Candace Parker celebrates the Sky’s WNBA championship victory.

No matter what her future holds, Candace Parker has solidified her legacy as one of the greatest-ever basketball players.

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It’s time we talked about Candace Parker’s legacy

As Parker enters what could be her last WNBA season, her impact on the Sky, the league and the game can’t be denied.

SHARE It’s time we talked about Candace Parker’s legacy

At the news conference after the Sky’s WNBA championship victory last October, Candace Parker sat between the league’s best sharpshooter, Allie Quigley, and Finals MVP Kahleah Copper. On the other side of Quigley was the league’s top point guard, Courtney Vandersloot. Each has a different story of success, but all were basking in a shared moment of triumph.

As Parker answered a question about overcoming obstacles in pursuit of greatness, her eyes welled up with tears.

“Sometimes you don’t have to tell your story,” she said. “Time will.”

Parker’s story is well-documented, going back to her first sports love — soccer — and her transition to the basketball court. Her father, Larry Parker, became her coach at the suggestion of her mom, Sara. She chased her brothers, Anthony and Marcus, on the court, trying to be just like them. Eventually, she surpassed them.

Parker is entering her 15th season in the WNBA as a two-time champion, two-time MVP, six-time All-Star, one-time rookie of the year and defensive player of the year and two-time Associated Press athlete of the year. Before that, she was a two-time NCAA champion with Tennessee. She has won it all.

As she enters the second and final year of her Sky contract, questions are already swirling about whether it will be her last in the WNBA. Those questions are typically followed by questions about her legacy. But her legacy has already been solidified.

In fact, it was solidified before she decided to leave Los Angeles for Chicago last winter. But by leading her hometown team to its first WNBA title, Parker has only secured it more.

“People are going to remember the 2021 championship [forever],” said three-time All-Star Chelsea Gray, who won the 2016 WNBA title with the Sparks alongside Parker. “People talk about LeBron [James] all the time, how he went back to Cleveland and brought a championship to his city. I hope, later on, people are talking about this championship the same way.”

Chicago’s list of great free-agent signings can get long, depending on what you consider great. Ron Harper was one of the top free-agent signings in Bulls history. Who can forget Albert Belle’s five-year, $55 million deal with the White Sox in 1996, which was then the richest contract in baseball history? Jermaine Dye signed with the Sox before the 2005 season, when he became MVP of the World Series. Julius Peppers and Steve McMichael get honorable mentions for the Bears.

But three athletes top the all-time list for greatest Chicago free-agent signings: Jon Lester, Marian Hossa and Parker.

The Cubs signing Lester to a six-year, $155 million deal in 2014 legitimized their rebuild, which led to one of the most iconic moments in sports history when they won the 2016 World Series. Hossa’s 12-year contract with the Blackhawks, inked ahead of the 2009-10 season, helped bring about the end of a 49-year Stanley Cup drought in Chicago; the Hawks followed that up with two more championships.

Then there’s Parker.

“What Candace has done in basketball, not even women’s basketball [but] in basketball period, is GOAT status,” Chicago native and former Heat and Bulls star -Dwyane Wade told the Sun-Times last fall. “Once you’ve been around for a while, you’re stale to people. Your jokes aren’t funny anymore, and they kind of throw you to the side. That’s what was done in L.A. a little bit. They kind of forgot about the Candace Parker that we all know. For her to make that move to go back home, and then they put on for the city, that is history. That is legendary. That is GOAT stuff.”

Parker’s departure from the Sparks followed questionable coaching decisions by coach/general manager Derek Fisher and reports the two didn’t see eye to eye. The team’s 2019 season concluded with it being swept by the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals. In Game 3, an elimination game, all five Sparks starters were benched by the end of the third quarter and stayed there the rest of the game. Parker played just 11 minutes despite a clean bill of health. Asked why she wasn’t on the floor to end the game, she responded, “That’s [a question] for Fish.”

The next year, in the pandemic “bubble” in Florida, the No. 3-seeded Sparks were upset handily in the second round by the Sun, a team they swept in the regular season. Parker, stung by another disappointing ending to her season, nonetheless was leaning heavily toward returning to the Sparks as she entered free agency in 2021.

“We were trying to figure out where we could win, where we wanted to win and where we saw our vision,” said Gray, her teammate, who was also a free agent. “There were a lot of moving parts for Candace, especially because she’s from the Chicago area.”

Gray and Parker talked almost every day about their experiences. After Gray met with the Las Vegas Aces, she called Parker and told her she was leaning toward leaving. Parker reported that she, too, had just had a great meeting — with Sky coach/general manager James Wade.

Every time Parker had been a free agent previously, she had been at the top of the Sky’s list of players to pursue, no matter the likelihood of her leaving Los Angeles. This time, Vandersloot heard from Wade that there was a chance Parker would sign elsewhere. In their minds, if she was leaving the Sparks, it had to be for the Sky. The door was open for Vandersloot to start recruiting.

“My strategy was, ‘Listen, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I want you here. I think we can win with you,’ ” Vandersloot said. “ ‘If you want to win a championship, come here.’ ”

Parker said she slept on her decision — and slept soundly. She took it as an indication she was making the right choice to leave and claims she would’ve been fine with the decision even if the Sky never won a game.

For a stretch early in the 2021 season, that position was certainly tested. After an ankle injury sidelined Parker, the Sky went on a seven-game losing streak. Upon her return, they flipped it to a seven-game winning streak. It only bolstered her reputation for making everyone else better when she’s on the floor.

“One thing about Candace is she’s always going to say what everyone in the room is thinking,” said former Sparks teammate and WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike. “She’s not afraid of unpopular opinion, especially when it comes to supporting her teammates and what she thinks they can achieve.

“That’s very unique, not only in a player but a person. To be fearless in spite of [opposition] is very intrinsic to her, but then it allows others to realize what they’re capable of.”

Chicago is not always an easy sports market to gain attention in. During the Sky’s first season in 2006, the team was advised to wear merchandise out in public to raise awareness. Former Sky coach Pokey Chatman recalls trips to the grocery store where people asked, “Who are the Sky?”

Over 16 years, the organization worked hard to move from obscurity into relevance, but without a championship, those efforts went largely unnoticed. Vandersloot described the team as the ugly duckling compared to the men’s sports franchises in town.

But from the moment Parker signed with the Sky, the buzz grew. And by the end of the year, as the Sky’s championship pursuit was nearing fruition, Games 3 and 4 of the WNBA Finals were played in front of sold-out crowds at Wintrust Arena.

Parker had a history of bringing attention to the women’s game in Chicago like no one else, dating back to her winning back-to-back state titles at Naperville Central and back-to-back NCAA titles at Tennessee. For that reason, the Sky had attempted to secure her 13 years earlier.

“We did everything we could to get L.A. to trade the No. 1 pick with us in 2008,” former Sky CEO Margaret Stender said. “Sylvia Fowles is an extraordinary player. So from a one and two standpoint, there was no loss, except that Syl didn’t grow up here. We were still such a young franchise. To have had Candace then would have made a difference.”

Candace Parker poses with the WNBA championship trophy.

The Sky’s Candace Parker poses with the WNBA championship trophy.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The championship wasn’t all that Parker added to her legacy in 2021. She became the first WNBA player featured on the cover of the “NBA 2K” video game in July and launched a podcast. She also produced a documentary, “Title IX: 37 Words That Changed America.” She was one of the top-earning women athletes in 2021, according to Forbes, with total earnings of $5.7 million. Well over half of that was earned off the court.

She filmed a Ted Talk in November, and in the new year, she welcomed a son, Airr Larry Petrakova Parker, with wife Anna Petrakova.

But the most profound aspect of Parker’s legacy might be how she’s inspiring the next generation of players. That was apparent in a beautiful moment just after South Carolina won its second NCAA title on April 3. Aliyah Boston, the 2022 John R. Wooden Award winner, stood at center court wearing her championship hat and T-shirt and took the microphone from ESPN’s Holly Rowe.

“Candace Parker, I’d like to say hi,” Boston said to Parker, who sat at center court a few rows up. “I love you, girl!”

Later, the two met on the confetti-covered court, with Parker telling Boston she was proud of her.

Parker often says she won’t talk about her legacy while it’s still being written, but some of the ways in which she has revolutionized the game are already clear. She’s 12th on the league’s all-time scoring list, seventh in rebounds and 11th in field-goal percentage. But beyond her stats, she also has redefined the role of a traditional post player.

When she entered the WNBA, guards were pounding the ball inside to their bigs. Fourteen years later, it’s not only commonplace but expected for the four and five to handle the ball and shoot from three-point range.

She also has changed what it means to be a professional athlete and businesswoman. She’s a multihyphenate — part-owner of the Los Angeles NWSL team Angel City FC, a broadcaster and analyst for Turner Sports and a producer and owner of production company Baby Hair Productions. Lexie Brown, who was traded to the Sparks last month, said one of the most valuable lessons she learned playing with Parker was how to establish herself as a businesswoman.

Whether this will be Parker’s last season remains to be seen. The WNBA and its fans are already preparing to say goodbye to Fowles and Sue Bird, who have announced they will retire after the 2022 season.

Asked about retirement, Parker has said she won’t cheat the game. Whether it’s a farewell tour or a quiet exit, those close to her say her retirement will be exactly what she wants it to be.

“I’m a purposeful goal setter,” Parker said. “If you’re just bettering things for yourself, then what are you really doing? I look at my idols and the way they have done things, the doors that they’ve opened, and I want to be like that. I want to leave something better. That’s the legacy.”

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