It was a loaded way to start the W.N.B.A. finals.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert was on hand in Phoenix before tipoff of Game 1 Sunday between the Chicago Sky and the Phoenix Mercury to honor the 25 best players in league history, as decided by media members and “women’s basketball pioneers and advocates.” Engelbert also recognized Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, one of the 25, as the greatest player of all time, as voted by fans. But amid the hubbub at center court, Sky forward Candace Parker, also among the 25, looked on from the bench. Here she was, in her 14th season, vying for the second championship of her W.N.B.A. career in her first year with a new team.
In the off-season, Parker, 35, a native of Naperville, Ill., signed with the Sky after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks. Her home state crowd welcomed her with open arms.
For Lorri Gyenes, a Sky season ticket-holder affectionately known as Sky Mayor Redhead Lorri, getting to witness Parker’s “full-circle story” is the stuff of dreams.
“Everyone knew that Candace was special in high school,” Gyenes said. “The Sky were unable to draft Candace, but I hoped that we could trade Elena Delle Donne for her back in the day — largely for her skill, but also for her ability to sell tickets.”
When a Delle Donne trade didn’t happen — she was instead sent to Washington — Gyenes wrote off the idea of ever getting to see Parker play in Sky blue.
“It is so excellent now to have Candace return home,” Gyenes said. “Not only is she a legend, she can still play. She is also a superstar beyond women’s basketball. Everyone knows her. She brings so much attention and respect to our organization.”
And then there is the matter of Parker’s leadership. The Sky’s Kahleah Copper credits Parker for challenging her daily and expressing faith in her abilities. The result for Copper has been increased confidence that has been evident all season in her electric and speedy drives to the hoop. It is appropriate, then, that Copper, not Parker, emerged from the Sky’s 91-77 win in Game 1 in Phoenix as the top scorer, with 21 points.
After the game, Parker described how she has grown over her career. “I think it’s the biggest thing for me that I don’t think I understood when I was younger is that you have to be the calm for the storm and you have to be the storm when everyone’s calm,” she said.
Copper and Sky Coach James Wade told reporters that Parker was the only player to suit up for Game 1 without pre-finals jitters. But Parker said that wasn’t the case. “I don’t care how many you’ve been to, there’s still the jitters you’re going to get, so that’s not true,” she said. But her experience in these high-pressure moments helped to her shake off the nervous energy.
“There’s no reason to flip out,” Parker said.
The Mercury jumped to an early lead and held a 5-point advantage after the first quarter. The Sky’s ability to stay calm, however, enabled them to stun the Mercury in the second quarter, when Chicago outscored Phoenix, 26-10.
Parker praised her teammates for how they have handled adversity this season. As much as the team learned about its potential from a seven-game regular-season winning streak, Parker said she believed the Sky learned even more from the seven straight losses they tallied while she was out with an injury. If the Sky could overcome those losses, finish the season with a 16-16 record, make the playoffs as the sixth seed, and make it to the finals, Parker said they would be able to overcome whatever difficulties the final brings.
“I think that’s the biggest thing during the playoffs is bouncing back and fighting through adversity,” she said. “I think we know our potential. We know how we can play and how we want to play, and we know our identity.”
But Parker’s familiarity with adversity precedes her time in Chicago.
Her blockbuster move to the Sky left Sparks fans stunned. Since Parker’s 2008 rookie season, when she won both the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year Awards, her name had been synonymous with the team. And with Parker still playing incredible basketball well into her 30s, winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020 and helping the Sparks to a No. 3 playoff seed, the Los Angeles fan base believed another championship banner in the Parker era was possible.
But when the Parker era in L.A. ended without another championship, people needed someone to blame, and it wasn’t her. That person was Coach Derek Fisher, who infamously benched Parker during the deciding game of the 2019 semifinals.
Speculation about when Parker might retire began circulating after the 2019 season. Instead of hanging up her high tops, Parker showed in the 2020 season just how much juice she has left. Months later, in an introductory news conference with the Sky, Parker said, “The lessons I’ve learned being gone have brought me back home.”
Parker averaged 13.3 points per game during the regular season, second behind Copper for Chicago, and led the Sky in per-game rebounds (8.4) and blocks (1.2). She has held steady across seven playoff games that included two single-elimination matchups. In a decisive semifinal victory over the top-seeded Connecticut Sun, Parker had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists to help secure a surprising upset for a Sky team that, with a .500 record, was not assured of making the playoffs.
By carrying the Sky this season to within two wins of a championship, Parker has again demonstrated her staggering heights. Parker was criticized for the first eight years of her career for failing to lead the Sparks to third franchise title, which she did in 2016.
Now, she hopes to finish closing the circle, on her season and potentially on her career, with a title. But, win or lose, Parker’s impact in Chicago is a surprise to no one, not even within the Sparks organization.
“Candace Parker is a prime example of creating your own success story, for herself and the W.N.B.A.,” said Fred Williams, a Sparks assistant coach. “She is a game-changer for women’s sports and for the W.”