Aditi Kinkhabwala: New baby changes Candace Parker's outlook, not game - Sports Illustrated

Parker finding balance between motherhood, basketball

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Candace Parker liked Lailaa.

So she started calling the little bump on her belly Lailaa. She talked about Lailaa kicking and Lailaa getting bigger and then one day, without thinking, her husband, Shelden Williams, looked at her stomach and said, "How's Lailaa doing?"

"I'm very stubborn," said Parker, laughing. "I'm going to do things the way I want to do them."

Why then would anyone be surprised Parker was in uniform Sunday night for the WNBA's L.A. Sparks, just six days after her first post-pregnancy practice?

She had labor induced at 39 weeks. "I'd set a timetable," she said.

And she didn't ask any of her four teammates who are mothers how they went about getting in shape. "I kind of do things at my own pace," she said.

No, there's no surprise, no jaw-dropping and no wonder that seven weeks and one day after giving birth to her first child, Parker was back on the floor, knocking in a reverse layup in a 104-89 loss to the Phoenix Mercury.

As one of the biggest stars to play for Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee, Parker was the first woman to dunk in the NCAA tournament and followed Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld as the third hoops player ever to double up on rookie of the year and MVP honors in a pro league.

Considering her importance to women's basketball, it's little wonder the reaction was mixed when news broke of her pregnancy in January. Fans grumbled on message boards about Parker's selfishness and worried about her changing priorities. WNBA commissioner Donna Orender told the New York Times, "Candace can be a very usable symbol of how you can have a family and a career."

Now that she's back on the court, Parker admits her priorities have changed.

"Now everything I do is for my daughter," Parker said. "She's going to be watching and I take that mindset with me. I want to be a good role model for her, show her girls can do anything guys can do."

"Leaving [Lailaa] is very hard. You don't want to miss anything. I don't want to miss her smile," said Parker, very candidly admitting that trips to the gym don't carry quite the same anticipation as before. But then, in the next breath, she said once she's at the gym, she's imbued with a greater drive than she's ever known.

What NBA player mans 4:30 a.m. feedings in-season? (Williams, a forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves, handles the diaper changes. Then again, he's got three months until the Timberwolves open camp.)

In 18 minutes on Sunday, Parker scored six points and showed rust. But she hasn't played in 10 months, she's still got about five pounds to drop, and as Sparks coach Michael Cooper said in his postgame news conference: "I wish Michael Jordan could give birth and come out and play."

Parker ultimately missed the first eight games this season and after Sunday's loss, her struggling team is 3-6. She hasn't sounded defensive about her decision to become a mother now, at age 23. "I have to live my life," she said, and doesn't temper talk of how a once single-minded focus on basketball has blurred. (Except maybe when saying Williams wants a little boy. Then quickly adding, "I told him he's going to have to wait a little bit.")

Said Parker: "There's room for basketball, there's room for Lailaa. I have, from a young age, said I wanted both. I want a career and I want a family and I wasn't going to have to choose. Right now I'm living my dream because I have the best of both worlds. I go to basketball and I love it and I play and then I come home and there's that joy."

And then, just as she said that, Lailaa's gurgling in the background came clearly over the phone line.

She's a happy baby, Parker said, one who smiles in her sleep. Her face mirrors Parker's own baby pictures, except for a nose which resembles Williams'. Summitt already told her former star a ready-to-be-signed National Letter of Intent is in the mail. Yet, Parker said there's no basketball in Lailaa's crib just yet.

In fact, she had the baby watching Wimbledon this last week. Envisioning a tall body and long wingspan, Parker said, "I think she could be really good at tennis." Pausing, she went on, "If I had my choice, she would play tennis."

Which just might be enough to consider it done. Unless of course, Lailaa grows up to be as stubborn as her mother