WNBA Season Begins

The WNBA regular season tips off Saturday. Scott Simon talks to Candace Parker, the 2008 No. 1 draft pick for the Los Angeles Sparks, about the hype and hope.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the Wild Wild East along the Ganges, but first…

Unidentified Announcer: With the first pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft, the Los Angeles Sparks select Candace Parker from the University of Tennessee.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: The hope, as well as the hype, is that Candace Parker will be for the WNBA what Michael Jordan was to the NBA, a superstar who can revitalize the game and put fans in the seats. She sure has game - back-to-back NCAA championships for the Tennessee Lady Vols, the first woman player to dunk in the NCAA tournament and the first to dunk twice in a game.

This afternoon, she'll make her nationally televised professional debut. We caught up with Candace Parker earlier this week between practices with her new team, the Los Angeles Sparks. Ms. Parker, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. CANDACE PARKER (Basketball Player, Los Angeles Sparks): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Do you think everybody waits for you do dunk?

Ms. PARKER: I think in a way, whenever I get the ball on the break or in a fast break or in a situation where it presents itself, yeah, everybody hopes I do, and I get a couple boos if I decide to lay it up.

SIMON: I want to follow up if I could on something you said at the WNBA draft press conference, when you said the game hasn't arrived.

Ms. PARKER: I mean, the game has never arrived, and I feel like every year, it has to be elevated. I mean, you look on the men's side. Michael Jordan, you know, revitalized the game and put fans in the seat, but there was another coming in the wave of Lebron James and the Carmelo Anthonys and the people that are now that, you know, are raising the bar every, every year. And I think on the women's side, you're looking now at the same thing.

SIMON: Do you have a theory as to why WNBA attendance has in fact been slipping since 1999?

Ms. PARKER: It - you're going to go through your ups and downs. The WNBA is in its 12th season, it's 12 years young, and I think a lot of people are forgetting that. The NBA wasn't always the NBA, and you have to give time for growth, and we're not going anywhere. And my generation's the first generation to grow up and aspire to play in a professional league and grow up with women role models, and I think that it's important for us to continue to help our young girls realize that you can be in the WNBA, you can play and that also you need to support it.

SIMON: Of course you have a couple of great - many very talented teammates, but I'm thinking particularly of Lisa Leslie and Sherill Baker.

Ms. PARKER: You know, Lisa Leslie obviously is a great teammate, and she has proven, night in and night out, that she's the best in women's basketball, and I'm just really excited that she's taken me under her wings and showed me the ropes and just not on the court, but off the court as well. I mean, she'll be quick to tell me fashion advice and things like that.

SIMON: Now, you dislocated your left shoulder during the NCAA tournament. How's it feeling now?

Ms. PARKER: It's feeling good. You know, it gets better every day. I do a lot of rehab and a lot of treatment on it and just keeping it strong. I play in a brace, you know, and you have good days and bad days, but overall, I feel like I'm going to be able to hang tough this season.

SIMON: What are the teams to watch in the WNBA this year?

Ms. PARKER: The Western Conference is very tough, the Seattle, the Phoenix. I think, you know, every game really is going to be tough for us because we feel like, you know, people are gunning for us, and they don't want to see the Los Angeles sparks succeed.

SIMON: Because to beat you is to make their season sometimes.

Ms. PARKER: I feel like it is.

SIMON: Yeah. What are the differences you notice between WNBA, the style of play and the game, even the rules in the WNBA and international competition?

Ms. PARKER: Just the physicality in the WNBA and international competition. Going from college to the WNBA, I mean, you're playing against girls in college, and you're playing against women in the WNBA and international basketball. Everybody's able. Everybody's capable. People are going to be able to knock down shots just like you and play defense just as good as you, but it's just about being smart and thinking the game and knowing your opponent.

SIMON: And may I ask, who do you see as the teams to beat internationally at the Olympics?

Ms. PARKER: Internationally, it's Russia and Australia and us that are in the hunt for the gold medal, I feel.

SIMON: Any goals you've set for yourself over, say, the next five, seven years?

Ms. PARKER: Well, my goal this year is the triple crown. I really have the (unintelligible) winning a national championship this year and going for a gold medal in the Olympics and then winning the WNBA championship. That's my goal this year. Every day, that's what I turn to for strength because you have to work towards something. You have to have a goal in something, so…

SIMON: Well, one down, two to go I guess.

Ms. PARKER: Yeah, one down, two to go.

SIMON: Well Ms. Parker, pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much, and good luck to you.

Ms. PARKER: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Candace Parker, the new forward for the Los Angeles Sparks. The WNBA tips off the 2008 regular season today.

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