Before They Made It: Candace Parker
Candace Parker is as decorated a basketball player as there is in the world, and she has thrived at every level, but you might be surprised to learn that she didn’t always love playing the sport.
Parker is a two-time WNBA MVP with the Los Angeles Sparks, a two-time NCAA champion at the University of Tennessee, and was twice named national player of the year in high school. Along the way, she has also been a standout member of USA Basketball, helping USA teams win nine gold medals – including two in the Olympics.
Candace had the advantage of being in a basketball family growing up in Naperville, Ill. Her oldest brother, Anthony, was a USA Basketball participant who went on to play nine years in the NBA and six years in Europe. Her father, Larry, played college basketball and was her coach from when she was 6 years old until she turned 18.
Candace is currently competing alongside Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. The team is atop the standings in the Russia Premier League and is hoping to repeat as both Russian and EuroLeague champions.
So how did Candace get her start as a youth basketball player? We caught up with her dad to find out:
USA Basketball: What was Candace like as a child?
LARRY PARKER: Well, she as a very inquisitive child. She was our “why” child -- “Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?” Everything was a question for her. She was always cheerful. Being the only girl with two older brothers, she was a little spoiled.
USA Basketball: How did she become active in the sport and develop her skills?
LARRY: She was always a good little athlete, playing YBA in Naperville, and she was good at it. But she didn’t like basketball that much, because she had seen so much of it. Both her brothers played, and I played in leagues. So she saw a lot of basketball and I think she wanted to do something on her own. She liked soccer and volleyball. She played everything, really, except basketball for a long time. She was interested in being a little different.
So while she was good at basketball when she was 5 or 6 – she had a little sports basket with the Nerf ball and that – but she was more interested in doing something else and making her own mark. Until she got to about sixth or seventh grade. She was always head and shoulders taller than most of the kids in her school, including the boys. When you show that you can really play, and she played on a traveling team for us, then all of a sudden I think it really made a big difference. And that’s how she ended up being who she is.
USA Basketball: When did you realize Candace had what it takes to play at a high level?
LARRY: She won a dunk content against boys. She would dunk and was doing little 360s – throwing the ball off the backboard (it was an 8-foot rim). When she was younger she would beat the boys, and that really stood out. Then senior year, she won the dunk contest at McDonald’s! I was talking to someone at the time and they said, “Boy, you don’t see very many girls at dunk contests.” And I said, “Well, this isn’t even the first one that she’s won!” So that was about it.
USA Basketball: As a kid, what challenges did she have to overcome?
LARRY: We played a lot of basketball and that’s probably the reason she didn’t take to it at first. Her oldest brother went to Bradley (University) and both her brothers played in high school. On Saturday mornings, we’d go to play basketball and she’d want to be the center of attention. She’d want to shoot and play horse with us, and stuff like that. She was demanding. She wanted to play. And with her brothers -- especially Marcus -- they’d really go after each other. He’s one of her biggest supporters now but at that time those kind of challenges are what you need – somebody to tell you you’re not that good and go sit on the sidelines. She had to prove a lot of things to herself and I think those were some of the things that have helped her do some of the things she’s done.
She’s had to prove to the boys, even though they were so much older and there wasn’t competition, she went about proving that she was better. As an example, she dunked earlier than either of the boys did as a player. In her sophomore year, she was dunking, and the boys hadn’t done that yet when they were that age. And she was aware, she’d always ask: “When could the boys do this? When could the boys do that?” You try not to make comparisons, but for her that was important.
USA Basketball: What advice do you have for the parents of young basketball players?
LARRY: We always wanted Candace to do the best she could do. If you’re a dog catcher, be the best dog catcher you can be. And if you want to be a basketball player, you’ve got to work at it. This isn’t just something we play on Saturdays. You can do it for recreation, but if you want to be a basketball player – or a doctor, as in the case with Marcus – you’ve got to work at it. And that kind of work ethic is what helps Candace from that standpoint. She never said, “That’s enough.” She’d work on her ball handling, she would work on her left hand, which probably sets her apart.
From the parent’s perspective, the hardest thing has been putting challenges in front of her. I coach some girls now and of course when they see Candace, they think it looks easy. And I tell them: All the things she’s doing, she’s done thousands of times before, because she works at it, she practices it. That’s what you’ve got to do. You have to practice it until it becomes second nature – muscle memory. She does things because she’s worked at it and done it over and over again. It’s a credit to her that she can do those things. She’s been blessed athletically and certainly mentally – because she understands the game and has seen a lot of basketball. But she puts the time in. Believe me, she puts the time in.