ATLANTA — At halftime of the Atlanta Dream’s game against the Indiana Fever last week, Cheyenne Parker went through her regular routine. The veteran WNBA player shot from around the court with her teammates. She heard from coach Tanisha Wright on what needed to improve from the first half. Then she made her final stop.
Just behind the Dream’s bench at the Gateway Center, Keevin Tyus, Parker’s fiance, sat holding Naomi, their 8-month-old daughter. Parker gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek after checking to make sure everything was OK, and then hurried to get back to work.
Since Naomi was born in late December, everything about Parker’s life has changed except one part — her dedication to basketball. The 29-year-old forward is a key part of the surging Dream’s bid to reach the postseason for the first time since 2018. But the journey of being a working mom in the WNBA hasn’t been easy. Parker found that she could only manage it by relying on the help of her fiance, her family and her fellow players.
Parker had to wait six weeks after Naomi’s birth until she could start working out again. In that time, she did everything she could to stay in shape, while also figuring out her new role of being a mother.
“The first few weeks were the hardest because it goes from being just you to being you and an infant,” Parker said. “I had to really learn how to balance that, how to figure out life without basketball for a few weeks and be a mom. But it was also very character-building because it forced me to sit still and figure out who I am without basketball, as a mom. During that time, I was also building up my mindset to be ready for that six-week mark, which was something that I was just so focused on.”
After she reached the six-week mark in mid-February, Parker started her basketball comeback with small Zoom workouts with her trainer. Tyus would take care of Naomi while Parker worked. In the afternoons, all three would head to a gym to find Parker time to play basketball. Tyus played basketball at Lee University and now works as a personal trainer, so he was able to work with Parker on the court while Naomi slept in the stroller.
Parker started with shooting and dribbling to get used to the feel of the ball in her hands and the court under her feet again. As the start of the WNBA season drew closer, she reached out to another woman who came back from having a baby to play high-level basketball.
“One player I could say that I talked to most was Candace,” Parker said of Chicago Sky star Candace Parker (no relation). “She and I built a relationship, really, once she found out I was pregnant. She would just either say, ‘Keep going mama, good job.’ Or just comment on Naomi, how sweet and beautiful she is. It's just nice hearing from another mom.
“When she was pregnant with her daughter, that was when I was a huge fan of hers. In college, I had my background on my phone with her little pregnant maternity picture. I was a true fan of Candace. So it was special just to have her be a part of that process.”
Once the season started, Parker needed to find a way to have her game-day routine include Naomi. This involved a lot of trial and error. She also leaned on Tyus and her mom, Verna Bryant.
“What we try to do is put the load off of her as much as we can,” said Tyus while Naomi sat on his lap. “All we need her to do is just stick to her routine, play, do all the simple stuff that she has to do, and we'll take care of the rest. We just want to make sure she can focus on her career and also be the best parents we can be for this young princess right here.”
Bryant accompanies Parker on roadtrips and will go to Italy with her daughter and Naomi when Parker’s career shifts to playing basketball overseas. Bryant’s presence allows for Naomi to be close to Parker even during the taxing WNBA schedule. Bryant, who has three other children, said she is happy she can support them.
“I emphasize to both the mother and father I'm here to help you guys help yourselves so that you can have structure and a schedule, observe and learn,” Bryant said. “They're doing very well as first-time parents, I must say.”
“My mom has been the anchor,” Parker said. “She has been the one that, even when I was getting back, she was the one making my smoothies in the morning. Making sure I had enough calories, making my breakfast. Real MVP. That's a real thing.
“Being a mom now, I appreciate her even more. She's the one who comes early with me to the games so that I can feed (Naomi) because I start bulging as soon as I get to the game. I have to be able to release that.”
Tyus’ mom also lends a hand, and Parker’s sister has gone on trips to help take care of Naomi. Plus when Naomi is around the Dream, she has a whole roster of aunties. The players love to hold her and play with her in the locker room before games. They’ve gotten used to Parker having to pump breast milk, too.
“At first, it was funny because I had the pump under my shirt, and it just made these noises,” Parker said. “My teammates didn't know what the hell was going on. They'd make jokes out of it, calling me Milky.
“They're always telling me how inspired they are by just seeing how I'm so dedicated. That inspires me to keep going. Like ‘OK, I'm doing something pretty special.’”
Breastfeeding does add another challenge for Parker, as she uses 500-800 calories a day while feeding Naomi in addition to the calories she burns while practicing and playing for the Dream. When she leaves practices, Parker grabs two pre-packaged meals provided by the team when her teammates are grabbing one. She now can tell when she hasn’t eaten enough.
“I try to make sure I supplement that with snacks, and snacking throughout the day helps,” Parker said. “I can always tell when I don't have enough (food) because I won't have as much energy. I'll be a little fatigued or my muscles won't recover as fast.”
Parker’s efforts to find the right balance with her schedule and nutrition as well as the time being a mom and a basketball player have paid off. She is averaging 11.9 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, and her game-winning shot in last Friday’s 88-86 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks put the Dream in a good position to earn one of the two remaining playoff berths.
Bryant is particularly impressed with her daughter’s ability to juggle it all.
“When I watch her, and I'm watching everything, I'm saying, ‘Wow. This is really something,'" Bryant said. “Because you have to practice. You got to work out. You got to do media. You got to take pictures. She's trying to work on writing a book. She has her hand in a lot of different things, and she's able to maintain being a mother as well because she's learned that that's first.
“Then she has to take care of herself. (Because) if you don't take care of you, you can't take care of that baby.”
And along the way, maybe Parker and Tyus have introduced Naomi to the sport they love.
“Even when she was an infant (during) the NBA playoffs where we're watching, she would watch the TV,” Parker said. “It's like basketball is going to be a part of her life in some way, form or another. I'm not going to force it on her in any way. But I think that naturally, she's just going to gravitate to it because it's just been her environment.
“I have videos and pictures of her just real young in the stroller, Keevin and I on the court, working out. I think she's going to just look back and be like, ‘Basketball is my life.’”