Candace Parker gets naked

Jul 10, 2012 3:44 PM ET | By Morty AinPhotographs: Ture Lillegraven

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
CP: I thought it would be fun and a great opportunity -- especially since last time I was on the cover, I was pregnant. It's nice to see the body transform. I hope I can send a message that if you work hard, you can come back just as good as before.

What was it like growing up with two athletic older brothers?
CP: They were eight and 11 years older than me, so they were out of the house by the time I was 10, but I looked at them as role models. They set a good example for me, and they both played basketball growing up. I was at an AAU game when I was 2 weeks old.

What sort of athlete were you as a kid?
CP: I was really into soccer. I grew up idolizing Mia Hamm and following the '96 team. I played until I was 12. I didn't start playing basketball seriously until my first traveling team when I was 11 or 12. My parents were like, "There aren't too many 6'4" soccer players out there, so you might want to lean toward basketball," but I was stubborn. I didn't want to fit into a box; I wanted to do stuff differently. In seventh grade, I started really playing and fell in love with it. After that, I couldn't fight it anymore. Instead of going to the movies and hanging out with my friends, we would have AAU basketball practice on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. I found myself putting in extra time because I just loved the game. I would watch hours and hours of NBA, and at that point the WNBA had just started, so I had my Cynthia Cooper jersey and I was a huge fan of the Houston Comets and saw that there could be a future in it.

How did your parents challenge you growing up?
CP: With my parents, with anything -- basketball, school, Girl Scouts -- if you wanted to do it, you were to do it to the best of your ability. That's how they set the standard. My dad would tell me that my good could be everyone else's great, but it might not be mine. So just because you are the best doesn't mean that's the best you can do. This is the type of dad he is: Any time you have a horrible game, he'll be there for you and make you feel a little bit better, but any time you have a great game, he feels it's his job to bring you back down to reality. When I was playing soccer, I asked him, "How come that girl scored one goal and her dad carried her off the field on his shoulders, but you're yelling at me after scoring five goals?" But that's just my dad.

I started working out maybe two weeks after I had my daughter. I set goals, such as dunking four or five weeks after I had her, just to keep myself motivated and working hard.

How has going through pregnancy changed you as an athlete?
CP: It made me stronger. I know what goes into every muscle and all the work I put into getting back. I didn't just work out after I gave birth; I worked out during my whole pregnancy to have a base. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I actually played a couple games while I was pregnant, so I had a great base in terms of being in shape and at a good weight. When I found out I was pregnant, I set goals, and my husband helped me change my eating habits. I can eat whatever I want normally, but that changes when you're pregnant. So my husband helped me stay healthy, and I worked out four or five times a week, did the elliptical, walked my dog, just stayed extremely active.

How was it returning to training?
CP: The adjustment was very difficult. If you took nine months off, even without having a baby and gaining 35 pounds, it would be tough. Your body changes, your hips change, everything is different. I started working out maybe two weeks after I had my daughter -- light jogging, court work, a lot of core -- to get my muscle memory back. After my first workout, I was so sore I couldn't go back the next day. I set goals, such as dunking four or five weeks after I had her, just to keep myself motivated and working hard.

How has giving birth changed how you view your body?
CP: I understand how important it is to stay strong and fit. I feel more thankful after going through the drastic change of pregnancy and being able to get my body back to how it was before. It's definitely been a process, but I think I'm stronger now. I think my body is better than it was before.

What do you like about your body?
CP: Growing up, I could never find jeans because my legs were too long. I was growing every day; jeans would turn into capris. It was tough to be 12 or 13 and 6'2" and a girl, but I had great role models and women in sports to look up to and see that you can be an athlete but at the same time be beautiful and wear nice clothes. Now that I'm older and able to find clothes that fit, I think my legs are the thing I'm most okay with. And my husband is 6'9", so I can wear heels, which is always nice.

What challenges do you face with your body?
CP: After I had my daughter, I struggled with weight and maintaining strength in my legs. I couldn't get my legs strong enough. My body type is on the skinny side, so it's hard to balance lifting weights and getting stronger with maintaining an athletic weight and mobility. It's really hard to put on that weight because we play year-round and are basically running and moving all day. Another challenge is making sure I put the right things in my body. I have a sweet tooth, so if it were up to me, I would eat dessert every night after 10. I love yellow cake with white icing, apple pie, ice cream … now I'm getting hungry.

What do you tell yourself when you feel you can't train any further?
CP: I try to think about our blessings. I feel truly blessed to play basketball for a living when there are a lot of people doing stuff they don't like. Also, I have a 3-year-old daughter, and it's my job to set a good example for her and show her that if you work hard, you can do and accomplish anything. I don't want to be a "do as a I say, not as I do" parent. I want to do it.

What about your body would surprise us?
CP: I have extremely long toes. They are like fingers on my feet. I wear a size 12 or 13 shoe, so my feet are big. But as I grew up, I realized my feet are proportional to my body. My friends who are 5'7" and wear a size 11? They have big feet.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
CP: I was self-conscious about my height, but my mom and dad always told me to hold my shoulders back and be proud to be tall because everybody didn't have that advantage. They said, "Later in life you will appreciate your height," and I do. My brothers always told me, "Being tall is being beautiful," so I had great people boosting my self-esteem.

I wear a size 12 or 13 shoe. But as I grew up, I realized my feet are proportional to my body. My friends who are 5'7" and wear a size 11? They have big feet.

Have you ever felt betrayed by or disappointed in your body?
CP: Post-pregnancy, I didn't feel fully back to myself for four or five months. I was disappointed in myself and the way I was moving. The tough part was staying positive and not being upset and thinking you have lost it. Everything takes time, but when you're used to doing things a certain way, it's hard.

If you could write the caption for your photo, what would it say?
CP: Whenever we are working out or the team needs a boost, I quote Remember the Titans: "Mobile! Agile! Hostile!" That would be my description. I'm mobile because I'm able to move in my body. A lot of people who are 6'4" don't have the agility I have. And sometimes on the court, I can get hostile.

What do you want people to know about you through this shoot?
CP: This is cliché, but I think it's truly special to have a child and to continue to do all things men can do. My coach used to joke, "Can you imagine Magic Johnson being out with a baby? Or LeBron missing a season to have a child and then coming back as strong?" I feel it makes women strong that we are able to play sports but also create and bring life into the world.

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