Sparks hit road without Candace Parker
Tough road stretch awaits Los Angeles; Parker out approximately six weeks
The key word in seeing Candace Parker's prognosis after a knee injury suffered Sunday was this: weeks.
Six of them. That's what is projected as the recovery time for a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee. And while there's frustration to see one of the WNBA's marquee players out for a significant time again after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury, there had to be collective sighs of relief, too, that the news wasn't worse.
At least the recovery time is not expected to be months and cost Parker this season. Because that would have been pretty devastating to not only her Los Angeles Sparks, but the WNBA as a whole. Even fans of other teams very much want to see Parker in action.
She won't be, though, Tuesday, as the Sparks visit Connecticut (ESPN2, 8 ET) in a battle of two 4-3 teams that are coming off two-game road skids. The Sun fell at Chicago and Indiana, while Los Angeles lost at San Antonio and New York.
Parker had to endure the cross-country flight back to California after the loss to the Liberty in which she was injured Sunday, and an MRI on Monday revealed the damage.
Of course, there is another word in the prognosis for Parker: approximately. As with any injury, there isn't any guarantee that six weeks of recovery will do it. But it's what the Sparks are hoping for as they try not to lose much ground in what appears to be a Western Conference race that will not be forgiving, to say the least.
The Sparks are going to be without Parker for an extended stretch of their schedule that is mostly away from home. In fact, they have just two games at the Staples Center (back-to-back, July 17-18) between now and Aug. 3. If they can get through that without too much damage, the schedule is then backloaded with home games. In August and September, the Sparks play 11 of their 16 games at Staples.
Considering that defending champion Seattle also will be without its biggest star -- center Lauren Jackson is out at least three weeks with a labral tear in her left hip -- it's not as if the Sparks are the only team that's hurting now. And consider the misfortune of the Washington Mystics, who lost Monique Currie in the offseason to a knee injury and are still in limbo about Alana Beard's status due to a persistent ankle injury that forced her to miss all of last season.
Injuries are just part of the landscape in every sport, an unpredictable X factor that no team can fully prepare for. In the WNBA, the relatively short regular season (34 games) can mean a key injury can devastate a team.
But that's just the way it is. Honestly, with as hard as it is on the human body to compete at the professional level of athletics -- especially in a sport like basketball -- we should probably be more surprised that more people aren't injured more often.
Jackson is in a lot of estimations -- mine included -- as one of the 10 best players ever to compete in professional women's basketball. Her versatility, athleticism and competitiveness are extraordinary. She is a three-time league MVP and two-time WNBA champion. But the one thing with which she has most struggled is injuries.
Parker is five years younger and, unlike Jackson, had a collegiate career in the United States. Realistically, we can't anoint Parker yet as one of the WNBA's all-time greats. It's not because I don't think she will, eventually, be regarded as such.
However, she has played only one full season -- 2008, when she was both rookie of the year and MVP -- in the WNBA. She missed the opening part of 2009 after the birth of her daughter, although she still appeared in 25 games, plus helped the Sparks to the Western Conference finals.
Then came the shoulder injury last year, which was really a culmination of problems she'd been dealing with going back to college. Parker led Tennessee into the 2008 Final Four despite her shoulder gruesomely popping out twice in the Elite Eight matchup with Texas A&M, and then she was a force in winning her second NCAA title. But Parker had missed time in high school and what would have been her true freshman year at Tennessee because of knee injuries.
It's not much use speculating about "why" two such incredible players have been hurt as much as they have. It's not about pain tolerance; anybody who has seen these two in their respective locker rooms iced down and grimacing after games over the years knows how much and how hard they've been able to play despite feeling physically bad.
To some degree, it's just luck of biology/genetics that makes some athletes almost astoundingly able to avoid missing much time with injuries, while others seem almost cursed.
I certainly wouldn't call Parker or Jackson the latter term -- Jackie Stiles, whose pro career was limited to a little more than a full season, was cursed -- but you do have to empathize with the frustration that Parker and Jackson have felt.
Interestingly enough, though, look at the Sparks, and you see three 36-year-olds who are still WNBA starters who have been quite durable. Tina Thompson is in her 15th season, and the only time she has played less that 20 games was in 2005, when she gave birth to her son in May. And she still appeared in 15 games that season.
Fellow post player DeLisha Milton-Jones, who came into the league in 1999 after playing in the ABL, is in her 13th WNBA season. She has had serious knee troubles but still played fewer than 32 games in a season just twice: 19 (2004) and 23 (2006).
And point guard Ticha Penicheiro, in her 14th WNBA season, has appeared in fewer than 30 games just twice: 23 (2001) and 24 (2002).
These three iron women will need to be the veteran core that gets the Sparks through their time without Parker. I'm sure if they knew the secret of their good fortune in regard to both avoiding injuries and recovering pretty quickly from ones they've had, they'd share it with Parker.
Heck, they'd even share it with Seattle rival Jackson. Great players want to win, of course, but they also want to play against the best. And they know the WNBA is all the better/more popular for Parker and Jackson being on court as much as possible.
So let's all hope the most optimistic recovery projections for both are on the money.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.