SPARKS ARE GONNA FLY

June 05, 2011

L.A. forward Candace Parker plays all five positions and can light it up and throw it down. Most important, the former WNBA MVP, still only 25, is finally injury-free, which is just one of many tantalizing storylines as the league tips off its 15th season

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.

PARKER NOW HAS A SUPPORTING CAST TO MATCH HER WARRIOR SPIRIT.

STORM SURGE

THE LONE REMAINING PROFESSIONAL HOOPS TEAM IN SEATTLE HAS NOT JUST SURVIVED IN THE WAKE OF THE SONICS' DEPARTURE, THEY HAVE THRIVED THANKS TO THEIR OWNERS' WILLINGNESS TO DREAM BIG

A pair of fire engines showering their plane upon touchdown at the airport, a victory parade downtown, a rally at KeyArena—just the kind of unbridled civic reception you'd expect for a professional team that has just won a championship. In the days following the Storm's second WNBA title, however, the city's euphoria ran a little deeper.

In a league that has been read its last rites more than once over the past 15 years, many figured the Storm's epitaph was all but written in 2006, when Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett acquired the team as part of a $350 million package deal for the Sonics, whose future in Seattle—for reasons tied to arena issues—was increasingly in doubt. "There was a frenzy of speculation and rumor," recalls team president and CEO Karen Bryant. "But Clay gave me positive indications early on that if the Sonics were relocated to Oklahoma, he was open to finding a way to keep the Storm in Seattle."

Bennett stayed true to his word, selling the team for $10 million to a group of four local businesswomen in 2008. Since then the Storm—one of seven independently owned WNBA franchises—has, thanks to the ownership group's strong ties to the Seattle business community, increased franchise revenues by 75% and transformed the team into the hottest ticket in town. Says Bryant, "Shortly after the team was purchased in '08, we stopped talking about whether we were going to make it and started to ask ourselves, How big can we be?"

The answer is huge—enough for players and coaches to earn the celebrity treatment themselves. "You're recognized the moment you leave your home to the time you get back," says fourth-year coach Brian Agler. "I've had people follow me down the street continually asking me questions about the team."

Last year the Storm wasn't just the talk of the town; it was all the rage of the WNBA. Seattle tied a league record with 28 wins (including a 17--0 streak at home) and swept through the playoffs, winning all seven of its games, including the Finals-clinching win over Atlanta on Sept. 16. Along with heavy contributions from MVP forward Lauren Jackson (20.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg), All-Star point guard Sue Bird (11.1 ppg, 5.8 apg) and do-it-all forward Swin Cash (13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), the Storm was fortified by a deep bench that now includes Katie Smith, a 12-year veteran who averaged 9.5 points for the Mystics in '10. "This team has such a history. They don't just want to compete. They want to be the best." This hoops-mad city won't settle for anything less.

HOW THEY'LL FINISH

CANDACE PARKER IS BACK—SO IS SHERYL SWOOPES!—BUT THE BIGGEST STORY REMAINS ANOTHER MAJOR STORM BREWING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

DISH GRANTED

The Dream had the scorers; now the Eastern champs have, in Harding, the playmaker to get them their looks.

EAST

ATLANTA

Point guard Lindsey Harding, acquired in a trade with Washington, gives the 2010 Finals runner-up a proven floor general who can get the ball to the Dream's many scorers.

INDIANA

The Fever lost in the opening round of the playoffs, but the addition of All-Star center Tangela Smith—a two-time champion with Phoenix—should help the team go deeper in '11.

NEW YORK

Losing Anne Donovan (who left to coach at Seton Hall) was a blow. Adding John Whisenant (who led Sacramento to a league title in '05) more than makes up for it.

CHICAGO

Pivot Sylvia Fowles (17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg) might not have much talent around her—but she's now paired with Pokey Chatman, the coach she took to three straight Final Fours at LSU.

CONNECTICUT

A draft-day trade for Kalana Greene reunites the rookie swingman with former Huskies Tina Charles and Renee Montgomery, but don't expect a 90-game win streak out of this bunch.

WASHINGTON

The conference-leading Mystics defied expectations in '10 but will fall back down to earth after unloading Harding, as well as coach Julie Plank and G.M. Angela Taylor.

FILL 'ER UP

Taurasi, last year's scoring champ, will keep the league's highest-octane offense running in high gear.

WEST

SEATTLE

Perennial All-Star guard Katie Smith (9.5 ppg) joins the 2010 champions, whose starting five is intact from last season, including league and Finals MVP Lauren Jackson.

LOS ANGELES

The Sparks fought their way into the playoffs last year even without Candace Parker. Her return plus the addition of Ebony Hoffman gives them a chance to play deeper.

PHOENIX

The fast-paced Mercury (90.0 ppg) lost steam after trading All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter to New York in '10 but should be at full throttle again now that '09 MVP Diana Taurasi is rested and refocused.

MINNESOTA

The Lynx are hoping that top draft pick—and Jordan Brand pitchwoman—Maya Moore can lead the Lynx into the playoffs after missing the cut by a whisker in '10.

TULSA

The Shock made headlines by signing league legends Sheryl Swoopes, 40, and Betty Lennox, 34, but only No. 2 draft pick Liz Cambage is likely to have an impact on the court.

SAN ANTONIO

Guard Becky Hammon (15.1 ppg, 5.4 apg) and forward Sophia Young (15.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) will again anchor the Silver Stars' lineup, but the team lacks the depth to be a contender.

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLERTHE MOTHER LOAD Giving birth barely slowed Parker in 2009, but shoulder and knee injuries cost her all but 10 games in '10. PHOTOJESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESREIGN IN THE FORECAST Not to dampen the hopes of the rest of the league, but the '10 champs have all five starters back. PHOTORAFAEL SUANES/US PRESSWIRE (HARDING) PHOTODUNCAN WILLIAMS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (TAURASI)

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