How Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker balances the WNBA and NBA bubbles

Aug 26, 2020


CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Candace Parker was breaking down games before most kids even know what basketball is.

“My mom tells the story all the time that I recognized a 2-3 zone defense when I was, like, 3 or 4 years old,” Parker said. “It’s just been being a part of the game, watching it and really enjoying it. With my older brothers, I grew up around basketball. I remember having VHS tapes of games and just watching them over and over.”

Parker is still poring over video, although the VHS days are long gone. At 34, the Los Angeles forward/center is having what she calls one of her most fun seasons thus far for the Sparks, who are 10-3 and in third place in the WNBA. She is also serving as an NBA analyst — remotely via video — on TNT. And she is mom to 11-year-old daughter Lailaa, who is with Parker in the bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Time off for Parker is basically when she sleeps. She thrives on her days being jam-packed.

“The way my brain is set up, I need that, just for excitement and to keep busy,” Parker said. “Even in the bubble, I feel as though the days go so fast. I don’t feel I’m ever bored, which is a good thing.”

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Parker has been a college basketball and NBA analyst for a few years, but the job hadn’t overlapped with the WNBA season. Usually, she wrapped up her analysis work around the beginning of the NBA playoffs to focus on playing. With no travel because of the bubble, this season has offered a unique opportunity to do both. So far, Parker hasn’t done analysis on the same day that she has played, but that could still happen.

“It’s really something we’ve never seen,” said TNT analyst and former NBA player Steve Smith, a colleague and friend of Parker’s. “Someone still at the top of their game on the court as far as playing in the WNBA, and off the court with broadcasting.”

Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird, who also has worked as a basketball analyst, appreciates all that Parker, a former Olympic teammate, has on her plate.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand the amount of time spent studying when you’re a commentator,” Bird said. “You have to consume the sport, especially if you’re doing studio work. On any given night, Candace could be covering three games. So that’s six teams you have to watch a lot and know about.

“And there’s another level of fatigue when you are on live television. Especially in these quarantine days, when you have to set up your own lighting and your own screen. And then you have to be ‘on.’ Candace is dealing with this whole other set of reasons to be tired. You have to compartmentalize and find ways to get rest both mentally and physically.”

Parker gave birth to Lailaa in May 2009, just before the start of Parker’s second season in the WNBA, after she had been rookie of the year and MVP in 2008.

“As a mom, she’s probably really used to all this,” Bird said. “This is kind of what her life is: always finding time to get herself ready for being on the court while juggling other things. She’s doing a tremendous job.”

Parker, who was also league MVP in 2013, is averaging 14.0 points and a team-high 9.8 rebounds, plus 4 assists. She came within one assist of her second career triple-double earlier this season, and she is averaging about three more rebounds per game this season than last. At 6-foot-4, she has long been a player celebrated for her versatility. Being able to play a “positionless” brand of basketball makes her fit in well with the contemporary trends in both the WNBA and NBA.

Parker watches video to prepare to play and to commentate with a similar eye for detail. She looks more for tendencies to try to exploit or take away as a player. As an analyst, she wants to pick up on things viewers might not notice to help enhance their enjoyment of the game.

“I think the ‘back-you-down’ post-up game has kind of disappeared from both leagues,” Parker said. “That’s a testament to the skill set. The NBA is more about 3-pointers, and the WNBA is moving toward that — where it’s kind of four-out/one-in, cuts in space, clearing the lane. The rule changes, like defensive three seconds, have kind of guided basketball.”

All the basketball knowledge in the world wouldn’t be enough if Parker didn’t also have on-screen presence and a comfortable ability to interact with her fellow analysts. Parker said she went into broadcasting with no intention of trying to be “one of the guys.” She simply wanted to be herself — someone who happens to be a fearless younger sister of two brothers, one of whom, Anthony, played in the NBA. From childhood, she was able to hold her own in debates, and she does the same thing with the likes of Smith and Shaquille O’Neal.

“We just had instant chemistry,” Smith said. “From Day 1, it felt like a little sister I never had. We get along so well. We can challenge each other.

“She’s never uncomfortable in any basketball situation that she gets a chance to cover. It could be the history of the game, the knowledge of the game, breaking down games and some tough situations off the court.”

Candace Parker usually wraps up her work as an NBA analyst before the WNBA season starts. But not having to travel and being in a bubble this season enabled her to do both. Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images

Parker doesn’t back away from giving critical analysis, either.

“I want to make sure I get it right, but I want to be respectful,” she said. “I don’t ever want to attack anybody’s character, or who they are as an individual. I think that’s the most important thing.

“I can respect when I’m being analyzed as a player. If I didn’t have a good game, just say it, and state the reasons why. I respect that. I am able to see things from both sides.”

Parker said she also made a promise to herself early on about how she would balance motherhood with work.

“I definitely wasn’t going to sacrifice my family for my career,” she said. “But I was also going to try my best not to sacrifice my career, either. The support I’ve had from my family … I wouldn’t be able to do it without the village. And I hit the lottery with Lailaa, because she’s really rolled with everything.”

Lailaa already has shown to be a quick study whenever she has tried any sport. If she doesn’t decide to seriously pursue basketball, mom says that is fine. But if Lailaa does, Parker will be ready to help.

“Her interest is getting there, it’s growing,” Parker said. “She’s asking questions, she’s watching and that just brings me so much joy. When she’s ready, I’m definitely here to go play with her whenever she wants.”

This entire sequence from @Candace_Parker ?

— espnW (@espnW) August 15, 2020

Parker said it is also important to show Lailaa her commitment to community advocacy. Parker and teammate Nneka Ogwumike recently took part in a virtual roundtable with Los Angeles County’s public health director regarding health equity and social justice issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

And when Parker finishes playing, she can transition quickly to full-time broadcasting if she chooses.

But Parker is still enjoying playing. The bubble has the benefit of not just taking away the grind of air travel, but also the time Parker would normally spend in a car in L.A. traffic for practices and games. That has been good for her body, she said, and the camaraderie with her teammates and the rest of the WNBA players has been good for the soul.

“There are a lot of distractions normally that kind of hinder the way you prepare, or with your maintenance or your rehab,” she said. “Here, you’re focused on that.

“And to be able to hang out with your teammates more, go eat dinner, get to see them more in a home environment, it’s been fun for me. I hope we’re able to continue to get better, so we can compete for a championship.”

Parker won a WNBA title with the Sparks in 2016. With two national championships at Tennessee and two Olympic gold medals, success is a key part of her legacy. But she has always wanted to leave an even bigger impact: to broaden the footprint of women’s basketball. If doing analysis for men’s college hoops and the NBA brings more eyes to Parker, the WNBA benefits.

“Anytime people in our league are able to show themselves in other areas of life, it’s always great for the league in general,” Bird said. “Candace being on TNT, it gives people a household name to latch on to and then come back to the WNBA.

“I find with our league, a lot of times it’s just that people haven’t tuned in. They have opinions, but not based on fact, not based on their own eyeballs. They haven’t actually watched. If someone like Candace can get somebody to watch a game, chances are they’re going to enjoy it.”

Parker appreciates that sentiment.

“I wanted to leave the game better than when I came into it,” she said. “For TNT to show WNBA highlights, that was huge for me. And to hear Shaq and Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter comment on those, I think is so cool for the game of basketball.

“The biggest thing for the WNBA is to grow visibility. Seeing WNBA players in different settings, but then turning on the television for games and being able to see them in their main element.”

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