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Sleep-deprived Parker wakes up WNBA market
By Patricia Babcock McGraw | Daily Herald Columnist

Candace Parker

 

Lori Shepler

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Published: 7/29/2009 12:00 AM | Updated: 7/29/2009 12:45 PM

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She's still draining jumpshots, still throwing down dunks.

She's still signing boatloads of autographs, still attracting sellout crowds nearly everywhere she plays.

But unlike last summer, when she was named the WNBA's rookie of the year and its most valuable player, Naperville native Candace Parker is doing it all on a lot less sleep.

"I used to be huge on sleep. Huge," laughed Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward with the Los Angeles Sparks. "Now, it's like, if I get five hours, I'm good."

Indeed, motherhood changes one's perspective on just about everything.

On May 12, the 23-year-old Parker, married to NBA player Shelden Williams, gave birth to her first child, daughter Lailaa.

Parker then missed the first five weeks of the regular season before returning to action on July 5. She will play in just her sixth game since returning from maternity leave when the Los Angeles Sparks visit the UIC Pavilion today to take on the Chicago Sky.

Last summer, the Sky drew its largest home crowd in its four-year history - 6,304 - when Parker made her WNBA debut in her hometown. It was a huge up-tick for the Sky, which averaged 3,409 fans in 2008.

Then again, Parker seems to have that effect everywhere.

According to the WNBA, the Sparks played to 10 sellouts in 2008. Meanwhile, single-game ticket sales for dates on which WNBA teams hosted the Sparks as much as tripled compared to sales for games against other teams.

That's what happens when a player many consider to be the greatest to have ever played the women's game comes to town. It's a hot ticket.

And getting hotter.

Parker, whose jersey was the top-selling WNBA jersey in 2008 and is thus far No. 1 in 2009, is already revered for her phenomenal talents on the court.

The fact that she is good looking and has a likeable personality is icing on the cake.

But what could make Parker's popularity surge to the next stratosphere is the fact that she's now a mom. And a doting one at that.

In many ways, say some marketing observers, being a mom makes Parker seem more human, more relatable to millions of fans everywhere, particularly women and girls.

"Candace is always talking about how much she loves being a mom," said Sparks president Kristin Bernert. "And I think that just makes people feel that much better about Candace. She is just head-over-heels for her daughter and I think there's a real appreciation for someone who can be the best in their profession but also have their priorities straight.

"A lot of people can relate to that."

The proof is in Parker's "Q-Score," a measure of the appeal of personalities, such as athletes and entertainers, based on likeability and familiarity. Q Scores are often used by sponsors and corporations to determine which celebrities would be the most effective endorsers of their products and services.

Parker has a 26 Q-Score, which means that 26 percent of people who know of her say that "she is one of my favorites." That score ties her with the likes of Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal and David Robinson.

Compared to other female athletes, only volleyball stars Kerri Walsh (29) and Misty May (29) and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi (27) rank higher than Parker.

No wonder Parker is plastered on a gigantic billboard in New York's Times Square hawking Gatorade. No wonder she's made the cover of ESPN Magazine and has also done advertisements for McDonald's and adidas.

"Candace has cross-over appeal," WNBA president Donna Orender said. "She's very fan-friendly. She's unique in terms of her accomplishments at such a young age and on such a big stage."

The pressure to maintain that edge is very real for Parker, and has been magnified now that she has another important focus in her life.

"Of course, I feel pressure to perform," Parker said. "And there's a pressure to get back to where I was (before the pregnancy).

"But the pressure comes with the territory. I knew it would be this way when I came in (to the WNBA). I just try not to worry about it. There are other more important things to worry about."

Like tending to the oh-so-wonderful cause of her sleep deprivation.