a rich contract and she played for an additional two months. "Of course, in a situation like that you don't discount the money," she said.

The earn-what-you-can-while-you-can approach — even at the risk of injury — is especially prevalent because the WNBA doesn't offer a pension.

"When we finish playing, the WNBA will never write us a check again," Penicheiro said. "That's not true with the NBA; they have pensions. . . . It's women's reality, and I'm OK with it. At least we have a league."

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

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