Parker already impact player

From the Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Kathy Goodman admits she was wary of the hype about the impact Candace Parker would have on the Los Angeles Sparks if they selected her with the No. 1 overall pick in last month's WNBA draft.

"I am the cynic of the group," the Sparks' co-owner said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I'm the one that's like 'Yes I know there's a lot of hype and let's not believe our own hype. This is still going to take some work.' And I have to admit that even I was pleasantly surprised by the response."

Although Parker has yet to make her debut with the Sparks, the former Tennessee Lady Vols star is already boosting the team and the rest of the league at the box office, in merchandise sales and on the Web.

The Sparks sold seven times the number of season tickets during the first week after the April 9 draft compared to the same period last year. Also, individual game ticket sales for the first eight days after the draft increased nearly threefold.

No doubt, the Sparks' ticket sales are also being fueled by the return of Lisa Leslie. The perennial All-Star and three-time Olympic gold medalist is back after a one-year absence following the birth of her daughter last June.

"It has been really overwhelming to see," Goodman said. "The combination of Candace joining the team and Lisa Leslie being back on the team, both of those things have been a matter of a lot of buzz in the community."

And that buzz hasn't been limited to Los Angeles. According to the WNBA, teams around the league are selling three times as many individual game tickets for when the Sparks are scheduled to visit compared to their overall average.

"I feel like it's a huge responsibility," Parker said. "Obviously we've gotten people to buy tickets to the games, but it's a matter of getting them to come back. I guess a little bit of added pressure to perform when we play . . . not to take any nights off because there's always going to be somebody watching you for the first time."

Being a draw isn't new for Parker. Tennessee is usually among the attendance leaders in women's college basketball -- at home and on the road. The Lady Vols averaged a school-record 15,796 at home this past season en route to their second straight NCAA championship, and eighth overall.

"It's something I am used to in a way, coming from a storybook program at Tennessee," Parker said. "We had a lot of sold-out away games this year, a lot of people wanted to see us play. I'm used to it, but it's something you can't take lightly."

A few more numbers to quantify Parker's impact:

* The league sold more Parker jerseys on in the first two weeks after the draft than any other rookie in league history during a similar time period.

* Parker's page on received 70,000 page views in the week of the draft (April 6-12), trailing only the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and New Orleans Hornets' Chris Paul when compared to NBA players.

* The Sparks' website has already set all-time monthly traffic records during April for page views, and set a single-day record on the day of the draft with more than 40,000 visits.

"Obviously she's a spectacular player and she's also an incredibly charismatic personality. People are really drawn to her," Goodman said. "She can be a gateway player where people get hooked on her but they realize 'Look at all these other great players we didn't know about.' This is not like this is a league that has nobody in it except for her. People will come to see her and stay to see the rest of the teams and the rest of the players."

Parker knows she doesn't have the pressure that usually falls on a No. 1 pick, of being the focal player for a struggling franchise. Although the Sparks were 10-24 last season, they had to contend with Leslie's absence, injuries to key players like point guard Temeka Johnson, and the sudden retirement of six-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw five games into the season.

Not only is Leslie back this year, Los Angeles also reacquired two-time Olympian DeLisha Milton-Jones, who was on the Sparks' championship teams in 2001 and 2002, from Washington last month.

"The team went 10-24 last year, but this year's team isn't a 10-24 team," Parker said.

The Naperville, Ill., native admits she is looking forward to the Sparks' visit to Chicago on June 3.

And an added bonus to her rookie season is a likely trip to Beijing for the Olympics this summer as part of the U.S. national team.

"The opportunity to represent my country is something I've wanted to do from the time I picked up a basketball," she said. "It's a neat experience that very few people get."

The Sparks' season opener is on the road against defending champion Phoenix on May 17. Parker still has some unfinished business back in Tennessee before that.

"I'm trying to see if I can go back for graduation [on May 9]," she said. "I haven't got that situated yet."

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