Candace Parker brings it home

For a moment no one paid any attention to Candace Parker. Understandably, she was surrounded by foci. With two minutes left in Game Four of the WNBA Championship and the Chicago Sky three to the Phoenix Mercury—after a fourteen-point lead not long before—the Mercury defense was in trouble everywhere. Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot feinted and danced with the ball; she would finish the game with fifteen assists, after averaging more than ten per game during the playoffs. In front of Vandersloot was her teammate, the center Stefanie Dolson, who, even playing with five fouls, was immovable in the paint. On the other side was Allie Quigley, who had already scored twenty-six runs. Kahleah Copper, a charismatic guard with blazing speed and a flair for agile finishes on the edge, stood poised on the left. She was the Sky’s top scorer during the WNBA regular season and one of the league’s breakout stars.

And then there was Parker, behind the three-point line. The job of guarding her was assigned to the Brianna Turner of the Mercury. Vandersloot made a move and stood up, seemingly ready to shoot the ball or pass it to Dolson, who made his way to the basket. Turner turned in the paint to help – but then Vandersloot waved a pass through the open space behind the scrum to Parker, now standing alone, with Turner’s back to her. By the time Turner recovered, the shot was on its way through the net: a draw. The Sky would never fall behind.

There is no karma in sports, not really. For every happy ending there is, for someone else, pain and disappointment. But when the ball reached Parker, with the title at his fingertips, it was impossible not to imagine fate at work. Parker, like any active player, represents the WNBA’s past and promise. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, won two national titles at the University of Tennessee and entered the competition in 2008, already a sensation. She had been on the cover of Illustrated Sports, with a story calling her “the most talented player in women’s basketball history.” It wasn’t just hype: in her rookie season, she not only won Rookie of the Year, but also league MVP, an award she won for the second time in 2013. She took her first title in 2016, with the Los Angeles Sparks, the team that drafted her, taking home the Finals MVP. And she did all that in a career that was often interrupted by serious injuries and, once, by pregnancy: in 2009, at the age of twenty-three, she gave birth to a daughter, Lailaa. In recent years, Parker also established himself as an NBA analyst on TNT, more than once going viral with her wit and coolness. Despite her burgeoning television career and the miles she put on her body—literally and figuratively—over so many seasons, she continued to excel on the pitch. Last year, at age thirty-four, she won Defensive Player of the Year. This year she was on the cover of the video game NBA 2K22, the first woman ever to receive such a placement in the hit series. No one in the league may have lived more vividly, or, it seemed, more comfortable in the limelight than Parker. So it was news when she decided to sign with the Chicago Sky as a free agent last winter after thirteen seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks. Parker said she wanted to go home.

“Home” is a vague term for many professional athletes, who live most of the year in temporary housing and hotels, and are subject to work structures that often dictate their movements. That’s even more true of women’s basketball players than most. Prior to the WNBA’s current collective bargaining agreement, signed last year, players rarely had the option to switch teams; they were stuck where they were set up. Most players spend the “off-season” playing in leagues abroad, where the money is better. (Before becoming a broadcaster, Parker played in Russia, China and Turkey.) But the WNBA, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, is changing. The new collective labor agreement has given players better compensation and more freedom. Parker finally had the power to say her house was where she wanted it to be.

Or at least that’s a nice story. Chicago was also a good basketball situation for her. For starters, she had a coach in James Wade, whom she’d admired for a while. It had Copper, the talented, tenacious guard. It had Quigley, who Parker had played against since high school, and Vandersloot, who went on to become one of the league’s best point guards—one of the best ever. And where the team had a weakness — in defense — Parker offered its own strengths. The team needed her. When Parker injured her ankle at the start of the season, the Sky lost seven games in a row.

Thanks to that slip, the Sky started 2-7 – hardly ideal, especially given the WNBA’s compressed thirty-two game season. Chicago finished only 16-16, securing the No. 6 seed in the playoffs. In the postseason, the team had to play two singles elimination games and then face the East’s top league, the Connecticut Sun, who had played unparalleled for months. But by then the sky had surpassed the sun: Chicago’s players were balanced, fast, fluid. Perhaps the constant need to play under pressure had worked in their favor – they should have learned to play from behind. In the finale, the Mercury’s best strategy was to slow down the Sky’s transition game so Phoenix’s star Brittney Griner could take over. That worked in Game Two, and after Phoenix got blown out in Game Three, to fall behind in the series 2-1, it almost worked again in Game Four: Griner finished with twenty-eight points. But the Mercury were, well, mercurial — doomed by erratic shooting and sloppy play.

Parker was part of that havoc. She finished the game with sixteen points, thirteen rebounds, five assists and four steals. Her presence was felt in myriad other ways in defense. But she wasn’t the star, and she didn’t have to be. But when the ball landed in her hands, with the season on the line, she shot naturally. You can’t ignore Candace Parker.

When the buzzer sounded, Parker had the ball. She sprinted across the floor, hugged her coach, and looked at her daughter from the stands. I met Lailaa once, in 2013, when I was profiling Parker; Lailaa was then strapped into a car seat, still a toddler. (She said hello to me in Russian.) It was something to watch her run to her mother now: There is no measure of the passage of time like the growth of other people’s children. And nothing touched Parker’s long way back to childhood more than the sight of her daughter on the brink of young adulthood. Candace hugged her, sobbing. “We made it,” Lailaa told her mother. “Look at the city,” Parker said. “They all showed up.”

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