Candace Parker had to show him up on his turf.
A crowd gathered to watch the basketball power couple tough it out. It was a one-on-one battle between the Duke record-holder and the future face of women's basketball. They had faced off before in friendly matchups, but this time it was different.
“I know when I took her to my hometown in Oklahoma City we played a little bit harder,” Shelden Williams told WEEI.com in an exclusive interview. “We had a little crowd and everything, and she pulled a Bruce Bowen and put her foot underneath my foot and twisted my ankle.”
That's where the competition started ... and stopped.
Williams, an offseason signing of the Boston Celtics, and Parker, a Los Angeles Sparks forward, make it a point to leave their careers behind them off the court. At the dinner table they would rather talk about their baby daughter, Lailaa Nicole, than basketball. The normalcy of their relationship has allowed Williams to focus on his career as he prepares for his first season with the C's.
Ironically, it was the pursuit of victory that first brought Williams and Parker together. The two met when Parker toured Duke during her senior year of high school. At the time Williams, a 6-foot-11 power forward, was on his way to becoming the school's all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots, as well as a two-time NCAA Defensive Player of the Year. Parker was one of the most dominant female high school athletes in the country, and she had her choice of scholarships. Duke was a must-see on any standout's prospective list.
They spoke briefly during the campus visit but eventually fell out of touch after Parker decided to attend the University of Tennessee. However, they made contact during her sophomore year and the connection between the two of them was immediate.
“Honestly, we just hit it off right away,” Parker told WEEI.com in a telephone interview. “Our first phone conversation we talked for seven hours, from like 11 o'clock at night to 4 or 5 in the morning. He had to go to lift weights, so that's the reason we got off the phone. We just hit it off, and that's the way it was. We had fun together, we laughed, we talked about other things besides basketball, and I think that that was the most important thing.”
That call blossomed into a three-year relationship. During that time Williams, like David Robinson before him, became the third player in NCAA history to record at least 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 350 blocks and 150 steals. He helped lead the Blue Devils to the NCAA tournament for four consecutive years, and was taken fifth by the Atlanta Hawks in the 2006 draft.
Parker, meanwhile, became a superstar at Tennessee. She led the Lady Vols to back-to-back NCAA championships and became the fourth female player to capture consecutive NCAA Final Four MVP honors. She skipped her final year at college to enter the WNBA, and she was selected by the Sparks with the first overall pick in the 2008 draft.
After the couple had taken their games to the next level, they did the same with their relationship. In November 2008, they eloped after a year-and-a-half engagement.
Parker's transition to the WNBA would be a quick one. In her first season she became the first player to take home both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. However, Williams’ transition from NCAA superstar to NBA superstar was proving more difficult. The big man showed promise in his rookie season with the Hawks, averaging just over five points and five rebounds per game. He ranked first among rookies in double-doubles, played in a team-high 81 games, and earned the organization's Bob Pettit Award for hustle.
The following season he played in 36 games off the bench for the Hawks before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. There, he would appear in in just 58 games over two seasons. His averages fell to less than four points and three boards per game.
In February 2009 Williams was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and had similar results. At the end of his third NBA season he was averaging 4.7 points and 4.2 rebounds.
As quick as critics were to label Williams a bust, they were even quicker in hailing Parker as a female Michael Jordan. Comparisons of their careers, however, have never fazed Williams.
“Oh it's not a problem at all,” he said without hesitation. “I mean, obviously, I feel being with her, I want to help her to do the best that she can do and the best that she can accomplish. With her achieving all that stuff, that doesn't ever cross my mind. When she does well, we both do well. Like I said, it doesn't really cross my mind at all.”
In fact, Williams dedicates nearly as much time to Parker's success as he does to the pursuit of his own. When Parker dislocated her shoulder during the 2008 NCAA tournament, she turned to Williams during her rehabilitation. He helped monitor her exercises and constantly reminded her to to stretch. Thanks in part to Williams, her shoulder was strong enough to lift the championship trophy.
“I didn't really understand how important it is taking care of your body,” Parker said. “I think sometimes he's my better half and he makes me do those things."
And while Williams was transitioning from the Kings to the Timberwolves last season, he also was helping Parker transition into parenthood. The couple welcomed their first child in May 2008.
“He was the most supportive person ever,” Parker said. “I was working out a lot during my pregnancy, and after practice was over he'd stay at the gym with me. I'd be at home and he'd make me get off the couch and go work out because he knew how bad I wanted to come back after my pregnancy. He was great about if I wanted something. Vanilla wafers were my favorite thing during pregnancy, so he stocked up on vanilla wafers for me and he was just really great. He was with me from the start to the finish. He was very into it, he made all of the doctor's visits that he could. I'd reschedule them so he could be there, so he was very supportive.”
Williams is learning the ins and outs of fatherhood just as quickly as he would memorize a defensive scheme. He has embraced diaper duty, learned bath schedules, and made it a priority to catch as many of Parker's games as possible as the Sparks contend for a title. A recent Tweet — “going to be m.i.a. today spending time with my two fav girls and watching game 3 of sparks and storm then back 2 spending time wit my girls” — was a testament to his dedication.
“I'm very different than the stereotypical pro athlete,” he said. “I mean, I have a child and I want to be with my daughter 24/7, all the time. I want to be with my family all the time.”
This summer, Williams turned to his family as he entered one of the toughest free agent markets in recent years. Teams could not afford to be as generous with their payrolls as they had been in past offseasons. Williams fought for a job while Parker was fighting for a championship. Rather than feel threatened by his wife’s status, he was inspired by her winning experience as he fought to stay in the league.
Williams welcomed the support as Parker pushed him in the gym and encouraged him off the court. She made it a point to show her commitment in every way possible, even if it was watching him play in a pick-up game. Parker noticed a change in Williams — a positive one — and noted that her husband is showing more confidence now than he has in past years. Critics would be able to see past his rocky start, she said, if they saw his hard work.
"I don't think people really do know [what he can do]," Parker said. "A lot of things that Shelden does doesn't really show up on the stat sheet. I think that a lot of people maybe have a different impression from the last two years, but he can't worry about that. He has to focus on going forward, because I think that if people saw all the things that he's doing and saw the dedication and the way that he's playing and who he's playing against in LA, then I think they would change their opinion."
But there still will be those who doubt Williams. Could someone who had bounced around from the Kings to the Timberwolves contribute on a championship contender? Would he make an impact off the bench or would he become grouped with players like Patrick O’Bryant and Mikki Moore whose size outweighed their performance? Williams understands the skepticism and accepts the challenge.
“As far as me coming out of Duke and having the success I had and then having kind of like a troubled path, I'm trying to get to where I was at in my college days,” Williams said, adding, “I am going in and hoping to contribute the best I can. Going in, playing defense, rebounding the basketball, doing the little things the team needs me to do … I kind of look at it as being back at Duke. It's a storied program with history.”
Parker could not hide her excitement for Williams’ new opportunity. After capturing an NCAA championship, she understands the significance of playing on a team of that caliber. Not only is it an opportunity to win, it also is a chance to grow.
“How could you not be enthusiastic about playing for the Celtics?” she said. “I know that this is a team that is very special. They have veterans on that team that have won a championship over the last two years. Every day in practice, how can you not get better? I think that that's the way that he has to look at it, as a new starting point in his career, and I think that's the way that he's looking at it. He really worked hard this summer, and I think that how can you not be excited about this opportunity, learning from the best, playing with the best, and win along the way?”
Williams' signing may have raised eyebrows, but it makes perfect sense to Williams and Parker. Williams has been given a new lease on an unfulfilled career and the opportunity to shake the reputation he has developed over the years.
“I'm really proud of him,” Parker said. “He really, really worked really hard, and he's back to Shelden.”