Candace Parker has acquired a lot of labels in her young basketball career: Olympic gold medalist, WNBA MVP, wife (to NBA player Shelden Williams), mother (to two-year-old daughter Lailaa). But there's one she hopes won't stick. "Injury prone," sniffs the fourth-year Sparks forward. "I can honestly say that for the first time in a long time I'm extremely healthy."
The WNBA couldn't ask for a better birthday present as it kicks off its 15th season on June 3. In its history the league has cultivated many great players, but few as transcendent as the 25-year-old Parker—a 6'4", slam-dunking, shot-blocking force who plays all five positions at an All-Star level. What's more, she is the rare athlete who handles the twin pressures of being a league superstar and a full-time mom as smoothly as she does the rock. "Candace is a perfect example of the evolution of our sport," says Sparks G.M. Penny Toler. "In the past people would say, Oh, why don't you wait until you're done playing to have a baby? But Candace grew up in the society of the superwoman."
If this superwoman has a weakness, however, it's pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. She played in just 10 games last season, in large part because of what she put her body through during her hectic rookie year. After leading Tennessee to a second consecutive NCAA title in April 2008, Parker was drafted first overall by Los Angeles. She averaged 33.6 minutes (tied for fifth highest in the league), averaged 9.4 points in eight games for the U.S. team in Beijing during the league's monthlong Olympic hiatus, then carried the Sparks to the brink of the WNBA Finals that September. Her efforts (18.5 points per game, 9.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 blocks) earned her rookie of the year and league MVP honors as well as a reputation for keeping opposing coaches up at night devising largely futile schemes for containing her. "You had to spend a lot of time on her," says second-year Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom, recalling the long nights she stayed up scouting Parker when she was with the Lynx. "She could be at the point or backing down small forwards down low or facing up centers. After a while it was like, God, what can't she do?"
Even pregnancy only briefly slowed Parker, who maintained a vigorous training regimen until two days before giving birth in May 2009. She returned to the court on July 5, led the Sparks back to the Western Conference finals and then jetted to Russia with Lailaa in tow to play 25 games for UMMC Ekaterinburg, with whom she had signed a lucrative deal. All the while she ignored her aching body, in particular a balky left knee on which reconstructive surgery had been performed in '03 and a wonky left shoulder that had a habit of popping out of joint—sometimes while she slept, once while reaching for a steal during a game. When Parker dislocated it again while grabbing a rebound during a June 13 home game against Minnesota, she shut herself down for 2010. "My shoulder had been giving me problems up to that point, telling me to stop," Parker says, "but I just wouldn't listen."
She had shoulder surgery later that month and had a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee repaired in September. Chasing after a toddler while rehabbing her injuries was yet another challenge she handled deftly, mastering the art of changing Lailaa's diapers one-handed. Her mother, Sara, and her husband, now with the Knicks, alternately join Parker on road trips, all of which include Lailaa. "I have a great support system," Parker says. "They take responsibility when I can't, and we make sure my daughter comes first. Everything else kinda falls into place."
Still, there were some tasks they couldn't help her with—like breast-feeding, which Parker did for 15 months. But the time spent away from the gym grounded her game, forcing Parker to pay extra attention to fundamentals during a grueling rehabilitation period in Los Angeles. "Before, I could just jump over people to get a rebound or get a shot off by outathleticizing people," Parker says. "But at that moment, I couldn't do that. I had to box out. I had to use a jab step to set up my move. I had to be more effective and efficient, and that's helped my game."
Along with an overhauled array of moves and an improved shooting touch—she shot a career-high 55.9% from the field in Russian League play last winter—Parker now has a supporting cast to match her warrior spirit. Despite the absence of the team's best player last season, Gillom rallied the Sparks into the playoffs thanks to the veteran leadership of now 15th-year forward Tina Thompson (16.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), 14th-year guard Ticha Penicheiro (4.9 ppg, 6.9 apg) and 13th-year forward DeLisha Milton-Jones (15.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and the continued improvement of fifth-year guard Noelle Quinn (10.2 ppg, 40.2% from three-point range). The free-agent addition of eighth-year forward Ebony Hoffman (who averaged 8.0 points and 4.2 rebounds for Indiana in '10) rounds out a versatile rotation that averages just under 6'2". "[Parker] allows me to structure my team any way I want to because we can move her around anywhere we want," says Toler. "Not to put any pressure on her, but I'm looking forward to seeing what she can do when she's totally injury-free and—knock on wood—stays that way."
Parker says that she has never felt better, and that's a scary prospect. "If she's been hurt these past couple years," says Mercury coach Corey Gaines, "it would be frightful if she's healthy now." But then again, scary is a label that Parker—and the league—can live with.