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The Sky’s Candace Parker has been around the basketball world and back again, changing the game everywhere she goes.
The Sky’s Candace Parker has been around the basketball world and back again, changing the game everywhere she goes.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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From Naperville to Knoxville to L.A. and back again: Candace Parker is home

The new Sky phenom spent 13 years with the Sparks in L.A., but her superstardom had its roots in Naperville.

In high school, Candace Parker couldn’t wait for Christmas to be over because that meant it was time to play in the Dundee-Crown holiday tournament.

If you got to the gym early enough, you could watch it transition from a quiet high school on a tree-lined suburban street in Carpentersville to a sporting venue straight from a movie. Think of ‘‘Hoosiers.’’

Anyone who has been around the Chicago-area prep basketball scene knows the setting. It’s a winter night so cold it steals your breath. Fluffy snowflakes are sticking to your eyelashes. Your car is parked far away from the gym doors.

Once you get in — if you get in — you’re standing along the wall.

Too often, those settings were standard for boys games. But on those nights, during her four years as a Redhawk, those cars lined the street to watch young women suit up and ball out. Those fans packed the bleachers and stood for hours along the walls of basketball gyms on cold winter nights to get a glimpse of Parker, the teenage phenom.

“It’s really weird to see pictures from our freshman and sophomore year to junior and senior and see how our following increased,” Parker said.

Candace Parker poses in the Naperville Central gym in 2003. High School, is seen in the gym in 2003.
Candace Parker poses in the Naperville Central gym in 2003. High School, is seen in the gym in 2003.
Anne Ryan/AP

Parker created a buzz around women’s basketball that followed her from the snowy streets of the Chicago area, to the southern sun of Tennessee and the SEC, to the famed hills of Los Angeles and overseas.

As she returns to Chicago, Parker brings with her an excitement for Sky basketball that even Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles couldn’t establish. Not because they aren’t two of the greatest to play in the WNBA, but because they aren’t Parker, and this city wasn’t home.

Parker said she didn’t notice her impact on the game until she saw kids wearing her first signature shoe in China and others donning her jersey on courts she drove past in the States.

By then, she was well into her professional career in the WNBA, but most knew she’d change the game almost immediately. As an eighth-grader, she was pulling off hesitation moves followed by finger-roll layups on grown men at Edwards Health and Fitness Center.

Some say the way to separate a good player from a great one is to determine which ushered in change. By that measure, Parker is a great player.

From the moment she decided to commit herself to basketball over soccer (as her parents Larry and Sara describe it, her first love), her dad started working with her to be more than a big player stuck on the block.

Parker was over 6 feet tall as a freshman but had the ballhandling skills of a true point guard. Before it was expected for bigs to be developed beyond the paint, to control the possession, to knock down three-point shots, she was doing it.

Growing up, she idolized Allen Iverson and wanted to play like Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper. It was their versatility she admired.

Parker wasn’t trying to be different — she was trying not to be one-dimensional. Plus, the only way she was going to compete with her two older brothers, Anthony and Marcus, was if she learned how to handle the ball.

Nothing came easy in the Parker house. The family shared dinners every night, but those dinners came with a healthy dose of humorous teasing. Arriving after a bad game meant the family would go looking for that sibling’s jump shot in the cabinet before taking a seat at the table.

Marcus, on one occasion, took things as far as using a pseudonym to start a debate on a high school preps message board over whether his little sister was really worth the hype. Later he revealed this to his mom, who was shocked but not surprised.

As hard as the Parkers teased, they supported each other with even more ferocity.

Marcus was the first one back in the gym with Candace after she tore her ACL before her senior year at Naperville Central. Days after that late-night session that at one point left her on the floor with Marcus trying not to act worried, she returned to the court to play in the Dundee-Crown tournament.

It was the same tournament in which she made history by dunking as a 15-year-old sophomore.

“She called us from the house the next day and said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s all these people at the door, and people keep calling,’ ” her mother, Sara, recalls. “She asked us ‘What is this about?’ and we said, ‘Well, Candace, it’s probably because you dunked. Nobody has done that before.’ ”

Drafted first overall in the 2008 WNBA Draft, Parker became the second player to dunk in a WNBA game her rookie season. Her teammate Lisa Leslie was the first.

She is the only player in the league’s history to win rookie of the year and MVP in the same season.

After her rookie year, Parker gave birth to her daughter, Lailaa, in May ahead of the 2009 season. She returned to the WNBA six weeks after delivery.

That following January, Parker traveled to Russia for her overseas commitments with Sara and her nearly 8-month-old daughter. Sara traveled to every game with Lailaa that season. At halftime, Parker would nurse her daughter. Sara said Parker had some of her best games on the least amount of sleep.

She’s a five-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time league MVP, a WNBA champion, Finals MVP, WNBA defensive player of the year, EuroLeague champion and five-time Russian national league champion.

Making history is what Parker has done, but it’s not what she set out to do.

Before Parker got to Tennessee, late Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and then-assistant Holly Warlick told her they expected that she’d be a power forward. At 6-5, with her passing skills, court vision, three-point shot and abilities to post up, Summitt and Warlick saw her potential to disrupt defenders and reinvent the position.

Parker adamantly told them she wanted to stay at the three. Worried about losing her as a recruit, they gave in, “ ‘OK, you’re a three,’ we told her,” Warlick said.

Parker ended up playing all five positions at Tennessee, which at that point was not being done by players with her height. It’s still hard to find now. Back then, the women’s game almost exclusively featured two post players inside. Summitt wanted Parker to face up, play away from the basket and shoot the three. She also wanted to use her inside.

Warlick said they finally convinced her to play the four and the five based on who was defending her. If she had another big on her, she’d take them out of the paint, face up and penetrate on them. Going up against a guard that could keep up with her handles, Parker would put her back to the basket and post up.

Tennessee’s Candace Parker shoots over Louisiana Tech’s Shanavia Dowdell during a game in 2007.
Tennessee’s Candace Parker shoots over Louisiana Tech’s Shanavia Dowdell during a game in 2007.
Wade Payne/AP

ESPN’s top 25 players for the 2021 WNBA season has Parker ranked fourth, behind Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm), A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) and Delle Donne (Washington Mystics). They all have one thing in common: they play a lot like Parker.

It’s not just her style of play that sets Parker apart, it’s her understanding of the game as well. It’s like having another coach on the floor. During one game, Warlick remembers the coaches looking at each other contemplating if they should call a timeout when they heard the whistle blow and the ref say, “Timeout, Tennessee.”

Parker had called a timeout, and Warlick said it was a needed one.

She developed her advanced understanding of the game growing up in a house with coaches. Both of her parents played basketball, Larry at Iowa and Sara for Iowa’s intramural program. They both coached Parker’s AAU team as well.

The best education, Warlick said, came during some of Parker’s injuries when she was forced to sit and watch the game. Parker didn’t waste those moments just watching, she studied. Every time she came back, she was a better player.

It wouldn’t be fair to Parker to casually brush off the lows of injury as learning moments. They were tough, but Parker always has proven tougher.

In Tennessee’s 2008 Elite Eight game against Texas A&M, Parker dislocated her left shoulder twice and still scored 26 points. Ahead of the Final Four game against LSU, her shoulder dislocated again, this time in her sleep.

Marcus said for doctors to get Parker’s shoulder back in, they had to put her under anesthesia. She finished with a double-double scoring 13 points and pulling down 15 rebounds despite playing with one arm.

“You could see when they would pass her the ball if it was in a specific place, she would wince in pain,” Marcus said.

Parker helped Tennessee to its eighth NCAA women’s basketball title (and her second) one day later by beating Stanford 64-48. The following day, on April 9, Parker was selected by the Sparks. Sylvia Fowles, who helped lead LSU to the Final Four against Tennessee, was picked second by the Sky.

If you’re wondering about what could have been and the possibility of a Sky trade for the No. 1 pick that would have brought her home 13 years ago instead of three months ago, stop.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t want Chicago out of college,” Parker says now.

At 22, she was ready to be an adult and grow her game away from the comfort of childhood friends and family.

Parker needed Los Angeles and the WNBA, entering its 11th season when she was drafted, needed her there, too.

As a rookie on a team with Leslie in the LA market, the buzz that followed her from Tennessee was amplified. Teammates recall hearing about the rookie who would go No. 1 overall. Some described her as the Michael Jordan of the WNBA. DeLisha Milton-Jones called her a movement.

Candace Parker poses with Los Angeles Sparks teammate Lisa Leslie in 2008.
Candace Parker poses with Los Angeles Sparks teammate Lisa Leslie in 2008.
Reed Saxon/AP

Milton-Jones, who had requested a trade from the Sparks two years before, was playing for the Mystics in 2007 when she got a call from then-Sparks coach and former Lakers guard Michael Cooper. He told her there was a rookie sensation about to come in and he was putting the band back together.

That year, the Sparks went 20-14, finished third in the Western Conference and lost 2-1 in the best-of-three Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Silver Stars.

The final minute of Game 3 was a dagger to the heart. The Sparks led 72-69 until Becky Hammon tied the game on a three-pointer with a minute left. Hammon cemented the win with four free throws.

The Silver Stars were swept by the Detroit Shock in the Finals, and Parker is still upset about it to this day.

“One-thousand percent, I’m pissed,” Parker said. “I do think it was a good experience though. Should we have won? Yes. But there’s always those would of, could of, should ofs.”

Looking back, Parker can see that season gave her something that winning a championship her rookie season couldn’t. As a rookie, Parker thought she had all the time in the world to climb the mountain.

When the 2016 season rolled around, Parker understood the importance of capitalizing on the moment and exactly how hard it is to get to the WNBA Finals. The energy and passion was there for that Sparks team, but Parker knew it takes everything going right plus a little luck to become a champion.

Teammate Alana Beard describes their on-court relationship as intense because their expectations for each other were so high. In practice, games and in communicating with teammates, Beard always wanted Parker’s best.

Equally, Parker’s level of excellence allowed Beard to see and go beyond what she thought she was capable of. There was no settling when those two shared the court.

Parker and her teammates had the championship vision and the talent but they needed a little luck. Some would say it came in the form of a snub.

When Parker was left off of the 2016 USA Olympic team by UConn coach Geno Auriemma, the collective basketball world was shocked. More important to note though is the shock expressed by teammates and coaches across the league.

“I will never understand that,” Beard said.

It was the motivation she needed to lead the Sparks to the WNBA Finals against the Minnesota Lynx. From 2011 to 2017, the Lynx won four championships and made six finals appearances.

Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said she gets exhausted just thinking about the battles her team shared with the Sparks. There was no love lost between the teams. Reeve described it as a healthy dislike, so much so that it affected free agency.

“No way in hell is a Spark going to come play for the Minnesota Lynx during that time and vice versa,” Reeve said.

When LA won it in 2016, it was like the younger sibling finally figuring out how to beat the older one. Beard’s buzzer-beater against the Lynx in Game 1 got the series started. Nneka Ogwumike’s putback with three seconds left plus Parker’s 28-point, 12-rebound Finals MVP performance in Game 5 on the Lynx’s court sealed it.

Basketball is a team sport, but when critics rank the greatest players of all time, whether or not they won a championship is one of the critical components that decides where a player lands on that list.

In the league’s historic 20th season Parker’s legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game was solidified with the Sparks' first title in 14 years.

Parker didn’t know for sure that she played her final game with the Sparks following the 2020 season when she was named Defensive Player of the Year.

Last season was a defining one off the court as well, where Parker has been equally as influential throughout her career. The league’s 144 players in the bubble led the sports landscape in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality by creating actionable change in communities across the country from Bradenton, Florida. Most notably might be their endorsement of Georgia Senator, Raphael Warnock who defeated incumbent and former Atlanta Dream owner, Kelly Loeffler in Georgia’s Senate runoff in January.

In 2020 Parker voiced the Sparks’ “Change Has No Offseason” social justice campaign. She wrote a letter for TIME for the 100 year anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, making the critical acknowledgment that it would be another 45 years until Black women were able to legally vote. Parker also joined forces with TNT colleague, Dwyane Wade, along with Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in their Social Change Fund which launched last July.

“It’s not my equality. It’s not your equality. It’s our equality,” Parker shared on Instagram last August.

Entering free agency, Parker was contemplating the idea of leaving Los Angeles, but it was hard to grapple with. She has lived in LA almost as long as she lived in Naperville. Lailaa goes to school there. She said it always will be home.

Ultimately, she made the decision for herself, but it took some coaxing from the Sky.

When the Sky front office sat down and discussed free agency, their main objective was to sign Parker. At that point, Sky owner Michael Alter said it was a fantasy but knew better than to make any assumptions.

Sky coach and general manager James Wade flew to Atlanta from France to meet with Parker for dinner while she was in town working as an NBA analyst for TNT. It’s another role she plays that highlights her ability to change the WNBA. Every time she sits alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade and others on that esteemed panel, she’s bringing more fans to the league.

James Wade described them as having a great talk. He told her what the Sky could offer her, and they discussed the championship potential the team had if she were to play alongside the veteran backcourt duo of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.

After leaving dinner their conversations remained fluid, but Wade knew he had to temper his expectations.

“With a player of her stature, you don’t know until you know,” Wade said.

One thing that was important to Parker was knowing players like Vandersloot and Quigley wanted her in Chicago. But it wasn’t just VanderQuigs who was eager to welcome Parker home. All the players on the Sky had dreams of what they could accomplish if Parker returned.

Budding star Diamond DeShields grew up aspiring to be like Parker. Azura Stevens made a doll of Parker for a middle-school project. Lexie Brown was in Tampa, Florida, to see Parker and Tennessee capture the NCAA title against Stanford in 2008.

When Parker signed a two-year contract with the Sky on Feb. 1, their idol became their teammate, and the dreams of what they could accomplish together became attainable goals.

“When my career is all said and done, then we’ll be able to reflect on it,” the Sky’s Candace Parker said. “While I’m still in it, I hope I continue to change the way the game is played.”
“When my career is all said and done, then we’ll be able to reflect on it,” the Sky’s Candace Parker said. “While I’m still in it, I hope I continue to change the way the game is played.”
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

There’s no question about the Sky’s instant relevance in Chicago’s saturated sports landscape with Parker on the team. The only way teams remain relevant in this city is by winning championships.

Chicago sports fans don’t expect much. The Cubs went 108 years before winning their third World Series in 2016. The Bulls’ second threepeat was more than 23 years ago. The Bears’ lone Super Bowl championship came after the 1985 season. The Red Stars have yet to win an NWSL title in the league’s nine-year existence. The White Sox haven’t won since 2005, and the Blackhawks won their last Stanley Cup in 2015.

Fans in this city are loyal to titles and Parker has the potential to lead the Sky to their first in the organization’s history.

As far as Parker’s legacy goes, she said she’s not one to disrupt what still is being written. She is conscious of the fact she has more games behind her than ahead of her.

While she hasn’t made any indication of when she’ll hang it up, playing in Chicago 46 miles from the gym she made history in at 15 certainly has the potential for a storybook ending.

It’ll take everything going right, plus a little luck.

“When my career is all said and done, then we’ll be able to reflect on it,” Parker said. “While I’m still in it, I hope I continue to change the way the game is played.”

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