The Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker is carrying a child this year when she was being counted on to carry a league. If the W.N.B.A. is not roundly thrilled with her pregnancy, which became public earlier this month, Parker has decided she can live with that.
“My whole career has been trying to please people in basketball,” Parker, a 22-year-old newlywed, said Friday in a telephone interview. “Now it’s time to please myself.” She added, “For me, family has always come first.”
Parker, who was married in November to her longtime boyfriend, Sacramento Kings forward Shelden Williams, is due in the spring. The W.N.B.A. season starts in June and runs through September.
“I’m very stubborn,” she said. “I feel like I’m going to play this season.”
It has been done before. In 2005, Tina Thompson, who was with the Houston Comets, gave birth to a son in May and played in a game in July. In 1997, Sheryl Swoopes, who emerged as the women’s answer to Michael Jordan after starring at Texas Tech, returned for the last nine games of the W.N.B.A.’s inaugural season six weeks after the birth of her son.
There are a dozen moms playing in the league. But none — not even Parker’s accomplished teammate Lisa Leslie, who was 35 when she gave birth to her daughter and missed the 2007 season — was being counted on to nurture women’s basketball like Parker, the face of the league’s marketing campaign.
Parker’s appeal is undeniable. She can cover the floor better than wax. At Tennessee, she played at forward, center and guard. In 2006, she became the first woman to dunk in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The combination of her beauty and her ability to take the women’s game above the rim earned her a following among fans of the men’s game. She was the W.N.B.A.’s most valuable player as rookie last season, averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.
W.N.B.A. Commissioner Donna Orender said her initial reaction to Parker’s pregnancy was a quiet sigh of resignation. Then she thought of all the women in the more traditional workplace struggling with the issue of when or if to start a family, and she realized that Parker’s pregnancy provided a perfect modeling moment.
“Here she is, front and center, and people are discussing the timing of her reproductive life,” Orender said Friday in a telephone interview. “That’s a very public discussion that hasn’t happened before. I do think that’s a good thing for women who go through these issues often in silence or alone.”
She added, “Candace can be a very usable symbol of how you can have a family and a career.”
Women who cannot imagine dunking a basketball can relate to being tugged by the seemingly competing dreams of pursuing a family and a career.
Even the world’s most successful female athletes have imagined themselves at a loss to juggle both. The golfer Annika Sorenstam retired from the L.P.G.A. Tour in December because, at 38, she is eager to have children. The world’s No. 1 women’s golfer, Lorena Ochoa, is 27 and newly engaged and has spoken often of wishing to retire before she is 30 so she is free to raise a family.
Unlike athletes in individual sports like golf, swimming or running, Parker has teammates who will be affected by her pregnancy. On Internet message boards, people have described Parker as “selfish” and argued that she should not have become pregnant while under contract with the Sparks. Her pregnancy prompted her to forfeit a $1.5 million payday to play for a Russian club this winter.
“I think there’s always doubt,” Parker said. “From what I’ve learned from basketball growing up is you can’t be a people pleaser.”
Last year was a cornucopia of riches for Parker, who led the Lady Vols to their eighth N.C.A.A. title, the United States Olympic team to a gold medal, and the Sparks to the Western Conference finals. The pregnancy, she believes, was a blessing in more ways than one.
“After the year I had, my body needed the rest,” she said.
But Parker said her heart was pounding as she punched in the cellphone number of her college coach, Pat Summitt, to tell her the news.
Summitt’s opinion was the only one in the basketball world that mattered to Parker. When Summitt said she was thrilled, that was all Parker needed to hear.
“You want your coach’s blessing,” Parker said.