Candace Parker Never Stopped Wanting To Win
3:04 PM EDT on October 18, 2021
Candace Parker poses a certain sportswriting problem. The way she has been spoken about by her teammates, fans, and coaches this season can make the job uncomfortably easy. A homecoming story, these tidy little lines about veteran leadership and playoff experience, served up on a platter. It can all feel cheap and corny, especially if you tend to discount that kind of thing, if you've long suspected being "great in the locker room" is code for being bad at everything else.
Such is the gift of Parker, though, that she can convert even the most intangible-skeptical. Before she won her second WNBA championship and the Chicago Sky's first, she spent much of Sunday's Game 4 preaching calm to her teammates when they really did need it, when it seemed like Brittney Griner alone was going to force a fifth game in this series. In the snippets of Parker's pep talks captured on microphone were some good, sensible reminders to please chill the fuck out. "We're trying to hit the home run. We've just got to hit singles," she told them, after inviting everyone to take a deep breath. Then, she modeled the poise herself in the third quarter against the Phoenix Mercury, putting a stop to what had been a faithful reenactment of the Rockets' infamous Game 7, ending the Sky's streak of three-point misses at nine. On the next possession, she stole the ball and scored again. Less than a minute later, she drew a shooting foul and hit both free throws. If her own 7-0 run didn't fully dig the Sky out of the hole they found themselves in, it did signal that they wouldn't crumble so easily.
Parker's big moment—a game-tying three off a good pass from Courtney Vandersloot with less than two minutes in the game—would come later, and it would shift the game's energy entirely. An unexpected contribution, maybe, to a team that didn't usually require special offensive heroics from her this year. (She was one of five Sky players averaging double-digit scoring.) Instead, she spent the season living out her late college coach's line: "Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships." Pat Summitt might have excused Chicago's mostly rough shooting night; she would have accepted absolutely nothing less than the narrow advantage the Sky managed in rebounds. Poetically, it was Parker pulling down the final board of the game and dribbling out the clock.
About two years ago, the same season Parker was benched by Derek Fisher in an elimination game, her fellow WNBA players voted her the league’s most overrated player in an anonymous survey. No doubt they meant this as a collective scoff at the single ring it took her nine seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks to win. Parker dislikes that measure. She knows, from painful firsthand experience, how narrowly, how randomly championships are won. "Four times, I’ve been one shot away, so I could have been a four-time champion or a zero-time champion, but I still have the same knowledge and the same experiences," she told Chicago magazine this spring. The what-ifs never left her, though; she made that clear postgame as she rattled off those shots that thwarted her in the past. "I remember Sophia Young's shot when it went in, I remember Brittney Griner's turnaround, I remember Maya Moore hitting that shot. I remember every single one of those shots."
Never was a victory more soberly celebrated than by Parker after the Sky's blowout Game 3 win on Friday night. "I'm 0-2 in Game 4 closeout at home. I don't want that to continue," she said. That desperation hung in the air Sunday; it was caught, like something contagious, by her teammates down the stretch. After the game, Allie Quigley remembered a moment when the Sky, stuck in a losing streak, decided to share their motivations with each other. "Candace—the first thing she said was she was going to play for me. It was just so inspiring that she wanted me to win a championship so bad," she said. "It just made me want to play harder."
I don’t often feel old and auntlike, but boy did I, as I watched Parker hug a smiling, 6-foot-tall(!) 12-year-old I first saw on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, when she was still in her mother’s womb. In some tellings, Parker’s daughter, Lailaa, represents the gap between Parker’s early-career ambitions and the reality she settled into, excellence but never the transcendence some ultra-keen marketers once imagined for her. Parenthood is always kind of a derailment, but the stakes attached to Parker’s were awfully unfair. “I was taken aback by people’s initial reaction when I announced I was pregnant,” she said in the Chicago interview. “It was like, ‘How could you do this to us?’” Many of those people feared the momentum she’d generated for the WNBA and her own celebrity in a godlike rookie season had been lost. In that magazine story announcing the pregnancy of “the anchor of the league, the woman they are all counting on,” then-WNBA president Donna Orender’s first reaction to the news was to sigh.
Parker gave a sweet, thoughtful answer to a postgame question about Lailaa, who “sacrifices her mom so that I can live my dream.” In her answer, she reframed what had been viewed as a hindrance to true success as the exact opposite: Her daughter was the very reason she chose to leave familiar Los Angeles to try something new. Lailaa, Parker said, had been particularly hungry to see her mother win again. She shared the words exchanged in that hug: “She came out to the court and said, ‘We did it.’” Perhaps Parker's world became smaller than what she envisioned as a rookie on the Sparks, but the dreams always stayed big.