Sports

Candace Parker’s legacy comes full circle with second WNBA championship

CHICAGO — Candace Parker knew all too well what was at stake. She had been in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals twice before, with chances to win a title on her home court. But she was 0-2 in those games.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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