It’s easy to see the differences between Lauren Jackson and Candace Parker.
Jackson was drafted into the WNBA at age 19, and had already played pro – and in an Olympics. Parker is the product of one of the USA’s best college basketball programs, and won two championships while she was there. Jackson was shaky at first in the WNBA, and it took her three seasons before she collected her first MVP honor. Parker garnered the title in her rookie year, and has been plagued by physical issues ever since.
Different paths aside…..when it comes to heart, these two women are made of the same stuff.
It seems fitting that both Jackson and Parker were injured at about the same time this season, and returned to the court the same week. Constant injury has been a theme in the lives of both athletes.
Jackson, 30, has been hurt so many times that I’ve lost count. She has had to sit out during the playoffs, during the regular season, and has had countless surgeries. It seems like there is always something up with her.
Ditto Parker, who is 25. Her setbacks began with a torn ACL prior to her senior year of high school, and have included a dislocated shoulder, a pregnancy and a torn meniscus.
Fans of both of these athletes have reacted differently to their circumstances. Seattle Storm fans have worried after each injury that Jackson’s career and playing days were finished. Los Angeles Sparks fans have suggested that Parker should find another team to play for, and/or that her career will be short-lived.
Jackson and Parker each think differently.
Last night Jackson, in her first game back, started for the Storm and finished with 20 points and eight rebounds. Parker returned last Tuesday and didn’t start, but put up 15 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. She was back performing tipoff duties two nights later against Indiana, and finished with 18 points. Each athlete picked up exactly where she had left off before becoming injured. More importantly, the passion each have for the game was evident.
Parker’s passion is a little more obvious; she was on the court this week talking to teammates on the floor and in huddles, taking back the leadership role she has been accustomed to since her Tennessee days. She argued with a referee and got tossed.
Jackson is more likely to roll her eyes when three players are hanging off of her when she’s under the basket. Her passion comes out in swear words uttered walking up the court on a dead ball, after which she lowers her shoulder and gets it done.
Both athletes are stronger than some of their fans give them credit for being – and I don’t necessarily mean physically strong. The ability to come back over and over again has more to do with mental strength than anything else.
I have been one of those fans on two occasions who thought that Jackson’s injuries would cause her to hang up her shoes. That had more to do with the severity of the injuries than with her, as Jackson’s ailments have always been major – the stuff that ends the careers of other athletes.
Parker’s injuries have also been of the catastrophic kind. And while I haven’t thought her career would end, I have worried that her chances of greatness will be lessened.
Yet time and time again, both women have proven all of us wrong. The fact that both showed up again this week and played like they’d never left underscores the point. Both Jackson and Parker had worked very hard in rehab for seven weeks to get back. Their intense play, yelling and the urgency in their steps showed us just how much they had ached to play while sitting on the bench.
Actions always speak louder than words, and Jackson and Parker have shown us what they’re made of time and time again: steeliness and determination with a love of the game that runs to the marrow of the bone. I respect that more than I can put into words, because both of them have enough money where they don’t necessarily need to play; they could hang up the shoes. The fact is they want to play; can’t stand not to play.
I have a hunch that despite the gloom and doom of some fans, that both Jackson and Parker still have a while left in their careers. The mental toughness of each wouldn’t let them do otherwise, because the strength of their respective wills is even stronger than their bodies.
Lucky for us.