Entertainment

When Candace Parker Talks, We Listen

In her new parenting podcast, Moments with Candace Parker, the mom and WNBA star talks to people who are also choosing to parent differently.

When Candace Parker talks, you listen. The two-time WNBA MVP is very much a leader — the vocal kind. On the basketball court, she’s in constant communication: coaching her Chicago Sky teammates to shift to the correct positions, calling for the ball on a fastbreak and, as always, having a few choice words for the refs.

And they listen. We do too; the power forward is typically mic’d up during nationally broadcasted games because her voice is so impactful, powerful. It has echoed throughout a league that she’s been an essential face of for the past 14 years. After she won the championship in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks, the ESPN reporter’s microphone went to her first. When she surgically breaks down game film as a NBA on TNT analyst, we listen to her unequivocal basketball knowledge, hanging on every word.

Now in her new parenting podcast, Moments with Candace Parker, she’s the one listening. With all the accolades that Candace-the-basketball-player has tallied, being mom is her best achievement yet.

She’d be the first one to tell you, though, that she doesn’t have all the answers: “The people that I respect the most in life are the ones that say, ‘I don't know. I don't have an answer. I want to find an answer. Let's search.’” And through an array of intimate conversations with other superstar parents — names like Miranda Kerr, Busy Phillips, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade — the throughline seems to be something like, We’re all trying to figure this whole parenting thing out.

“Parenthood is so important to me, it’s my purpose,” she says of this passion project. “I think all of us have, insert different story, same feeling. Feelings of guilt; feelings of where you don't feel strong, you feel weak at the moment; you feel alone; you're in a moment where you think you should feel happy and you don't. You're disappointed in something your kid did because it's a reflection of who you are. We all have those moments.” (Stars: they’re just like us.)

When we connect over Zoom in late July, Parker, 35, is basking in the glorious Summertime Chi. It’s an off-day in her hometown during the WNBA’s Olympic break, and she is reminiscing about those first moments as a mother in 2009, when she was just 23 years old. Growing up, she had always wanted a baby. She played with dolls until she was 14, she was the go-to family babysitter, and she had baby names drafted as a tween; she knew she didn’t want it to be a gas-station-keychain name, she tells me. It had to be unique.

Her daughter had accomplished more in her first eight weeks than either you or I ever will. Lailaa won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing. She was four points shy of the WNBA Finals. She won the league’s Rookie of the Year award, and was named the season’s Most Valuable Player. All while she was still in her mom’s belly.

“I always dreamed of being a young mom, but when it happened I think it was a shock.”

Parker remembers this time in her life vividly. “I always dreamed of being a young mom, but when it happened I think it was a shock,” she said. “It was a pleasant surprise and I knew everything was going to be OK, but it was a shock at what stage it came in.”

Candace was at the top of her game in 2008. She had earned two NCAA national championship titles with the University of Tennessee and two gold medals within an 18-month span. She was already crowned the new face of the WNBA, and she lived up to the hype. Breaking records here, shattering ceilings there, dunking the ball everywhere—people knew that CP3 was destined for greatness.

For those last eight weeks of the season, though, Lailaa had a front row seat, and Candace had no idea. “I just thought I was tired,” Candace joked about not knowing she was pregnant. She still made history. No other player in the WNBA’s 25 years has won both the ROY and MVP awards in the same season. But once the news broke of her pregnancy a few months later, naysayers began to question if this was the last we’d ever see of Candace, as if her career was over before it truly started.

“It really didn't matter what other people said or thought. I think it added fuel to my desire to be able to show that you could do both.”

“Growing up it was like you had to choose a career or children and I was like, ‘Well, how come you can't have this beautiful thing watch you grow up?’ I always wanted that, to kind of grow up together,” she says. “I think it added fuel to my desire to be able to show that you could do both.”

NBA megastar LeBron James became a first-time father in October 2004, just ahead of his sophomore season. No reporters asked if his career was over or asked him to choose between parenthood and basketball. For WNBA players, and for professional female athletes of any sport (hello, Serena Williams), it’s different. An ultimatum looms. The idea of wanting to embark on motherhood during your prime athletic years — rather than in retirement — is still not standard practice.

It wasn’t until January 2020 that the WNBA and their players association (the WNBPA) reached a monumental collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that assisted players who double as mothers. For the first time it included an in-season $5,000 child care stipend and housing travel accommodations, plus full salary while on maternity leave. This was an increase from the previous CBAsm which offered as little as 50% of their (already surprisingly low) salary to expecting mothers who had to miss their upcoming season due to pregnancy.

Twelve years earlier, long before this current CBA, Candace was back on the court in Staples Center 53 days after giving birth to Lailaa, only missing eight games. She didn’t have anything to prove, but she felt like outside opinions, questions, doubts were starting to get annoyingly loud. “I am thankful for those people that told me that I wasn't going to be able to be a great mom.”

She pauses for a beat, “Or that I wouldn't be able to nurse.”

Candace proudly nursed Lailaa for 15 months: early mornings before practice, late nights after games and even during halftime. “It almost made me fight through the times where I thought about not nursing or fight through the times where it was difficult to bring her on this trip, but I knew we both needed it. I stamped all these people that were like, ‘Man, how is Candace going to be a mom? How is she going to balance all of this?’”

She knew it wasn’t impossible. After all, Pat Summitt did it. Summitt, Candace’s late college coach and mentor, taught her more than a turnaround fadeaway while she studied in Knoxville. She also had a kid, and made this working-mom thing look like a breeze. “At Tennessee, I felt like [the team] were the most important things [in her life]. We were the center of her entire universe,” Candace told me. “Then you talk to her son, Tyler, and he felt the same way we did.” Summitt once hopped off a plane from giving a talk to the CIA, coached a practice, and then journeyed home to cook dinner for her family. The way Candace tells it, it’s clear it made an impression. “It was like watching Superwoman.”

If Pat was Superwoman, then Parker's mother, Sara, had to be Wonder Woman. Candace remembers her mother at every event, every game and never missing a basketball tournament — Sara was Candace’s almighty cheerleader, pensive AAU coach, forever humbler.

Is there a difference between Candace Parker, the basketball star, and Candace Parker, the mother? Her brother laughs. "The basketball star is certainly less patient!"

“When Candace was little and pushing that last button,” Sara says on the Court-Side Moms podcast. “I would say, ‘I hope you grow up and have a daughter just like you.’”

Ask and you shall receive. “Lailaa is my personality twin,” Candace says of her 12-year-old daughter. They make the same facial expressions. They finish each other’s sentences. They both growl out of frustration. “It's interesting to see something that’s heard your heartbeat on the inside, walking around, doing stuff that sometimes is the greatest points of you, but then sometimes aren't,” she says. “She's just a really dope kid. I know I'm biased.”

Over email, Parker's brother, Anthony, a former NBA player himself, says that becoming a mom was "the best thing that’s ever happened to Candace." He sees Candace showing the same quality of commitment and support to Lailaa that their mother Sara showed to them. "She’s flown across the country on a red eye to spend a day or see a play that Lailaa was in, only to fly back out the next day. There are certainly limitations, but Lailaa sees that Candace makes it a priority to show up no matter what else is going on."

Is there a difference between Candace Parker, the basketball star, and Candace Parker, the mother? Anthony laughs. "The basketball star is certainly less patient!" But, he adds, "They are similar in that they will find a way to get the job done no matter the obstacles."

Candace beams describing the human she’s raised. She looks people in the eye, Candace says proudly, and — just like mom — she can carry a conversation with anyone.

But maybe, even more importantly, Candace and Lailaa talk to each other. During a tumultuous year like 2020, certain talking points surfaced for the first time. The WNBA’s season last year was played in a bubble — or “wubble” as fans called it — in Bradenton, Florida for almost three months. It felt vaguely familiar to Candace and Lailaa’s last 10 years adventuring to play basketball overseas in Russia and China: isolation, remote learning, and attempting to tackle new hobbies during downtime (“I didn't realize how hard it was to try new things until I tried the piano,” she joked.).

This time, though, Lailaa was able to witness the 144 women in the league speak up against social injustice, join together in protest and converse through weighty current events that rattled the nation, like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the shooting of Jacob Blake. And she had questions.

“I don't think that at 12 years old you're able to grasp everything, but it's continuing to have those conversations,” Candace says. “And just being OK with saying I don't know if this is going to happen again. I don't know if this is going to make a difference. But what's right? You got to continue to fight for that.”

Candace doesn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking she knows everything about everything because, well, she doesn’t. What she does know is that she wants to parent a little different than how she was parented.

"There have been so many moments where I was so proud of Candace," says her brother, "But I’m most proud when she uses her platform to speak out on social justice issues and empowerment of women."

Candace doesn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking she knows everything about everything because, well, she doesn’t. What she does know is that she wants to parent a little different than how she was parented. There were no dinner table conversations about finances, taxes or feelings. But with a soon-to-be teenager navigating through a pandemic, checking-in on those feelings and sparking talks about mental health, civic duties and self-care are vital, and something that Candace values.

In Moments, she converses with other parents who grew up in her same generation and who are also choosing to parent differently. Think of it as a Masterclass.

“I have been in awe of how much I've grown as an individual, as a parent,” Candace says about recording her podcast episodes. “I hope that as a community we continue to have conversations because when you stop being able to share your thoughts and your feelings, I think, as a society — similar to how it is with race in our community — people are like, ‘Oh, I didn't know that that still existed.’ Well, it's because we never talk about it.”

When Lailaa was a toddler, she wanted to have a playdate with a friend from daycare. As the adults were trying to sort out logistics, Lailaa asked the little girl, "What time does your mommy have practice?" Candace laughs at the memory. Lailaa didn’t know another life where mommies had to work regular 9-5 jobs. All she’s ever known is her mommy in the Sparks’ purple and gold performing on the biggest stage in Downtown LA.

Lailaa asked the little girl, "What time does your mommy have practice?"

That changed this season. It’s Candace’s first time in a Chicago Sky jersey after signing a 2-year contract to represent her hometown’s franchise. The city’s mayor gave her an official welcome press conference. The Chicago Bulls and Bears all tweeted their version of “Welcome home.” Even Candace’s favorite restaurant Portillo’s celebrated the news. It’s homecoming to a city that raised her, where her jersey hangs in the Naperville Central High School rafters. Where she remembers the sights and sounds of adventuring to Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium and Taste of Chicago as a pre-teen. “And going to the Sears Tower,” she interjects. “I refuse to call it anything else.” But this time around she has someone to share it with.

Candace says making the decision to change teams after 13 seasons was partly about wanting to model fearlessness for her daughter. “I think we always talk about not being afraid to try new things. As adults, we tell our kids that, but are we living it? So, to be able to come back here where it all started and with my kid...I believe in things happening in a circle.”

When Parker talks, we listen. And in Moments with Candace, you’ll be able to hear her speak on parenthood, not as a monolith, but about how the highs and lows of it somehow bind everyone together. Within our conversation, she admits Within our conversation, she admits basketball isn’t forever — a touchy subject, I’m sure. But to her, being Mom is her legacy.

“Up until I had Lailaa, basketball was the center of my entire galaxy,” Candace tells me. “And now basketball is a huge portion of it — I love it, I care about it. But I'm still going to drop her off at school. I'm going to pick her up from school. We're going to stay up late and watch Modern Family tonight.” Candace takes a breath, everything clicks. “Those are the moments — the ordinary moments — that are important, that you're going to remember.”

You can listen to Moments With Candace on Apple, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Photographer: Pavielle Garcia

Art Director: Shanelle Infante

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