Injury forces Parker to rest, take break

June, 21, 2010

Do you ever think this "regulator" in your brain sometimes makes decisions for your own good? I envision this tiny, frequently exhausted bureaucrat running around in our craniums, trying to keep the whole body and mind happy, with a desk overflowing with paperwork and a phone ringing non-stop. Then one day …

It says, "Enough! I need a break! You need a break! I'm benching you!"

Of course, I'm not entirely serious about this … but I'm not exactly joking, either. If your body sends messages that your conscious mind continues to ignore, or at least underestimate, maybe your mind sends a message to the body: "Look, you're going to need to do something more drastic. She's not listening."

This occurred to me upon hearing the news that Candace Parker was going to be out for the rest of the WNBA season -- and, almost certainly, the World Championship in September -- after surgery on her dislocated left shoulder.

Maybe the regulator in Parker's brain made an executive decision: "Candace, take a seat. At least for a little while."

Parker, who has also gone through an ACL tear, has shown a huge capacity in her career for pain endurance, rehabilitation and playing through injuries. Her will to play has seemed to be greater than her instinct for self-preservation.

This is fairly common in athletes but not necessarily to the degree that we've seen it in Parker … or at least how Parker has combined an ability to juggle an enormous amount of responsibility while maintaining the highest level of play.

But probably many folks who've watched her have thought, "Wow, is she ever going to hit a wall?" I admit I have. While we hoped it wouldn't happen, in some ways, we're relieved it's happening now. Parker might come back from the injury rested, refreshed and more eager to play than ever.

While the idea that a part of one's mind forcing a person to slow down is likely not a process that is that literal, that's the shorthand I use for it. It's based on how I experienced it a dozen years ago.

At that point, I'd been working as a journalist for 10 years and had called in sick to work once when I had food poisoning. It irked me to miss that one day.

Then during one particularly insane stretch, I went from August 1997 to April '98 working virtually every day, often putting in double-digit hours. Two weeks after the 1998 Women's Final Four in Kansas City, I noticed this strange little mark on my shoulder. I wasn't sure what it was … until the nurse at the newspaper took a look and said, "You need to go home immediately. You have chicken pox."

"What?" I said. "No! I don't even feel sick!"

"Trust me, you will," she said. "Now, I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. Go home this instant!"

Of course, she was right, and it would be a month before I was allowed to come back to the newspaper, finally free of the last of the roughly 8 million pox that ended up covering me. (I missed the typically less-severe kid version and hit the "jackpot" with adult onset.)

In retrospect, I've wondered if my body was at its breaking point, and my brain was being an obstinate idiot about it, so it had to come up with something that would absolutely prevent me from going into work. Chicken pox did the trick.

Now, this might not be a similar thing with Parker. But it sure seems like it. When you look at the last three years for her, you can't help but think her body and mind finally conspired to shut her down to really recover.

From March 2007 to June 2010, Parker won two NCAA titles with Tennessee, was the WNBA's top draft pick by Los Angeles in 2008, earned the '08 WNBA MVP and rookie of the year awards, won an Olympic gold medal, competed in the WNBA playoffs, got married, had a baby daughter in May '09, came back to play in the '09 WNBA season, led L.A. to the Western Conference finals, went overseas to compete, returned as the face of the Sparks, was carrying the team and then …

Her shoulder, which had been an issue going back to her time in Knoxville, apparently had been through enough. On June 13 against Minnesota, she dislocated it again, and this time it was decided surgery was needed.

Parker had led Tennessee to the '08 NCAA championship despite that shoulder popping out twice during the regional final against Texas A&M. She just accepted the pain and played through it. She has been doing that ever since.

I think when athletes are enormously gifted physically, as Parker is, we sometimes don't give them the tags that we do less-talented players. For the latter, we say things like "scrappy," "doggedly determined" and "gamer." But the reality is, all those things apply to Parker.

Her dedication to basketball, her leadership of her team and her role as one of the most prominent faces in the WNBA and women's sports is so hard-wired, it's almost to the point of obstinacy. There's nothing Parker believes she can't handle … but maybe her shoulder is telling her, "It's OK. Take a few months. Let me heal. Let yourself rest. You're 24. There's lots of time left."

For the Sparks, yes, she is irreplaceable, especially right now with Lisa Leslie having retired after last season. Parker was averaging 20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds, and you're not going to find that in many other players anywhere in the league.

So Los Angeles' tough season just got tougher. The Sparks decided to go with a lot of veteran leadership and experience to complement Parker this year, and the plan has not worked out well thus far.

Does that mean the Sparks have no chance to salvage this season and make the playoffs? No, it doesn't. This team still has talent. I think it's a lot to ask Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones to stave off the ravages of time and play as if they're five years younger than they actually are. But they are among the players in the WNBA that I think are capable of somehow doing that.

Maybe this is where we find out just how much growth potential and maturity there is in players such as Noelle Quinn, Kristi Toliver and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton. They're all 25 or younger and should have pretty much boundless energy at this point in their careers. Parker being out, as devastating as it is, means there is a void to be filled that they should see as a tremendous opportunity.

Whatever happens with the Sparks, that is not Parker's worry now. This is a time to focus on taking care of herself and realize it's more than OK to do so. It's absolutely necessary.

Mechelle 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.


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