Two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker plans to return to the Los Angeles Sparks on July 29 after sitting out the first half of the season to rest.
Parker told ESPN on Friday that she initially had planned to sit out the entire season to rest her body after years of year-round basketball in the WNBA, overseas in Russia and with Team USA. But she remained open to a return after a few months.
"This was never about basketball. I just had to rest mentally and physically," Parker said in a telephone interview. "I'm in a good place now. I was able to spend a lot of time with my family, do some of the things I have never been able to do. And when I started training again, it was from a healthy place instead of trying to push through injuries."
Parker, 28, had knee surgery and platelet-rich plasma injections in her knee after the WNBA season last September, then spent the winter and spring playing professionally in Russia with her club team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi also plays for Ekaterinburg, and both players make more than $1.5 million a year. Taurasi announced this winter that she was skipping the entire WNBA season to rest her body in advance of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Parker said she initially felt she needed the same long, uninterrupted break to heal various injuries, but she has worked with the Sparks to find a compromise.
"I don't think people understand that it's a year-round thing," Parker said. "It takes a toll on you physically and mentally. If I can't go out and give my best effort --- physically or mentally -- then I don't need to be on the court. I don't think I could've done that at the beginning of the season, but I was fortunate that I got the time I needed and now I'm in a good place."
She also stressed that her decision to sit out was not financially or politically motivated.
"The WNBA is by far the best, most competitive league in the world. I personally enjoy playing in the WNBA year after year, game after game," she said.
"I think the stage is set for a real discussion on this topic, because to some extent, we've ignored it. Nothing's happened. Everybody's played. But now the discussion has to happen. FIBA and the WNBA need to sit down and talk. And I think the next time everybody is at the WNBA's idea table, this will come up because it has to. If nothing else, this just furthers discussion on the future and how to make the game better for everybody."
The Sparks are just 2-12 this season but have been without stars Kristi Toliver, Nneka Ogwumike, Erin Phillips and Parker for large chunks. Three of the four have returned. Parker is on her way back for a second-half push.
The 6-foot-3 forward has dealt with knee and shoulder injuries for most of her career, starting with a torn ACL in her left knee before her senior year of high school. That recovery was supposed to take nine months; Parker made it back out onto the court in five. But within a year, she was experiencing pain again in the knee. The same thing happened when she put off surgery on a dislocated shoulder during her final season at Tennessee. The shoulder got so loose, it would pop out of place while she was sleeping. Eventually it turned into a torn labrum that required surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation process.
"I just saw everything as a challenge," she said. "Even when doctors put limitations on me, I just saw it as a challenge to beat it. If I could go back and do stuff over, I'd tell myself, 'It's not that I can't get back from the nine-month ACL rehab in five months, it's that biologically you shouldn't.'
"I don't think in the past, I've always listened to my body. I've always seen pain as a part of being an athlete."
Now, though, after two months of rest, Parker says she feels "refreshed."
"I missed the game," she said. "I'm excited to get back on the court."