How A Heartbroken Expansion Team Remade Its Way To The WNBA Finals
4:48 PM EDT on October 15, 2021
For the Chicago Sky to make their first WNBA Finals appearance in seven years, they needed what everyone needs: to be healthy and to be loved. Since a rough beginning to the regular season, the Sky have managed the first. And the second, being chosen by free agent and Illinois native Candace Parker this offseason, has added a sentimental dimension to the team's unexpected playoff run. "To go back home, I think it's special," Parker said after Game 2 of the Finals in Phoenix. When the series, tied 1-1 now, moves to Chicago for Game 3 tonight, the team expects a sellout crowd.
It's quite the story: the hometown kid and the six-seed that began its season 2-7, finished with a .500 record, survived two single-elimination games to begin the playoffs, and knocked out a top-seeded Connecticut Sun team expected to win it all in a best-of-five series. But to fully appreciate this Sky run—to know why it's meant so much to people like Tonette Ingram, a fan since Day One in 2006, or Lorri Gyenes, a season ticketholder who met other fans on a Sky message board and organized tailgates so adeptly that Skytown knows her now as "the Mayor"—it helps to remember how close the Sky have been before, and how far they've felt in some of the years since.
A few parallels between the Sky's last Finals appearance and this one stand out. Both followed underwhelming regular seasons. After thrilling Chicago fans in her rookie year with her versatility and high scoring, Elena Delle Donne missed half of the 2014 games due to a flare-up of her chronic illness. Center Sylvia Fowles missed the first half of that season with a hip injury. The 15-19 record the rest of the team could cobble together was enough to sneak into the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference, where the Sky upset the top-seeded Atlanta Dream in the semifinals. Beating Tamika Catchings and the Indiana Fever in the conference finals suggested the success wasn't just a fluke. Ingram was among a group of Sky fans who made the trip to Indiana to watch the last game of that best-of-three series. They stayed on Indiana's court to celebrate and take photos, even as the arena staff nudged the group to leave.
A second parallel between then and now would be the opponent. The 2014 Sky collided with a team of destiny, a scary 2014 Phoenix Mercury squad starring Diana Taurasi in her prime and highly efficient scorer Candice Dupree. In that series, Fowles struggled to score in the paint against Brittney Griner, who, seven years later, remains a 6-foot-9 obstacle to the Sky's first championship. The Mercury swept the Sky, but fans tended toward optimism. With Fowles coming into her prime as an elite center and Delle Donne still just 25, their glory years seemed right on the horizon.
Then, the hope fizzled quickly. The closeness between WNBA fans and players—Gyenes described the team and diehard fans as "like a family"—can sometimes obscure that basketball is a job with the usual professional considerations. Fowles held out the 2015 season until she was traded to the superteam Lynx in late July. "Chicago has done everything for me the past seven seasons, but I felt ... I served my time in Chicago and I want to experience different things," she told the AP. After the 2016 season, at the end of her rookie deal, Delle Donne told the Sky that she hoped to play elsewhere, somewhere closer to her family in Delaware. She was traded to the Washington Mystics in the summer of 2017.
In a league where the labor dynamics and conservative front office decision-making made player movement rare, the Sky had driven away the best players in franchise history—two of the best players in all of basketball, for that matter. “It just felt like two sucker punches to the gut,” said Patricia Babcock McGraw, who worked on the Sky's broadcast team for 10 years and covered them for the Daily Herald from the inaugural season until last year. “It was devastating for Sky fans, devastating to the franchise. You’re an expansion team, trying to draft the best players possible and you think you’re building this nucleus and it’s ripped away from you in a strange way.”
Management offered little reason to keep the faith. Sky owner Michael Alter told Crain's Chicago Business in a somewhat haughty interview that he thought they could be more competitive without Delle Donne, who would go on to win a WNBA championship with Washington in 2019. In 2016, the Sky had fired Pokey Chatman, the coach and GM responsible for the team's drafting and scouting successes. At the 2017 trade deadline, they dealt Ty Young, a fan favorite of the 2014 Finals team. The next year, Ingram canceled her season tickets, unhappy with the way the Sky had alienated players and fans. "It hurts," she said. "I became a supporter of individuals, not necessarily a supporter of a team, because I needed to have rejuvenated that love again for the game of basketball."
The ensuing years saw the Sky fail to make the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, a legendary (and sorry, hilarious) last-second playoff loss in 2019, and an anticlimactic stinker in 2020. “You start to wonder," Babcock McGraw said. "How much further away are we from a championship?”
Seven years later, the answer is just two games. To 2014's eyes, the Chicago Sky of today are unrecognizable, a deeper and better team, even when it comes to the two current Sky players who were there for the last run: Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Of all that's happened in the intervening years, Quigley's growth as a reliable sharpshooter and Vandersloot's recent claim to the title of league's best point guard might be the most rewarding developments. Gyenes said watching Vandersloot become the first WNBA player to average double-digit assists in 2020 was "the proudest moment for me as a fan."
What's more, the regular season and this postseason especially have shown the silver lining of a trade that once seemed unwinnable and unwon. In exchange for Delle Donne, the Mystics sent Chicago their first-round pick along with center Stefanie Dolson and forward Kahleah Copper. Dolson, setter of devastating screens, is the kind of floor-spacing big well-suited to the Sky's five-out offense. In Copper, Chicago has its breakout superstar and easily its most visually dazzling player.
Copper's slashes and athletic finishes at the rim make her well-worthy of the initialism "KFC." Her speed is what draws your attention the most. "She consistently runs the floor and that's huge for the Sky," said Courtney Locke, head women's basketball coach at Purdue University Northwest. "That's a big reason why they're being so successful right now, they're just relentless in transition." Locke hired Copper, a fellow Rutgers alum, to work as an assistant coach on her staff in the WNBA's offseason. In six months of work, Copper left enough of an impression that Locke said her players organize Sky watch parties and all text each other about the games. "They love it when she gets an and-one," Locke said. "They go crazy."
Copper, Vandersloot, Quigley, Parker and bench engine Diamond DeShields are the five Sky players who averaged double digits this season. "I think that this is a way more balanced team than in the past. No one or two stars. Everyone can step up at any given time," Gyenes said. The search for a "strong voice," what was described over and over to me as the team's white whale for many years, has finally come to an end with the Parker signing. On the court, Parker's chief skill is not quite that she takes over a team but that she supplements it perfectly. The offense being as balanced as it is, Parker's usage doesn't need to be especially high. Defense remained a weakness for the Sky until this year; it's there she's been most noticeable. In Game 3 of the Sun-Sky series, she sealed the game for Chicago with a game-saving block on Alyssa Thomas and, somehow in a tangle of arms, the rebound.
The unlikely run, the chemistry, the new leadership voice, the assist-oriented offense—it has all "rejuvenated" the love of basketball Ingram felt she had lost in the franchise's uglier years. A couple weekends ago, on her way home from church, she pulled over to watch the last 30 chaotic seconds of that Sun-Sky game on her phone and couldn't believe it when the Sun missed a go-ahead layup. Could there be a new team of destiny? "I'm getting ready to see something that I almost saw in 2014: a championship." she said. "And I'm saying it out loud. I'm putting it in the atmosphere."