A not unpleasant smell of grease floated from the cafeteria kitchen through the open double doors. It was lunchtime. Kids in uniforms were spilling into the concrete courtyard at the center of the school, a cluster of faded, redbrick buildings surrounded by patchy fields and parking lots. Across the street, a barbed-wire fence protected the runways of LAX. Planes took off one after another, sending low rolls of thunder through the pale blue sky.
Inside the small gym, two rows of motley ads mounted on black banners hung above the empty blue bleachers: PINK'S PLUMBING. 360 CABINETS. GOOD LUCK LAJAHNA & LADY VIKINGS. There wasn't much to indicate that St. Bernard High School, a Catholic school in Playa del Rey, is the official training facility for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. Racks of Creamsicle-colored basketballs stood on the sidelines; the Sparks' logo was stamped on the scorer's table. There was no sign that the Sparks are the most popular team in the most successful women's professional sports league in American history.
Practice ended, and Candace Parker's teammates left the floor. Parker held a ball. Sweat darkened the shoulders of her long gray shirt, roughly mapping the shape of her delts. She had a packed schedule that day: two interviews, a Twitter chat hosted by the Associated Press, a tour of her house for Time Warner Cable Sports' Backstage: Sparks, lunch with her mother, a weightlifting session with her trainer, an appointment at the eye doctor, and her daughter's gymnastics class, all before dinner. But no one, least of all herself, wanted her to hurry off the court.
One of the men who had scrimmaged with the Sparks that morning, Tevin Calhoun, who averaged 5.5 points a game last season as a junior at Troy University, jogged over to Parker. He had a young face, mismatched borrowed Nikes — he'd shown up without shoes — and an enviable vertical leap. He also had about three inches and 30 pounds on Parker, who is 6-foot-4, and his soft box cut gave him an inch or two more. She had big hands, though, and endless arms.
Parker turned toward Calhoun, smoothly moving her dribble behind her back. "You wanna, like, play a little bit?" she asked.
She leaned in, her long thick braid flat against her back, holding the ball by her right hip. She drove to the basket, pivoted, spun, and banked the ball off the glass. She played for half an hour, driving to the basket, then moving outside the arc. Penny Toler, the Sparks' general manager, sat on the sideline and watched Parker mimic a crossover move. When Toler drafted her with the first pick in 2008, Parker was the most highly touted prospect in WNBA history. Sports Illustrated had already put her on the cover, calling her "the most talented player in the history of women's basketball." In her three years at the University of Tennessee, Parker led the Lady Vols to two NCAA titles. She won pretty much every major individual award possible — some of the biggest ones twice. "Even when she was a freshman, it was almost [like] looking at a player who can do everything Lisa Leslie can do, and then take it to the next level," Toler told me. "She was the first player that could literally play every position on the floor and do it all well."
Parker, almost impossibly, exceeded expectations as a rookie. In her debut, she had 34 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. Throughout the season, she posted gaudy score lines. Triple-double? The stat sheet can barely hold her numbers: 16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, six blocked shots, and five steals. She became the second WNBA player ever to dunk during a game. That summer, she won an Olympic gold medal as part of the American team in Beijing. At the end of the 2008 season, she was named not only the WNBA's Rookie of the Year, but also its MVP. "It was like looking at Magic Johnson when he first came into the league," Toler said.
At that moment, Parker seemed poised to become the biggest star women's basketball had ever seen. Agents and marketers who had written off the WNBA — too many layups, too many lesbians, too many strong women — were giddy. She had the looks that advertisers wanted: the slender figure, the luminous smile, the almond-shaped eyes. She had the background: She was married to one NBA player (Shelden Williams) and sister to another (Anthony Parker). And she was no Anna Kournikova, a hot body with a scanty résumé. Parker had won, was winning, would win.
"With her resplendent smile and transcendent game, Parker is close to becoming the first international icon in her sport," said a New York Times story in August 2008. A 2009 ESPN The Magazine story called her a "saint in high-tops" and opened by contemplating the size of her breasts. "Team Parker," the author wrote, was convinced that Parker would become "the most recognized woman in American sports," more famous than Mia Hamm.
Parker appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine wearing a vaguely virginal white dress. Her hands were on her stomach, which was roughly the size of a basketball. There was the twist. She was with child.
By the time Parker was done playing one-on-one, it was past noon. The day's plan was already shot. Lunch with her mom at a restaurant turned into a hunk of torn bread and a tangled piece of leftover ham found in her fridge. Her house was comfortably crowded with a jumble of toys and massive dogs. Picture frames adorned the walls — some with generic inserts still in them. Parker had been meaning to put in photographs since the frames were hung. "That was like a year ago."
For half of the year, though, she'd been away from home. Parker and her daughter, Lailaa, had left for Russia last fall right after the Sparks' season ended in the Western Conference finals. Parker has no offseason. Top women's basketball players make their real money — a million dollars or more — by playing overseas. Parker plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg, in a city two hours by plane from Moscow.1 It would only be natural for a 6-foot-4 African American woman, thousands of miles from her husband, friends, and home, to feel a little out of place in the Ural Mountains. There might be some advantages to being in Russia, though, from a basketball standpoint. Parker has fewer obligations. She has help from her mother, who comes to Russia from Illinois. She has more time to focus on basketball and the chance to play with two of the world's best players, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. "Some of our practices would be more competitive than our games," said UMMC Ekaterinburg coach (and Sparks assistant) Sandy Brondello. Parker played some of the best basketball of her career last winter, but she did it out of sight.
In Los Angeles, she gets more attention, but she also has more demands. On the Tuesday before the Sparks' opener, there was a reporter on her couch, a cameraman panning across her daughter's piles of toys, and questions pouring in from the AP's Twitter chat. By the time the chat was finished, Parker was late for lifting. By the time she was done at the gym, the eye doctor appointment had to be canceled because she had to pick up her daughter at school. By the time she had Lailaa in the car, she had to forget about sitting down for a proper lunch, because it was a quarter to four, and Lailaa's gymnastics class was about to start. Parker stopped for Chinese takeout and ate it in the car.
"I worry that she's spread pretty thin," her mother, Sara, told me. "You've seen what her day is like. This is not abnormal. This is normal."
Mothers are busy — no surprise. There is something spectacularly ordinary about Parker's situation, the plight of a working mother (one who has help from her family, it should be said, and who could afford to hire more). There is nothing ordinary about Parker's ambitions, though. She wants to be the best basketball player in the world, and she wants to be the one who drops her daughter off at school.
This is not quite what "Team Parker" had envisioned when she turned pro. Parts of the dream are still in place: the trailing camera crew, the shadowing reporter, the buzz about being the best. But when Parker says "we're a team," she's referring to her very tall 4-year-old, not the (now former) agent who boasted that he'd chased Parker as hard as he'd chased LeBron.
It isn't quite what Parker had imagined, either. She did not intend to get pregnant when she was 22. But by all accounts, she is thrilled that she did. I asked her how Williams responded when she told him the news. "He was excited," she said. "My family was excited. My brothers were the most excited." She smiled.
"I thought it was a joke," Williams told me on the phone later. "With her professional career just starting, I didn't think that was something that was going to happen so early. But once we sat down and talked about it, it seemed like the best thing for us." They were married in November 2008, six months before Lailaa Nicole Williams was born.
There have been setbacks, Parker admits: losses, injuries, disappointments. But Parker has never regretted having a daughter. "Otherwise," Parker said, "she wouldn't be here."
As it happened, Parker was a "kind of a surprise" herself, her father, Larry, told me. She was born in 1986, in St. Louis; the family moved to Naperville, Illinois, when she was 2 years old. Her brothers, Anthony and Marcus, eight and 11 years older, were already playing basketball. Larry, who had played at the University of Iowa, coached them, and her mother, Sara, helped too. (Larry and Sara are now divorced.) Candace had a basketball in her crib.
"It was almost like overkill with basketball. I was in a gym from the time I was 3 weeks old," Parker said. "I was just like, 'Let me do something else.'" She wanted to be an Olympic soccer player. She idolized Mia Hamm. She played basketball for fun, in a little youth basketball league, or in her driveway, or in the park. She started to get serious about it, though, in fifth and sixth grade — right around the time Anthony was drafted by the Nets (and immediately traded to the 76ers). Almost immediately, her talent was apparent. Soccer had taught her footwork. She already knew how to handle a basketball. As a kindergartner, her father remembered, she amused herself during her brothers' practices by dribbling on the sideline. She was also off-the-charts tall.
"At that point," remembered Sara, "I told her dad, 'In order to have the same opportunities as her brothers, you need to coach. There's no one that's going to be able to give her the basic fundamentals that you can. You need to coach her, like you did your sons.'"
Larry laughed nervously when I said I'd heard he'd been a little reluctant at first. "I hate to sound really backward," he said. "I thought, She'll get it, somebody else can do it." It took "a little prodding," but he gave in.
"It was probably the best decision he ever made," said Sara.
Larry pushed Candace. He had her play every position. He wouldn't let her stand by the basket just because she was taller than all the other girls.2 He'd done the same with Anthony and Marcus. "Everyone thought he was crazy, because he had me bring the ball up," she remembered.
At her house, I asked her what kind of coach her dad had been. "Oh," she said. "Hm." Her childhood friend Eric, who sat on the opposite couch watching MTV as we talked, interrupted with a snort. Candace laughed. "Yeah, Eric knows. My dad was one of those … If he said good job, you really did a good job. He's a great dad. But on the court he was very demanding."
"She was the only one on the team I could give my full wrath to," Larry told me on the phone. But he didn't just yell. He knew how to get through to her. He quickly learned that he couldn't coach her and her teammates like he'd coached the boys. He couldn't just tell them to set a screen; he had to tell them why.
Parker's parents knew from the start what road they were on. But they set rules to help compartmentalize basketball and family. "After a game, we did not talk about basketball for 24 hours," Sara recalled. "It's usually not as good as it seems, or as bad. And it helped make the car rides home not so stressful."
Parker became the most fought-over women's college recruit in history. She announced her commitment to the University of Tennessee on ESPNEWS. Being a Lady Vol meant playing in front of 20,000 orange-clad screaming fans. It meant a rabid following on campus and far beyond. It meant win streaks, Final Four appearances, and outstanding player awards. It meant Pat Summitt. It also meant high expectations, among the highest any young female athlete had ever seen. "Is she the next step in the evolution of the female player or merely the rare specimen that comes along once in a generation, the modern-day Cheryl Miller?" asked a Sports Illustrated story — before she'd played a single game at Tennessee.
I asked Parker's mother what it had been like for her daughter to live under that pressure. She looked at me like I was hopeless. "Do you look at it as pressure?" Sara replied. "I mean, it's an opportunity. It's an opportunity."
Parker tore her ACL while pulling down a rebound during a summer league game before her senior year in high school. Right after she arrived at Tennessee, she needed another surgery to repair further damage, forcing her to miss her first season. Then, in April 2008, she dislocated her shoulder. She has also suffered knee and shoulder injuries as a pro. Ten games into the 2010 season, she had season-ending shoulder surgery. In 2011, she hurt her knee, and for a few days, doctors thought it might be her ACL. For the first time in her career, she says, she thought to herself, I don't know if I can do this. It turned out to be a less-serious tear in her lateral meniscus.
As hard as it was to recover from injuries, though, it was harder to recover from pregnancy. She hadn't been able to play competitively for 10 months. She had worked hard to stay in shape until she gave birth, shooting baskets and going to the gym, but she couldn't push herself too hard. Two weeks after giving birth, she was in her high-tops on the court, but there was a difference between gently running and fighting for rebounds. She returned to the lineup just a month and a half after having Lailaa, though she wasn't her old self. In her first four games back, she averaged fewer than five points on 34.7 percent shooting.
Parker recovered remarkably fast and finished the season averaging 13 points and nearly 10 rebounds. But it took some time to feel comfortable back in the game. "I think she thought she was going to be able to have a kid and be great right away," Toler said. "I watched her struggle a little."
"She has no idea how this is going to change her body," Sara remembers thinking when Candace became pregnant. "She always feels that she's in control. If it's an injury, I'll do rehab, and I'll get back. But when you have a baby, it just changes your body. Your center of gravity, your timing, your rhythm."
After giving birth, Parker had to rebuild her core. She had to return to her playing weight. Plus, she was breastfeeding, which made it hard to stay hydrated and couldn't have felt great when opponents pounded her in the paint. She was exhausted, as new parents tend to be. She also had to adjust her consciousness of her body. "The surprise is your hips," she said. "Your hips change." The elite athlete's hypersensitive, automatic physical awareness was lost, and Parker had to work to regain it. "You almost have to relearn your body after you come back from having a baby," she said.
Last year, she appeared in ESPN The Magazine again — this time nude, for the Body Issue. It was a way of documenting the transformation of her body after pregnancy, she explained. She was proud of what she had done to her body, and what her body had done.
In more ways than one. I met Lailaa in the parking lot of the Wacky Wok. She was strapped into her car seat, wearing a white hoodie and a magenta leotard. Her hair was gathered into pom-poms on the top of her head, giving her the strangely adorable look of Minnie Mouse. After a little prodding, she said hello to me in Russian.
Pregnancy is not exactly a rare event in the history of the world. Working mothers deal with many of the issues Parker faces — and much harder ones — all the time. So do working fathers. And so do basketball players. God knows how many children NBA players have had. Parker's own brother Anthony had two sons during his nine seasons in the NBA and six seasons in Israel. Of course, Anthony Parker didn't have to wake up in the middle of the night to breast-feed, and his wife stayed home. That's not to say there weren't disappointments, painful absences, practical difficulties. Every family, in its own way, sometimes struggles.
Only six current WNBA players, including Parker, have a child. What these women go through is necessarily different from their NBA counterparts, and not only because the women give birth. WNBA players make far less money than NBA players. Sometimes, they have less help. For some, the sacrifices can be stark. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played professionally from 1993 to 2012 (in the WNBA for 14 seasons), became a single mother before she even reached college. She put a second child up for adoption (they've since reconnected); she raised a third with her husband. "The main challenge was the feeling of guilt. Not having enough time," McWilliams-Franklin said. "The fact that you gave birth and you're never around." The constant travel and the seasons spent abroad were difficult to manage with children. She felt isolated. "I didn't really discuss the feelings of guilt or inadequacy with other players," she said. Even when she was around other mothers, her impulse was to talk basketball. She was torn between devoting her time to improving her game and to seeing her kids. "You have to choose whether to better your craft or be a marginal or average player," she said. She found herself wondering if she was doing the right thing. When a child was sick, she couldn't stay home. "That was a pain I would not wish on anyone," she said.
I asked McWilliams-Franklin if she had thought about retiring early. "Many, many times," she answered. "Many, many times." Yet she loved the game and saw its effect on other people. "For me, it's about my faith. I'm touching lives. I want the same thing for my daughters."
"I live a different life," Parker acknowledges. "When I finish practice, I can't go hang out. I have things I have to do … I think for a while — for me not to seem standoffish — it's not like that. It's that I have other responsibilities, and I can't," she said, groping for the right thing to say. "My life doesn't stop when basketball practice is over at noon." But, she quickly added, her teammates were constantly over at her house — and Lailaa is perfectly at home on the team bus. Invariably, she puts a positive view on what she went through.
Some WNBA players wait to have children until they're further along in their careers. Tina Thompson, the WNBA's all-time leading scorer, missed two months of the 2005 season to give birth when she was 30 years old. It hasn't always been easy for her. She is a single mother. She's been separated from her son for stretches. She will retire at the end of this season, in part because homeschooling her son in Korea and other challenges take their toll. But she has said that her son adapted easily and happily to the itinerant life of a basketball player, and her career has given him rare opportunities. Her example inspires some of the other players. "We talked about it at the Olympics, how cool it was that [Thompson's son] was able to experience these things," said Tamika Catchings, Parker's good friend, who plays for the Indiana Fever.
Lisa Leslie, a three-time WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist, missed the 2007 season to have a child, returning to the Sparks for 2008 and 2009. When Parker became pregnant, Leslie knew what she was in for. "You're like, No! Don't start a family early!" Leslie remembered, laughing. "But she knows what she wants."
Parker tends to focus on the opportunities her career has given Lailaa instead of the drawbacks. Lailaa has traveled all over the world. She has met all sorts of people. She goes to Russian preschool. Basketball means that there is enough money for toys, gymnastics class, college. And it means, actually, that Lailaa spends a lot of time with her mother. For now, Lailaa often travels with Parker. Sara, various cousins, and babysitters help out. Parker's husband, Shelden Williams, is home during the summer, his offseason.
The separation from Williams is one of the hardest parts of the arrangement, and it's just as difficult for him — perhaps more so. The fifth pick in the 2006 draft, Williams struggled during his NBA career, bouncing from city to city. This past year, he played for Elan Chalon, in France. "It's a very hard situation, with my girl growing up," he said by phone, a few days after returning to Los Angeles. "I'm missing a lot of big events in her life." The hope was that his being in France would make it easier for the family to stay close. The time difference would make Skyping easier. He could visit them in Russia; Lailaa could visit Europe. But "in reality, I only saw them an extra week." The situation troubles him. "It eats away at me every day," Williams said.
He sighed. "We only have a short window to do this."
Parker is now 27. "I feel like I'm entering my prime," she says. She looks like no one else when she's on the floor. Her stats are impressive, of course — on June 1, in the Sparks' second game of the season, she had 27 points, 20 rebounds, four assists, and four blocks — but what stands out is the way the game flows through her, despite a deceptively quiet presence on court. She stands very still. On the sideline, her movements are languid, almost slow. She doesn't have the heft that some other big players have; her shoulders are almost boney. But she makes powerful blocks and outrebounds larger players. She takes the ball up the floor and passes sharply. Forget dunking (though, knee willing, she can do it): She has soft hands. Under the basket, she sweeps the ball over her shoulder or rolls it off her fingers. She not only holds her ground, she creates it. She opens up lanes with a glance.
Parker plays her best at the biggest moments. She has two NCAA titles and two Olympic gold medals. UMMC Ekaterinburg just won the 2013 EuroLeague title, and she was named the playoffs' MVP. The WNBA title is the only championship that eludes her. When the Sparks were knocked out of the Western Conference finals last season by the Lynx, losing 80-79 — a game she'd nearly won single-handedly for the Sparks3 — she did something very unusual for her. She cried. She wants that title. But even without it, she is arguably the best in the world right now. A poll of WNBA general managers picked her as the preseason MVP. They also ranked her among the top three small forwards, power forwards, and centers in the league.
"Some things are just not fair," Larry Parker said. "If you could make all the athletic ability equal, and skill was the only determining factor, she'd be better than a lot of the men. She'd be like LeBron. But things are not like that. I'm glad things have come along so she can make a living, and more than make a living, put some money away for her future."
American professional sports have a tendency to erase notions of gender equality. Parker's base salary when she was drafted by the Sparks was $44,064; the maximum base salary she can make this year per the WNBA's collective bargaining agreement is $105,000. The Sparks' entire salary cap is less than what the minimum NBA salary for a player with Parker's experience would be. It's hard to complain about the salaries, because the fact is, few people watch. Attendance has been dropping; in 2012, the league's average was 7,457, the lowest in its 16-year history. (Though Parker's team, the Sparks, had the WNBA's highest attendance, with 10,176.) Of course, Parker ultimately makes seven figures by playing overseas. She also has a seven-figure endorsement deal with adidas. Not many WNBA players have apparel deals, and only the biggest names earn more than a standard $5,000. Melchionni points out that Parker would probably have an easier time lining up premier endorsement deals if she weren't abroad for half the year. "I can't tell you how many times opportunities come up. Brands and people want her," he said, "but she's just not able to do it because she's not in the country." He added, "It is impossible for her to turn down the amount of money she's able to make in Russia."
So far, no individual player has managed to transform the WNBA in a financial or cultural sense. The league has struggled to get people to watch the women for what they can do, not for what they can't. It's possible that this will change. A study prepared for the NCAA by former WNBA and USA Basketball president Val Ackerman has just been released with radical proposals for increasing the appeal of women's basketball, touching on everything from operating budgets to tattoos. ESPN has just extended its deal with the WNBA through 2022. A group of electrifying players is entering the league, bringing new hope for its future. Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, and Elena Della Donne aren't just drawing attention to women's basketball; they're challenging notions of what a woman does and is. Or that's the hope. All great athletes are seen through a prism of expectations, biases, and dreams. For women, the refraction can be especially distorting. They're hyped, they're mocked, they're constantly compared to men, as if that were the way to measure their worth. Parker is often asked about how she'd do against her brother or husband. What's she supposed to say? That's not the point of playing. It's not the source of self-respect.4
On a hot Monday afternoon in May, under a scalding sun, the Sparks gathered at a park for an event with young kids from a community center. There were art stations, a snack table, and a playground basketball court. Before the kids showed up, Sparks players in "Los Angeles Basketball" T-shirts and long shorts stood around. They compared local doughnut shops; they talked about cars; they made dirty jokes. They laughed, a lot. When the kids began to arrive, Parker slipped off, so quietly that a few minutes passed before I noticed she was gone.
I found her sitting at a picnic table with two young girls, both decked out in purple and gold — one wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey. Parker was giving one of them a temporary Sparks tattoo. Throughout the rest of the day, the girls stuck to Parker like burrs. At one point, one of them ran up, holding a basketball. She dribbled awkwardly between her legs. "I learned this from you," she said to Parker. She sat down at the art table and painted Parker's jersey on a piece of pink construction paper. The next day, the picture hung on Parker's fridge.