Candace Parker overcomes pain

Candace Parker, who sat out the past seven weeks, was ejected in her first game back. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- There was contact. A lot of contact. The kind of contact an official usually would decide was enough to take the whistle out of his mouth at the end of a basketball game and call.

But there was also history. A lot of history. The kind of frustrating injury history no athlete should have to endure in an entire career, let alone in the first few years of what is destined to be such a great career.

So when Candace Parker was ejected for wildly arguing a non-call at the end of the Los Angeles Sparks' 84-79 loss to the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday night at Staples Center, it was hard to know exactly where all that emotion came from.

"It was just the heat of the moment," Parker said, rejecting the suggestion that after missing seven weeks because of a knee injury, any of that frustration could've been of the pent-up variety. "I thought a call should've gone a certain way. It didn't, and I lost control.

"Whatever was going on, I shouldn't have acted like that. I already apologized to my teammates. I want to apologize to the fans, too."

At about the same time, her husband, Shelden Williams, was still in his courtside seat, playing with their 2-year-old daughter, Lailaa. He was mellow and unconcerned by his wife's emotion at the end of the game.

He was just happy to see her back out there. And Parker is clearly all the way back after scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench Tuesday.

But Williams also gets why this game meant so much to his wife and why losing it hurts so deeply. Because Williams hasn't just been by her side through her latest return from injury; he has been there through all of the ups and downs of the past three years as Parker has alternately dominated the WNBA and been apart from it far too often.

"Six weeks," the New York Knicks forward said by way of explanation for Parker's emotion.

"It hasn't been easy for her at all, especially since so much of these [injuries] have been out of her control. I just do my best to help her. The best thing is to get her mind off basketball. Go see friends, see a movie, anything to keep her mind off the game because it's so hard to be away.

"Hopefully, she's past all this now. Hopefully she's broken through whatever wall she needs to break through and she gets back all the way healthy."

There are very few players who have accomplished as much as Parker has in her young professional career who also see the words "frustrating" and "disappointing" attached to their names as often as she does.

There also aren't many players who enter a league with as much hype and fanfare as Parker. She wasn't just supposed to enter the WNBA in 2008 after winning back-to-back NCAA titles at Tennessee; she was supposed to redefine the league and seamlessly carry the torch from Sparks center Lisa Leslie, whenever she retired.

Instead she has played through a series of unfortunate injuries there is no use trying to explain or rationalize. The only thing more frustrating than seeing her hurt is seeing how dominant she has been on the court when she has played.

And yet somehow, Parker has come to a mature place about it all.

"It'd be easy for me to sit here and say, 'Where would my game be if I didn't get injured?'" she said.

"But I don't know if I would be the same player or have as much respect for the game as I do if I hadn't injured my ACL in high school.

"All I can do is work with what I have and hope I don't get injured."

As she talks, a thought creeps into her head.

A resolution she obviously made after this latest injury but is quickly breaking.

"But I'm not going to speak on it again because I came into the season talking about how I was healthy and everything, and look what happened," she said, knocking on the soft padded training table she's lying on while receiving treatment.

"I feel like I just need to keep playing every day like it's my last day. I truly grasp that now. If I didn't get it before, if there's any lesson God wants to teach me, I got it. I got it now."

As Parker spoke, Sparks trainer Chris Gerona was deeply massaging her right quadriceps muscle, getting it loosened up before the game.

A spiderweb of black tape crisscrossed her knee to help stabilize it and cut back on the swelling.

Occasionally, when Gerona dug his elbow in too deeply, she'd lightly wince. But you got the feeling this kind of pain is nothing compared to what she already has experienced in her 25 years.

"When I did this last one, I thought immediately that it was my ACL," said Parker, who tore her left ACL in high school. "I went into the MRI like, 'Here we go again.'

"So when they called me after saying it was just this, it was like the best news ever. But even if it was the ACL, I could probably rehab the knee myself."

She laughed out loud at that part, even as Gerona began digging into her right calf muscle.

"He goes even harder when you're not around," Parker said, gesturing to her interviewers.

You get the feeling she can take it.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.