Now here she was again, this time with the Chicago Sky. Another Game 4. Another championship almost in her grasp. But the Sky trailed by nine entering the fourth quarter. Would this moment get away?
For all that glitters in Parker’s world, she has had her share of hoops heartbreaks. Two gut-punch playoff exits with the Los Angeles Sparks the last two seasons. Getting benched during the 2019 WNBA semifinals.
Then this year, she decided to leave LA after 13 seasons and took on the pressure of going home to the Windy City and proving herself with another team.
But all that came before helped make what happened Sunday mean all the more.
“You know, it’s funny, when I’m sitting at home watching television and there’s a last-second shot, I immediately almost vomit in my mouth,” Parker said. “My daughter knows that I sympathize more with the person that is on the losing end of that. My heart breaks for them. Because I’ve been there.”
On Sunday, Parker was on the other side. She won her second WNBA title, leading the Sky to their first championship in franchise history with an 80-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury. With her WNBA championships, two NCAA titles and pair of Olympic gold medals, you might think the only thing Parker relates to is winning. But she said falling short has been a big part of reaching the highest heights.
“I could have four or five WNBA titles by now. And I could also have zero,” said Parker, who had 16 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four steals Sunday. “I think it’s made me really understand how important possessions are. We think about that last-second shot, but every possession is equally important.
“And I think it’s had me become less results-driven, and just focus on doing what you’re supposed to do. You could literally do everything you’re supposed to do and not reach your goal. But are you going to stop working?”
Parker is one of the most visible, successful crossover players and personalities in women’s sports. She just finished her 14th WNBA season and will soon be doing NBA and men’s college basketball analysis, the second act of her career that she started while the first act is still going on.
“She’s the most talented player I’ve ever been on the court with, hands down,” Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi said during the Finals. “Like, by far. Her ability to do certain things on the court at the highest level surpasses everyone.
“And then what she’s been able to do the last four or five years of her career, being elite on the court, and doing things off the court that we can all aspire to, as well. That’s off the charts. She’s giving us a voice by doing all the work, and it’s not easy work. She is on the forefront fighting for everything we love every day. I envy her for that; I just don’t have it in me. And she does it for all of us.”
The WNBA’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2008, it looked like Parker might add a WNBA title to the NCAA championship and Olympic gold she won that calendar year. But with the Sparks just 1.3 seconds from a berth in the WNBA Finals, Parker saw how quickly things can go sideways.
San Antonio’s Sophia Young hit a 14-foot leaning shot at the buzzer to save the Stars’ season 67-66, and the Stars ended the Sparks’ season the next day in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
The Sparks also lost in the conference finals in 2009 to Phoenix and in 2012 to Minnesota. They fell in the conference semifinals four times in six years during 2010-15. And if you think it’s all musty history that had no impact on what happened Sunday, you don’t know Parker. She remembers every detail, just like the 2016 WNBA Finals that went Los Angeles’ way in Game 5, giving Parker her first title, and the 2017 Finals that didn’t.
Candace Parker embraces daughter after winning WNBA title
Candace Parker finds her daughter Lailaa for an emotional hug after winning the WNBA title.
Of the many things she learned from late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, Parker said the idea of accepting the difficult times with the good times is a lesson she perhaps doesn’t talk about as much as others. But it has been crucial.
“I’m able to be here and able to take the heartbreak because of the way she coached me,” Parker said. “I’m able to take people not liking me. Some of them love me now, but that was not always the case. And I’m cool with that. Coach told me, ‘Handle success as you handle failure,’ so that’s been one of my mantras, too.”
Parker said nothing has changed about her passion for basketball, and the demands she makes of herself and everyone around her to pursue perfection.
“I don’t ever waiver in that. Now my delivery has evolved as I’ve gotten more mature,” Parker said, smiling. “I play basketball, and there’s far more serious things than that. But I want basketball to be a platform. I love the opportunities I’ve gotten from basketball.”
One of those opportunities was the chance to come back to Chicago, where she grew up in suburban Naperville as a high school phenom, and in some ways close a circle by winning a championship here.
She will turn 36 next April, and while she hasn’t talked specifically about retirement she knows she is nearer the end of her playing career than the beginning. And while she said she has tried to focus more on process than results, she knows the outside view of athletes.
“We live in a result-driven world, which is great,” Parker said. “When you have [Michael Jordan], who everybody in Chicagoland aspires to be like him, six rings … I just feel like sometimes it’s the tough ones that stay the course, you know?”
Parker mentioned her Game 4 losses to her Chicago teammates prior to Sunday’s game.
“But I think yesterday I looked at myself and I was like, ‘Why?'” she said. “You can’t be passively accepting the other team and what they do. So I just think there’s growth in those moments that are heartbreak.
“I was like, if that’s going to be the case, I’m going to go down swinging. Our group is going to go down swinging. We still have to maintain composure.”
Candace Parker emotional as Sky win first WNBA title
The Chicago Sky hold on in Game 4 to win their first WNBA championship, and Candace Parker is overcome with emotion.
The Sky did that Sunday. They climbed back in the fourth quarter, with the sold-out Wintrust Arena crowd getting louder with each Sky basket. When Parker’s 3-pointer tied the score 72-72 with 1:57 left, the roar engulfed her.
And this time, Game 4 didn’t get away. She grabbed the final defensive rebound with 5.9 seconds left and soon sprinted down the court to her parents, daughter and other family members for a group hug at the opposite baseline.
The move to Chicago meant being separated from daughter Lailaa, who stayed mostly in Los Angeles this summer, but told her mom to go for it.
“We’ve gone through this together. You know?” said Parker, who had her daughter just before her second season in the WNBA, in May 2009 when she was 23. “She sacrifices her mom so that I can live my dream. I just am so thankful for her, that she’s here for the big moments.”
But Parker said Lailaa has also been there for the hard moments. The disappointments. The times when Parker has to push herself to get on her exercise bike in the offseason when it’s the last thing she feels like doing. Lailaa helps motivate her.
As do the past losses.
“In the offseason, these are the games I play with myself,” Parker said. “I hate the Peloton, that’s my cardio. But it’s like, OK, ‘I’m gonna get on this, and it’s gonna somehow give me the energy or the vibe for the shots to go the right way when the season comes.’
“But at the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Do it the best you can, and you live with the results.'”
The results Sunday were like a bill that came due but was already paid in full. Parker can definitely live with that.
Candace Parker had no work left to do, but because she is Candace Parker, she kept working. She grabbed one last defensive rebound and ran toward her family, a sprint that took a few seconds and all 35 of her years—a journey from child prodigy to veteran leader, and from Chicago to Chicago.
The Sky are WNBA champions, after an 80–74 Game 4 win over the Mercury that Parker and Sky coach James Wade both called “a microcosm of our season.” They meant that the team started slow—the Sky, who began the season 2–7, trailed Phoenix by 11 early in the fourth quarter Sunday. But the Sky did not just turn it on when it was necessary. They turned inward when it was necessary.
The Sky, the sixth seed, were 16–16 in the regular season and had to win two single-elimination games in the playoffs. Yet by the end they were clearly the league’s best team. In the semifinals they beat the league’s top seed, the Sun, and reigning MVP, Jonquel Jones, in four games. In the Finals, they whipped two first-team All-WNBA players, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Parker, a former league MVP, spent much of the season cajoling her teammates to be the best versions of themselves. A few weeks ago, they held a team meeting in which everybody had to name someone for whom they wanted to win. Parker named guard Allie Quigley, a fellow Chicagoland native. Quigley scored a team-high 26 points in the final game, including back-to-back three-pointers in the fourth quarter, but she was not the Finals MVP. Neither was Parker. Neither was Quigley’s wife, Courtney Vandersloot, perhaps the best passer in league history, who finished Game 4 with 10 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds and a gentle scolding from Parker, who thought Vandersloot should have said she needed one rebound for a triple double before Parker grabbed that last one: “I would have tipped it.”
The Finals MVP was speedy guard Kahleah Copper. When the announcement came over the speakers at Wintrust Arena, Parker smiled like she had won the award—which, in a small way, she had.
“I don’t think she realizes her impact,” Copper said last week, “far beyond her skill set.”
When the Sky wooed Parker back to her hometown as a free agent last offseason, they tried every Chicago trick except bribing her alderman. They sent popcorn from Garrett’s and pizza from Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s. Parker had spent her entire WNBA career with the Sparks, but she has never stopped being from Chicago. When her mom picks her up at the airport, she likes to go straight to Portillo’s for her usual: a jumbo chili cheese dog with no onions, large fries, a chocolate-cake shake and a chocolate cake.
Parker chose the Sky, of course, yet she is still a Chicagoan in spirit but not in residency. She spent the season at a rented apartment in suburban Northbrook because she does not own a place in Chicago. She will continue to raise her daughter, Lailaa, in L.A. She did not go back to Chicago to live close to home, and she sure as heck did not do it to watch the snow come in off Lake Michigan. She wanted to fulfill a promise that her talent unwittingly made.
Nearly 20 years ago, as a Naperville Central high school sophomore, Parker dunked in a game, immediately transforming herself from top recruit to national story. The next morning, there were news trucks outside her house.
“I was playing overseas at the time,” says her brother Anthony, a former NBA point guard. “That was my little sister. I came back, and we’d walk around, and I was Candace Parker’s brother. It happened that fast.”
Her mother, Sara, told her to ignore the hype: “That’s just other people’s opinions.” The dunk made Candace a celebrity, but the crowds at her high school games saw who she really is: a fundamentally sound two-way player whose brilliance is in the details. She is tied for 10th on the WNBA’s all-time assist list, an incredible achievement for someone who is nominally a power forward. In this series, she sometimes guarded 6′ 9″ Griner in the post, ran out to hedge screens on the perimeter, then resumed guarding Griner.
Parker wanted to play before the people who watched her as a kid. Like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who told Sara that she used to go to Naperville Central games and now watches her regularly with the Sky.
It’s a lovely story now, with the championship in hand. But the Sky had not gone deep in the playoffs in years. Parker wakes up every morning with an assortment of reasons to stop playing. She has had seven knee surgeries. She needs acupuncture and cupping, and, when Wade gives her a rest during games, she spends the time on the bench getting therapy for the herniated disc in her back. She once dislocated her shoulder during the NCAA tournament, kept playing anyway, led her Tennessee team to the national title and finally needed surgery years later after it popped out and wouldn’t go back in. Her family can tell from the opening few minutes whether her body feels good that night.
Two games into this season, Parker stepped on somebody’s foot at a shootaround. The doctor’s diagnosis was a left ankle sprain, and Parker’s assessment was even more alarming: “I rolled it bad,” she told her mom. Parker once went through a serious workout two weeks after giving birth and returned to the lineup a few weeks later. If she says it’s bad, it’s bad.
The Sky lost their next seven games. Quigley says, “We didn’t know who we were.” They missed Parker’s playmaking and her defense, but they were still benefiting from her example: the daily maintenance on her body, the assurance that she had won a title and that they could win one, too. One player in particular needed to hear it.
The Sky coaches believed Copper could reach another level, but she did it because she heard it from her idol. Parks says the only player she can remember Kaleah talking about when she started playing basketball in middle school was Candace Parker. Two years ago, Copper found herself at a gathering at Parker’s L.A. home, and she called her sister like an Elvis fan calling from Graceland: “I’m at her house.” Then she took a nap on Parker’s couch.
Copper says, “I didn’t know her, so I just went there and I just went to sleep.” But Parks says: “She was in awe that she was even there. It’s one of those things that you only ever really dream about.”
Copper says when Parker signed with Chicago, “I immediately knew we were championship contenders.” But she low-keyed it with her sister. “I think she didn’t want to be starstruck,” Parks says. Copper was also the only Sky player who did not text Parker to welcome her. (“I didn’t have her number!” Copper says. “She’ll never let me live that one down.”)
Parker is going to the Hall of Fame. She did not need to receive a message from Copper. She needed to deliver one to her.
“I never thought of myself as a superstar or whatever, but it’s funny because Candace always used ‘superstar.’ ” Copper says. “She’s like, ‘You’re next. You’re gonna be the next superstar.’ And I’m just like looking at her like, ‘O.K.—whatever that means!’”
It means blowing past defenders with one of the quickest first steps in the game and harassing them on the other end. It means truly expecting to dominate for the first time in your life.
“She just took me under her wing and challenged me, and just was like, ‘I see much more for you and what you can do for us and what you can be for yourself,’ ” Copper says. “I could just feel the genuine belief. And she’s not just anybody, you know. It’s Candace Parker.”
Although Parker is a deeply unselfish player, the season was dotted with reminders of what a star she is. During the losing streak, Copper says the Sky missed her ability to take playmaking pressure off Vandersloot. When Copper and Parker stayed in L.A. for an extra day after a game, Parker said, “Stop worrying about it. I’ll get the jet.’ ”
The Sky’s championship meant so much to so many people that it would be wrong to put them in order. Copper has definitive proof that her biggest fans were right about her. Vandersloot and Quigley now have two days when they picked up rings together: the day they married each other and Sunday. Dolson, who rolled for a crucial lay-in late in the game, won her first title, too.
Parker could look around Sunday and marvel at the world she helped create. When the WNBA was formed in the 1990s, Chicago was the center of the basketball universe but didn’t even have a team; Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf did not want his employees working on what seemed like a novelty. Parker was the first high school girl to announce her college choice (Tennessee) on TV. She appears on TNT and wins arguments with men in the Hall of Fame—who could have imagined that?
Now she is a Chicago champion. The Finals games at Wintrust were sold out. Rob Judson, who coached Anthony at Bradley, attended Game 3. Sara sat next to Justin Fields, the Bears’ starting quarterback. Parker said winning reminded her of high school state championships; maybe it was all the coaches and players from her childhood in the stands.
After Game 3, security guards walked Parker out so she could say hi to her mom, who was waiting in a car. Sara asked how Candace was. “I’m good,” she said. “Just tired.” Tired had never stopped Candace Parker before. Fewer than 48 hours later, she won her second championship and the first WNBA title for her hometown. She had 16 points, 13 rebounds and four steals. Larry Parker likes to watch a replay of every game that day—he was up until 1 a.m. after Game 3—but this time, let’s save him the trouble. Ignore the slow start and missed shots. In the context of Candace Parker’s life, this was the perfect game.