Candace Parker’s Great Expectations

There is a lot of buzz in the sports world this week as Big Brown attempts to complete horse racing's Triple Crown on Saturday with a win at the Belmont Stakes.

The thoroughbred won the first two legs – the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes – and is the favorite to complete the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed accomplished it in 1978.

In baseball, a Triple Crown has not been completed since 1967 when Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox led the American League in home runs (44), batting average (.326) and runs batted in (121).

Los Angeles Sparks rookie phenom Candace Parker is attempting to complete a Triple Crown of her own, one that no women’s basketball player has ever accomplished.

“Getting that NCAA championship … got it! Getting that Olympic gold medal and getting that WNBA championship,” she said. “I’m all about the Triple Crown this year. That’s what I’m playing for.”

The race for Parker’s Triple Crown officially became a possibility last Saturday when she was one of the first nine players selected to represent the United States in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

"It's really an amazing feeling. I get goose bumps just thinking about being in Beijing,” Parker said. "I can remember sitting on my couch watching the ‘96 Olympics, with tears in my eyes watching them get their medals and telling my mom and my dad I was going to be there one day."

Parker credits her family for pushing her to reach the heights she has reached thus far in her career. She entered the WNBA with more hype than any player before her and has exceeded everybody’s expectations.

“A lot of people talk about expectations, but the highest expectations I have are the ones I put on myself and the ones from my family,” Parker said. “It’s funny because my dad, he was so hard on me as a kid. I could do nothing right.”

Parker laughs as she recalls a phone call she received from her father after she completed the best debut in the history of the WNBA with 34 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in the Sparks’ 99-94 win over the defending champion Phoenix Mercury on May 17.

“He’s still hard on me. After the game in Phoenix he called me and said ‘Jeez, your free throws!’” she said. Parker went 8-of-16 from the line that day. “I was like ‘You can’t say good job first and then talk about my free throws?’ So I just laugh about it.

“I think that’s the reason why I am the way I am because of my father and because of my family. Nothing is ever good enough, so it pushes you to do more and it pushes you to want to be better, and you never arrive, you always have to get better everyday because there’s going to be somebody coming along in the next generation, that’s going to push you.”

Parker has completed one leg of her Triple Crown by leading the Tennessee Lady Volunteers to the national championship in April. Parker, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for the second consecutive year, was selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Sparks the following day and talk of a WNBA championship began immediately with Parker’s arrival and Lisa Leslie’s return to Los Angeles.

The Sparks have opened the season by winning four out of their first five games – all on the road – and sit in second place in the Western Conference standings behind the undefeated Minnesota Lynx. Parker leads the Sparks in points (17.8), rebounds (10.6), and assists (5.2) per game and has played everything from center to point guard in a single game. The Los Angeles fans have had to wait patiently to see Parker play in person as the Sparks have the latest home opener of any team in the WNBA. However, the Sparks play 11 of their next 13 games at STAPLES Center, as they look to complete their climb from worst to first in the Western Conference and put themselves in a position for a top seed in the WNBA playoffs.

Parker was a member of the 2006 Women's FIBA World Championship team that brought home the bronze medal.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

The second leg of Parker’s Triple Crown will begin in August as the WNBA season takes a month-long hiatus for the 2008 Olympic Games. Parker played on the USA team that brought home the bronze medal from the 2006 Women's FIBA World Championship and said the disappointment she felt at that time stays with her today.

“It was my first experience playing with the world championship team and it’s not a very good memory,” she said. “I don’t even know where that medal is. Obviously we want to go for gold in Beijing.”

The United States team was without Leslie for the World Championship, which forced Parker – who was only 20 years old at the time – to try to step in and replace the three-time Olympic gold medalist. She averaged 12.8 points on .583 percent shooting and grabbed 6.1 rebounds a game while going up against the likes of Lauren Jackson (Australia) and Maria Stepanova (Russia).

“I was very surprised that she could perform as well as she did at that level, against the best players in the world, with such limited experience,” said USA Basketball head coach Anne Donovan. “Without Lisa, we had to see if she would sink or swim... and she swam so well. You have to look back to the World Championship and you take away the positives, and that was a positive. She's more ready than she ever would have been had she not gone on that trip.”

“I learned a lot from that experience,” Parker said. “It was definitely a learning experience. Lisa was out so they kind of put me in there and I kind of had to learn fast. I wouldn’t trade (the experience) for the world, but I would trade the medal.”

Parker will have the opportunity to get her gold medal in August in Beijing, which would complete the second leg of her Triple Crown, before heading back to the Sparks for the stretch run and playoffs of the WNBA season to work on the final leg of her goal.

Many horses and baseball players have flirted with Triple Crowns in the past few years, but all have fallen short. From 1997 to 2004, six horses – Silver Charm ('97), Real Quiet ('98), Charismatic ('99), War Emblem ('02), Funny Cide ('03) and Smarty Jones ('04) – won the first two legs, but were unable to win the Belmont to complete the Triple Crown.

Even fewer baseball players have flirted with the Triple Crown in recent years. In fact, since Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown in 1967, only one player – Jeff Bagwell in 1994 – has finished either first or second in all three statistical categories.

The final leg of the Triple Crown may prove to be the most difficult for Parker as well. She already has the NCAA championship and the United States is the favorite to win the gold in Beijing. While the Sparks have been touted as the favorites in the WNBA this year, the season is still young.

If Parker were to complete the task at hand, it would cap off an incredible year for her. The past two months have been a whirlwind for Parker: she won the NCAA title; she was the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft; she has signed endorsement deals with both adidas and Gatorade; she attended training camp in LA, but was interrupted by a trip to Tennessee for graduation; she had the best debut in the history of the WNBA; and now she has been selected for the Olympic team.

Parker says she has been too busy for all of her accomplishments to sink in just yet.

“I don’t think it will sink in for a while,” she said after the Olympic team announcement press conference. “I started to get a little emotional on the podium up there, but we had a game to play. And that’s how it has been in the last two months. I’ve always had something else I’ve had to do. I think in October I’ll be able to sit back and see that this past year has been amazing. And hopefully I’ll have my Triple Crown.”