Candace Parker reflects on returning to basketball career 53 days after giving birth admitting: 'It’s made me who I am'

Molly McElwee
The Telegraph
Candace Parker returned 53 days post-partum and was back on court playing for the Sparks - FR23601 AP
Candace Parker returned 53 days post-partum and was back on court playing for the Sparks - FR23601 AP

Eleven years ago, a 21-year-old basketball player was on the cusp of a career already predicted to be legendary. Before she had ever stepped foot on a WNBA court, Candace Parker was dubbed the player with the potential to transcend the sport as Michael Jordan did. She was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when she was still at university, attracted sponsors such as Adidas and Gatorade as soon as she graduated and was drafted as the 2008 first pick by the Los Angeles Sparks. 

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Then, in her inaugural season, she fulfilled every weighty expectation hefted on her 6ft 4in frame when she became the first player to receive the Rookie of the Year gong and the league’s ultimate individual prize, the Most Valuable Player award, in the same season. Six months later though, everything had changed. Parker’s winning smile, deemed the most marketable in US sport at that time, still beamed into the camera as she starred on the cover of ESPN magazine, but now she was cradling a large baby bump. The headline read: “How big can she get?” Seven months pregnant with daughter Lailaa, a question mark was attached to Parker for the first time in her sporting life.  

“It was a challenge for me, I won’t say that she was exactly planned but she was one of the best surprises ever,” Parker, now 33, tells Telegraph Women’s Sport. “I had come off a great season, [but] I had a lot of people telling me that I would never be the same. I wanted to get back.”

To that end, 53 days post-partum she was back on court playing for the Sparks, the first of a lifetime of games with Lailaa. “With bumps and bruises, pains, nursing at half-time... But it’s made me who I am,” she says. “Because she’s 10½ now and I’ve been playing 12 seasons, I don’t know basketball any more without her.”

Parker’s life as a parent came before fully establishing herself in the league, but she proved her doubters wrong and came good on her potential – as had always been the plan. Her accolades include two Olympic gold medals with Team USA, another WNBA MVP award and winning the WNBA championship with the Sparks in 2016. That same year, she was honoured in the league’s definitive list of their 20 all-time best players and this season guided her injury-plagued Sparks to the play-off semi-finals. 

<span>Candace Parker was on the front cover of ESPN magazine</span>
Candace Parker was on the front cover of ESPN magazine

Lailaa, or her “mini-me”, has been there every step of the way, even starting her first day of school in Russia. Like many of her peers, Parker has subsidised the relatively small player salaries in the WNBA with competing for over half of the year in European and Asian leagues, where pay is much more substantial. 

Though she insists living in China and Russia was largely positive in bringing up a well-rounded daughter, Parker knows it is not an ideal scenario for players. The WNBA’s salary cap forces players abroad, giving them little to no recovery time and risking serious injuries. In a recent poll by The Athletic, more than 60 per cent of players said they would not play abroad if salaries in the WNBA were higher. Some opt out of the WNBA altogether, despite its status as the best league in the world, as they are not compensated nearly enough. (The league’s 144 players’ combined salary is barely a third of the $35.65 million – £27.86 million – that the men’s game’s biggest name, LeBron James, earns annually.)

Now Parker avoids playing abroad by working as an NBA television pundit, but she recognises it is not an option for players with less star power. It means she supports the WNBA’s players association’s renegotiation of salary caps among other benefits with the league. For Parker, healthcare is a huge part of players’ futures.

<span>Candace Parker says living in China and Russia was largely positive in growing a well-rounded daughter</span> <span>Credit: Alamy Stock Photo </span>
Candace Parker says living in China and Russia was largely positive in growing a well-rounded daughter Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

As a working mother, she realises she benefited from a support system including her family and her team, and understands juggling a baby and playing is not everyone’s preferred option. Protecting her peers’ rights to have options in retirement is what she calls her “biggest” priority in the renegotiation: “You’re playing your careers during your most fertile time, later on in life it’s going to get harder. You’re going to need healthcare, maybe IVF, so it’s making sure that you can have that option after you’re done playing basketball.”

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