And nowhere is motherhood on the hardwood more endemic than in Los Angeles. If Sparks co-owners Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson want to earn some extra money at games this summer, they could always open a childcare business at Staples Center. After all, there would already be six kids to play with.
The team that included two mothers last season in center Lisa Leslie and guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris will see those ranks grow substantially this year. Earlier this spring, the Sparks signed forward Tina Thompson and center Vanessa Hayden - both mothers. Forward Candace Parker is due to deliver her baby --a girl -- any day now, and Christofferson is due mid-July. This will make the Sparks the most parental team in the WNBA.
"I couldn't think of a team with more mothers," Christofferson said.
Leslie brought daughter Lauren, who turns 2 next month, and Ferdinand-Harris took son Cedric Jr., 3 in June, on road trips last season. So the team is used to having children around.
But not this many.
"We haven't seen what the influence will be (of having so many kids around), because the players are still arriving for training camp," Christofferson said. "The next couple weeks will be our first time dealing with it, and it will be an interesting and exciting time."
What it will likely mean is that there will be lots of children at practices and on road trips. Christofferson, an attorney, said it puts her and her players on par with mothers everywhere.
"The fact is that we're struggling with the same thing as women in all professions," she said. "In some ways it's easier because we have more flexibility in our schedules, but in other ways it's harder because we have to travel."
"It's a balancing act - to get my workouts in, to put meals on the table, to get Lauren to her doctor's appointments," she said.
Leslie, a three-time WNBA MVP, four-time Olympic gold medalist, perennial All-Star and arguably the finest female basketball player ever to take to the floor, took the 2007 season off after giving birth to her daughter Lauren Jolie Lockwood in June of that year.
|A very pregnant Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie, left, chats with co-owner Katherine Goodman during a WNBA basketball game with the Minnesota Lynx in Los Angeles, Friday, June 8, 2007. The Sparks won 90-87. Though Leslie took the 2007 season off, she was a regular fixture at games up to and soon after her delivery on June 25. She quickly began working out, and returned first to USA Basketball and later to the Sparks, soon regaining her top form.|
But four months later, Leslie rejoined Team USA on its 2007 College Training Tour and quickly returned to top form. By the summer of 2008, she was once again helping to lead Team USA to Olympic gold, this time in Beijing. Meanwhile, she averaged 15.1 points, 8.9 boards, and 2.9 blocks per game for the Sparks, a performance only slightly off her career average of 17.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game that made her a serious contender for yet another league MVP award, for which she was edged out by her talented rookie teammate, Candace Parker.
Leslie got a lot of experience traveling with her daughter last summer. Lauren accompanied her talented mom to the Beijing Olympics, where she got so much attention from the doting Dads (and wannabes) of the Olympic men's team that the little girl's feet rarely seemed to hit the floor. Lauren was accustomed to being hoisted to Leslie's 6-5 whenever she says, "Up," her mom told Full Court's Lee Michaelson in Beijing. But after 10-days with the first-rate baby-sitters of the NBA, Lauren kept demanding, "Up, up," insisting on 6-7, 6-8, 6-9, as her handlers got progressively taller. "I told her, 'Lauren, there's only so far up you can go,'" said Leslie with a smile.
Leslie said the key to keeping the toddler contented is to have plenty of snacks on hand and a DVD player for entertainment. It makes for a lot to remember.
"Besides my own luggage there's the baby bag, the car seat, and then you try to get to the hotel," Leslie said. "She's always on my mind."
Parker, who is about to have her first child, said she learned a lot from watching Leslie last season and from Thompson, who is a close personal friend.
"It's been beneficial for me to see the little things they do, from getting up early to going to the airport, to the strollers that they use," Parker said. "They'll be there to give me advice along the way."
|The math would suggest that if Candace Parker was not already newly pregnant with her soon to be delivered first child -- a daughter -- when she collected her Olympic gold medal in Beijing on August 23, 2008, she was definitely expecting by the time the Sparks succumbed to the San Antonio Silver Stars in the Western Conference championships in last year's post-season. Parker continued to play, collecting both Rookie-of-the-Year and league MVP honors and has continued to work out religiously throughout her pregnancy, hoping to return later this season if the delivery is free from complications.|
For the most part, the mothers are set on keeping their children with them at all times, at least for now.
"He's so young, so I want to be there," Ferdinand-Harris said. "It's important to my husband and I to be together as a family, whether I'm in season or not."
To that end, both Leslie and Ferdinand-Harris said their spouses carry their share of the child care load. Both Michael Lockwood and Cedric Harris, Sr., care for their children during home games, and accompany their wives on road trips.
"His schedule is flexible," Ferdinand-Harris said. "He travels with us during the summer and works in the off-season. I'm fortunate to have a really supportive husband."
Parker said husband Shelden Williams, who plays for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, will also accompany the team on road trips and care for their daughter.
"Yes, he will definitely be helping - a lot," Parker said. "He's not getting off that easy."
The players will get plenty of support in their efforts to balance career and motherhood from the Sparks' front office. Christofferson, who in addition to being the team's co-owner is a litigator and managing partner at one of L.A.'s most prestigious law firms, lived in Alaska for a time during her first trimester while working on a major case. She expects to have travel arrangements similar to those of her players after giving birth to her baby -- a boy -- later this season.
Yet, despite all the help, Leslie said her life is much different now than before she had her daughter.
"Before, I gave basketball 100 percent," she said. "I would go run on the track, go lift weights with the trainer, and around 4:30-5 p.m. I'd go play pick-up with the fellas."
Leslie said having her daughter was worth the tradeoff.
"In the morning when I wake up, or when she wakes me up, she's so happy," Leslie said. "She has to tell me everything that's in the room - 'Hi, Mommy! That's a pillow, that's a doorknob' - I love that."
Ferdinand-Harris said her son has added much happiness to her life.
"I can have had a bad day but when I come home and see the joy in his face - words can't explain it," she said.
The kids have also given happiness to their mothers' teammates. Leslie said all someone has to do is applaud, and Lauren begins performing for the entire team, singing her A-B-C's or "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
Christofferson said that Hayden's daughter Zyon and Lauren Lockwood, born only two weeks apart, already met and danced together on the court in Minnesota after the Sparks and Lynx played last year.
"I see major photo opportunities this year," Christofferson said.
|Photo ops should abound this season, says team co-owner Carla Christofferson. Fans already enjoy having their pictures taken with Leslie and her daughter. Here, actress Wanda Sykes, left, poses for a photo with Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa Leslie and Leslie's daughter Lauren after the Atlanta Dream defeated the Los Angeles Sparks 83-72 in a WNBA basketball game at the Staples Center on Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, in Los Angeles. |
Thompson's son Dylan, who is 4, will only add to the equation. He, too, accompanied his mom to the Beijing Olympics and was a frequent visitor to the court during her time with the Houston Comets.
|Tina Thompson #11 of the United States, who joined the Los Angeles Sparks this spring, celebrates with her son Dylan after the USA defeated Australia, 92-65, during the women's basketball gold medal game at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium on Day 15 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 23, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)|
Thus far, there are no reports of any pee wee pick-up games and Leslie says that Lauren is still dabbling with the wide variety of activities -- dance, gymnastics, and free play -- that kids her age enjoy. But with two "bigs" in the family there are bound to be some basketball genes in play, and Leslie admits that she has already taught Lauren a defensive slide.
Forward DeLisha Milton-Jones is all for it. She said she thoroughly enjoys being on a team with several mothers.
"They are so caring and nurturing - I've been able to see the difference in them," she said. "Lisa is so attuned and attentive to people's needs and feelings. They can recognize the smallest things.
"Marie is the same way; she may not be loud about it, but she'll find time to pull you aside and make sure everything is OK and check on you,", Milton-Jones added. " It's great having them on the team; they are always there to open the door to a heartfelt conversation."
Assistant Coach Marianne Stanley also enjoys her role on the team, as Leslie said the children call her "Nana."
There may be some changes on the mothering horizons of Ferdinand-Harris and Leslie this year, however.
Ferdinand-Harris, who used to play overseas each winter before her son's birth, will return there for the upcoming season. She will take a cousin with her to help her care for her son, citing a large and supportive family and more accommodations by foreign team owners as making her decision easy.
"Now the overseas teams make more money, so they take care of their players better," Ferdinand-Harris said. "They've made it easy to take your child overseas with you."
For her part, Leslie is thinking of leaving her daughter home on several road trips this season, because it is her last before she retires.
"I played last season, but I wasn't all there," Leslie said. "I'm going to try and see if it balances out where I can leave her. It's my last season, and I may want to make that sacrifice."
Whatever the inevitable ups and downs of the impending season, Christofferson said it will be good for the mothers to have each other for support.
"The numbers will make you feel like you're not crazy," she said. "It will be nice to be able to talk to each other."
The Sparks' training camp begins May 17. Their first home game is June 6, against the defending WNBA champion Detroit Shock.