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Candace Parker Remade The Game In Her Image

Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks reacts after receiving her fourth foul against the Minnesota Lynx during the second quarter of Game One of the WNBA finals at Williams Arena on September 24, 2017 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Andy King/Getty Images

Often, in the late years of her WNBA career, Candace Parker said she would never “cheat the game.” The promise, made in every answer to every question about when she might retire, clued us in to her conception of basketball; it hinted at something like religion or superstition. “The game” had given so much to her, she said, and when the time came that she could no longer return the favor, she’d hang it up. “I don’t want to compete. I want to be able to dominate,” Parker told Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks in a 2021 interview. Even so, there was always some irony in her reverence for “the game,” in the idea that she had all along considered it some higher power to obey.

Because no woman has ever warped and defied the game of basketball the way Candace Parker did. This was true when she arrived in the WNBA in 2008, a young 6-foot-4 Sparks sensation riding the high of a second straight national championship at Tennessee. And despite the imitators—the abundant stretch bigs and supersized guards made in her image—it was still true this weekend, when she announced her retirement after 16 seasons in the WNBA. In a single possession, Parker could be three different players. The center came down with the defensive rebound, the point guard curled the ball behind her back while leading the break, and if she hadn't already zipped it ahead to a cutting teammate, the power forward could regroup on the low block and hook a shot over her defender, fading away, and with her left hand, too. “She changed what it meant to be a positional basketball player, right?” said Becky Hammon, who played against Parker and later coached her through her final WNBA season. “People that are now playing and coming up—they practice Candace Parker’s moves. Now you’re seeing 6-foot-4, 6-foot-3, become a lot more point guard-ish. They got ball-handling skills. They can shoot a little bit. She’s really the one who kinda tore the lid off in the women’s basketball world so far as positionless basketball.”

It could sometimes feel instead that basketball cheated her, like the game hated the player. Shoulder and knee injuries stopped the momentum she'd built in a rookie season so great she also won MVP. She lost more prime years to inept management in Los Angeles. The game could be plain unfair, pitting Parker constantly against the Minnesota Lynx dynasty of the 2010s. Her Chicago homecoming, a career revival of sorts and the site of her second championship, seemed at first glance like the neatest possible ending to her career. But even that wasn't quite right. A better ending for Parker allowed her to reap what she'd sown for the league. In her last season, spent in a brand-new Las Vegas Aces practice facility, she felt finally like a professional. “Draymond, I have not had a locker in my entire career,” she explained on Draymond Green's podcast last year. “I’ve been in the WNBA for 16 years and I have not had a locker where it has my name on it and I can leave my shit and then come back and know my shit gon' be there ... If this is it, I want this to be something I can look back on and I'm like, Man, I had that. I've seen progress. This is where we started and this is where we are right now.” 

After she won her championship with the Sky in 2021, Parker was asked by a young journalist for advice she'd give to young people. “You don’t have to tell your story. Time will,” said Parker. As fun as she was to watch, Parker was almost too easy to write about, and by the time she took that championship podium, she no doubt felt bogged down by the narrative—the story of her being The Chosen One, the story of her peers voting her Most Overrated, the story of her Olympic team snub. She's right; the real story of her career is one she doesn't have to tell. Breanna Stewart tells it when she switches onto the perimeter, A'ja Wilson tells it running the floor, so does Alyssa Thomas racking up triple-doubles. Satou Sabally, Elena Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman—every time they bend the rules of basketball a little bit, they tell Parker's story.

Even when she was 37, and 16 seasons in, Parker would do something to remind you of all the unexplored depths to her bag. There are players whose gist you get pretty quickly, but Parker’s talent never became easier to comprehend. She could always summon some new superpower. She could always level up. In that interview with Rooks, Parker recalled an Aces rookie poking fun at her low speed and acceleration ratings in NBA 2K. “I used to have wheels. I used to be able to get up and down the court and y’all remembering this version, and it’s not fun when people remember you in this version,” she said. But she was selling herself short. If anyone watched Parker play and remembered one “version” of her, they had simply missed the point.

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