Former college stars take talent to the WNBA
By Elizabeth A. Davis
It’s late in the afternoon here in Knoxville, but in Ekaterinburg, Russia, it’s nighttime and well past Lailaa’s bedtime.
Lailaa is the daughter of former Lady Vol star Candace Parker, and she’s trying to be quiet while her mother answers questions during a phone interview.
“No nap today,” Parker explains as she tries to soothe the toddler and continue the interview.
This is the life of a professional basketball player and mother whose family and friends are spread across the globe. While managing it all seems stressful, it’s part of a plan.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and I know, in order to make a good living and make sure my daughter—in case she doesn’t want to play basketball—has money to go to college, I need to take care of that now,” Parker says.
Parker, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 WNBA draft, is starting her fifth season with the Los Angeles Sparks. The WNBA season begins on May 24 and runs through September.
For now, Parker spends half the year playing in the WNBA and the other half playing in Russia, this past season for UMMC Ekaterinburg with fellow American (and former UConn star) Diana Taurasi. Her team won the EuroLeague championship.
Parker (Knoxville ’08) and other former Lady Vols who have graduated since 1997 have been able to continue their basketball careers in a more stable professional environment than in earlier years. Other women’s leagues came and went.
“The WNBA is staying for a reason,” Parker says. “Every year it is getting better, and the game of basketball is getting better and faster.”
And, with each passing year, there are more and more former Lady Vols in the WNBA. At the end of the 2012 season, there were 11 former Lady Vols in the WNBA.
Shekinna Stricklen (Knoxville ’12) is starting her second pro season. She was the overall No. 2 draft pick by the Seattle Storm. Stricklen, the 2012 SEC Player of the Year, played for Antakya in Turkey in the offseason as one of two Americans on the team.
“At first it took me awhile to adjust and learn the system,” Stricklen says about her rookie season. “The pace of the game is totally different. You’re playing against older women, and if you make one mistake, they take advantage of it.”
In between playing in the WNBA and overseas, Stricklen is thinking about going to graduate school online.
Playing overseas between WNBA seasons isn’t for every player. Kara Lawson (Knoxville ’03) goes from playing the game, since 2010 with the Connecticut Sun, to commenting about the game while working for ESPN during the NCAA and NBA seasons. She started at ESPN as a color analyst for the women’s tournament in 2004 and became a studio analyst in 2006. Lawson has expanded her on-air talent to include play-by-play commentary.
Taking time off from playing allows Lawson to heal if needed, work on specific basketball skills and be a normal person who travels, rents cars and goes to appointments without the prodding or help from a team official.
“I’m building a resume and creating a career for myself post basketball, which is extremely valuable. I wanted to maintain contact with the real world, so to speak,” says Lawson, who planned to go to law school before landing the ESPN gig. “I have 10 years of work experience as well as 10 years of playing basketball.”
Now the questions aren’t so much if players can continue playing basketball beyond college but how long they will play professionally.
It’s a question that comes fairly often for Tamika Catchings (Knoxville ’00,’05), who is entering her 12th season and coming off winning her first WNBA title with the Indiana Fever.
She spent the winter with the Guangdong Dolphins in China. Their season ended in January after a loss in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association semifinals. She averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and three steals a game—certainly not a sign of slowing down.
And that’s after winning a championship at every level: high school, college, Olympics and professional.
After the Fever’s championship victory, Catchings, the WNBA finals Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year, wrote this in a blog on ESPNW: “Everyone keeps saying this is the last championship I didn’t have, and that bringing this championship back to Indy is the last thing I needed to accomplish. Yes, we’ll go down in history for winning the Fever’s first WNBA title. But I’m not done yet. At the end of the day I want to be the best player I can be. I’m going to keep playing and take it one step, one season, one year at a time. The 2016 Olympics sound good, but I also want to get married and have kids one of these days. There are plenty of goals left to accomplish in basketball and beyond. For now, though, I’m sticking with basketball.”
Former Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt cheered on Catchings and the Fever at the title game. “It was an honor to have somebody (there) who has become so important in my life,” Catchings says. “I wanted her to be at the game, no matter what happened.”
Catchings’ dream as a young girl was to play professional basketball. Now she lives the dream and encourages youngsters to follow their dreams through her Catch the Stars Foundation, created in 2004. It focuses on youth fitness, literacy and development in Indianapolis.
“It takes a lot of hard work and commitment,” Catchings says of pursuing life goals. “But it’s worth it in the end.”