Candace Parker Will Return Better Than Ever
Her arduous journey back to the hardwood.
Newark, NJ – June 26, 2011 — Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker sits alone inside the New York Liberty’s locker room, her eyes red and face painted with dried tears.
Three letters run through Parker’s mind – A, C, and L.
The Sparks were off to a promising start to the 2011 season (4-2 at the time) and were in Newark taking on the Liberty. With just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Parker already amassed her third consecutive double-double (her fourth in the team’s first seven games) with 16 points and 11 rebounds. After grabbing a defensive board, Parker inadvertently collided with the Liberty’s Quanitra Hollingsworth and went down in excruciating pain.
A, C, and L…
Parker can’t help but flashback to high school where she tore the ACL in her left knee or to college when she first dislocated her shoulder. How long would the process back to recovery be this time?
Sitting by herself in a cold, dark locker room in Newark, Parker feared the worst.
Then, her two-year-old daughter, Lailaa, enters.
“Mommy hurt?” she asks with a concerned look on her face. Lailaa has never seen mom upset before.
“Yeah, baby, mommy’s hurt,” Parker responds, doing her best to stay strong and reassure her daughter.
Lailaa, sensing her mom’s pain, places her arms around mom and holds her just like Candace does when she’s hurt.
“Amen,” Lailaa says while delicately placing her hand on Parker’s right knee after saying a prayer for mommy.
It was that moment when Parker knew everything would be alright, and she’d make sure of it.
”They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but in my head I remember thinking this is way more than I can handle. I don’t want to spend another six to nine months in rehab. Thankfully, I didn’t have to climb a mountain; it was just a mole hill.” – Candace Parker, August 4, 2011
After the game on June 26, an MRI would later reveal a tear in her right knee. However, on the positive side, it wasn’t her ACL. Tearing the lateral meniscus would require extensive rehab, but being sidelined six weeks is far better than six months. More importantly, Parker wanted to approach this injury and rehabilitation with a vastly different mindset than she’s had before – patience.
“I was banned from the gym,” Parker laughs. “They wouldn’t let me go in until recently because they thought I would push it and try to get back to the court early. But my maturity has allowed me to stick to that. I remember in high school, about three months after my ACL surgery, they told me I could go shoot around. Well, I went to the gym and tried to dunk a few times. I’d never do that now.”
It sounds tired and cliché, but being a mother has completely changed Parker. There’s a quiet confidence she possesses and it all centers around placing her daughter as priority No. 1. This attitude has also infiltrated its way into how she approaches the game of basketball. No longer is she willing to take so many chances with her health.
After all, it’s not about just Parker anymore.
“I’m way more patient and cautious,” says Parker. “This is my livelihood. I’m not just taking care of myself; I’m taking care of my daughter. So if I rush back and re-injure myself again it’s not just affecting me, it’s affecting her. In high school, I came back from ACL surgery in five months. There’s no way I would do that now. I’m looking more long-term.”
For the past two months, Parker begins her day by waking up early to cook breakfast for her daughter, Lailaa, and her husband, NBA player Shelden Williams. She then helps Williams get Lailaa ready for school, drop her off, and it’s off to physical therapy by 8:30 a.m. Parker goes through hot and cold treatments, multiple balance exercises that focus on strengthening her quadriceps, and walking lunges. After four to five hours of grueling rehab each day, she stops by the Los Angeles Sparks practice to support her teammates and stay connected with the organization. Then she’s off to pick up her daughter from school, figure out dinner plans, go for a short walk in the evening, and head to bed.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” Parker says, tongue-in-cheek.
Frustrating. Disappointing. Infuriating. Pick one and you’d be right. Imagine being at the top of your game at every single level (high school, collegiate, professional) and then having injuries that kept you from performing. Certainly no professional athlete expects to stay injury-free during their career, but that’s not much solace for someone like Candace Parker who has previously been labeled the “female Michael Jordan.” Since her unprecedented rookie campaign in 2008 where she won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, Parker has played in just 42 games over the last three years due to injuries and her pregnancy with Lailaa in 2009. Going through injury after injury and treatment after treatment, it’s easy for doubts to creep in or to let fear control you. Beating those inner demons is something Parker actively works on every single day.
“I can’t help but wonder: What if?” Parker says while spending a short time reminiscing on the past. “What if I didn’t hurt my ACL in high school? What if I didn’t have surgery at the beginning of college? What if I hadn’t reached in during our game against Texas A&M and dislocated my shoulder? What if I hadn’t decided to go behind my back in New York and got my knee bumped? It’s tough sitting at home watching the All-Star game; I haven’t been to one in my four-year career. The hardest and most frustrating part is not being able to control it. If I wasn’t good enough to play or if no team picked me up, it would sit better with me than these injuries do. The doctor said there wasn’t anything I could’ve done differently. He actually said my knee was strong because I should’ve torn my ACL. I mean, if Lebron James’s knee was in that situation, the same thing would’ve happened.”
Every athlete goes through trying times. Ultimately, how they respond is what separates the good from the great. Will they look at their adversity as a problem or an opportunity to grow? The choice is isn’t an easy one. However, for Parker, any time she spends reflecting on the past is intentional; the goal is always to learn, grow, and improve.
“I think everybody has negative thoughts,” Parker says, matter-of-factly. “The key is not allowing them to overtake you or your forward progress. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think negatively at some point, want to give up, or ask why. That’s been a question I’ve had the last couple weeks. I was healthy and everything was going great; why did I have this freak injury? I was telling my husband this: I feel like every time I get hurt it’s always in a great moment. In high school, when I tore my ACL, I remember thinking it was the highest I have ever jumped; I was literally thinking this in the air. I came down, someone hit me, and I tore my ACL. In college, I just came back from USA Basketball, I killed it all summer, and they tell me I have to have another surgery on my knee. In college again, I scored 16-straight points in the regional final game – we were beating Texas A&M pretty good — and my shoulder dislocates. Against New York this year, we’re off to a 4-2 start, I’m finally healthy, I think I had 16 points in the first half and getting into a groove, and this injury with my knee happens. Everybody has the ‘why’s’ but I believe there are steps to recovery and steps to recover mentally. You have to find some motivation to push through. You have to make something positive out of something that isn’t positive. I still believe that I’m capable of coming out on top. Everything happens for a reason.”
That begs the question; will Parker need to change or modify the way she plays the game? Like Grant Hill in the NBA, who after years of repetitive therapy on his ankle, now focuses primarily on defense and jump-shooting rather than relying on his raw, physical ability.
“I don’t think so,” Parker says, without hesitation. “Maybe I would if it was a strength issue. But if I change my game then I change me. I’m the type of player who rebounds the ball and brings it up the floor; that’s what I do. If I stopped doing that it takes away a whole portion of my game.”
It’s much too early for those thoughts to consume Parker and she clearly still believes in her ability. Why shouldn’t she? One could make the argument that, when healthy, Parker is the best overall women’s basketball player in the world due to her versatility and dynamic play. She has the court-vision of a guard, the outside shot of a pure scorer, and her footwork in the paint conjures up images of some of the NBA’s all-time greats. This is amazing considering she has only played in 75 WNBA games over her four-year career.
To have such a huge impact on the game of basketball in that short of time is remarkable.
During the past few years, multiple players have reached out to offer Parker their thoughts and support. Tamika Catchings, Tennessee alum and Indiana Fever superstar, has become like a big sister to Parker. The two have known each other for years and Catchings believes Parker’s best days are still to come.
“I really admire my little sis’ [Parker] because of all the adversity she’s already faced through her collegiate and professional career,” says a sympathetic Catchings. “The thing I know about her is that as she continues to step over all the road blocks that have been thrown her way, she comes out mentally stronger each time. We don’t wish injuries on anyone but sometimes they come to test your resilience, your dedication, and your love of the sport. Candace is on a mission to comeback like never before and stay healthy through the remainder of her career. There are challenges we all face but we hope this is the last one that keeps her out for a period of time.”
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results, then it would, literally, be insane to think Parker won’t return from her current injury better than ever. She tore her ACL in high school before coming back to lead Naperville Central High to its second consecutive title. Prior to her storied career at Tennessee, she underwent further surgery on her left knee, yet would later become the SEC Rookie of the Year en route to winning the 2006 SEC Championship. In 2008, Parker dislocated her shoulder in a regional game against Texas A&M, but would return the same game to lead the Lady Vols to a 53-45 win. Parker missed the majority of the 2010 season after re-injuring her left shoulder but would start the 2011 season on fire averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds a game.
Where does this motivation and drive come from? Or, more accurately, how does Parker stay positive and optimistic in a continuous cycle of injuries and rehab?
“When I felt like I needed to push myself a lot more in college I got a tattoo on my wrist that says ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” Parker says as the tone in her voice changes to more enthusiastic. “That’s sort of what I live by. I feel like I’ve been blessed with a whole bunch and I feel like I’m expected to do a whole bunch. That’s the mindset I take in rehab. I’m a very goal-heavy person so I try to set short-term and long-term goals. Every time I look at my wrist I know I have to push a little harder because I’ve been blessed with this talent and it’s my job to get back on the court.”
Parker won’t stop until she reaches or surpasses a level of play equivalent to her 2008 season. Like she has in the past, Parker wants to utilize her most recent setback as a vehicle to prove something both to herself and to those who still doubt her. While a return to the court hasn’t been ruled out for the 2011 WNBA season, Parker certainly doesn’t feel the need to rush things and remains confident her hard work will pay off…eventually.
“At some point, things will change,” Parker says, affirmatively. “Maybe my better days will come later. But I appreciate the game a lot more; I can tell you that.”
They say the night is darkest just before dawn. For Parker, the sun is beginning to rise.