Wednesday, December 8, 2021

2021 WNBA Finals: Candace Parker delivers title in first season with hometown Chicago Sky

CHICAGO — As the final seconds of the Chicago Sky’s title-clinching Game 4 win in the 2021 WNBA Finals wound down, Candace Parker grabbed a rebound and raced the length of the floor to find her family. With the game ball cradled in one arm and her parents in the other, Parker could finally let her emotions out. 

“It was amazing to just hug my dad and my mom and my family,” Parker said. “It was just an amazing feeling to be from here and see so many people in the stands that have been supporting you since you started… So I think it’s just a moment where you just have to really take it in, so that’s what that was.”

The celebration capped an incredible year for Parker, who back in February made the biggest free-agent decision in league history to leave the Los Angeles Sparks, the only franchise she had ever known, to come back to Chicago and sign with her hometown Sky. She did so with the explicit goal of winning a championship. 

“For me personally, playing here in itself holds so much value, but I would say also winning a championship back home would mean so much,” Parker said after she signed. “This isn’t me just coming home to play. This isn’t me just going somewhere. Chicago has great players. They have a great organization and I played against them for a number of years. I like what they’re doing and I like how they play. And in terms of fits and pieces, I think I add a piece to that, and they add so much to me.”

Now, eight months later, Parker has accomplished her goal. The 35-year-old did so in style, finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and four steals in what was by far her best all-around game of the entire postseason. Her defense was immense, and she made big plays over and over to propel her team to victory. 

In the middle of the third quarter, when the Sky were down by 14 points and it looked like the Mercury were going to run away and force a winner-take-all Game 5, Parker stepped up. She hit a huge 3-pointer then immediately stole the ball and put in a layup on the other end to force a timeout. Out of the break, she went hard to the rim and got to the free throw line to cap a personal 7-0 run.

Later on, with the Sky still trailing by five in the closing minutes, Parker came up clutch again. First, she brought the ball up herself after a rebound and found Kahleah Copper for a layup with a beautiful bounce pass. Then, she somehow got left all alone and buried a 3-pointer to tie the game. She held her pose, dapped up a fan sitting courtside and strutted back down the floor.

“We left Candace open one time and she shoots a three,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello lamented.

That Parker was the one to carry the Sky to the finish line was not in the least bit surprising. She’s been this team’s leader all season, and the intangibles she brought — her championship experience, her presence, her calmness under pressure — were just as important as anything she added on the court. 

“It was important when she came,” Sky head coach James Wade said after Game 1. “We talked about her coming in, and she was like I want to fit in with the team and just share my experiences and stuff like that. A big thing coming from me was we needed her to lead. It was a player that we were missing. We weren’t just missing her talent, but we were missing everything that comes with it, the experience, the big-time plays in big moments, the having that cool shoulder and just being someone to lean on in difficult times. So she’s accepted that role, and now everybody has a sense of comfort when it comes to those moments.”

It was also not in the least bit surprising that Parker and the Sky had to battle through adversity in Game 4 to finally capture the trophy. They may have gotten the storybook ending, but this was not an easy season. Not on a personal level for Parker, who battled multiple ankle injuries and was limited to 23 games, and not on a team level for the Sky, who finished in sixth place with a disappointing 16-16 record. 

But even if it would have been understandable at times, the Sky never quit on each other. A lot of that had to do with Parker, who helped keep the team together and led a special moment that gave them the belief they could still turn their season around. 

“We did this for each other,” Allie Quigley said. “Kind of like a breaking point probably a month ago, and I feel like we all looked at each other and we said, what are we going to play for. And Candace the first thing she said she was going to play for me. It was just so inspiring that she wanted me to win a championship so bad, and I just — it just made me want to play harder. And everybody went around and said who they were playing for. In the end we all wanted to play for each other, and that’s what you saw tonight in this whole playoff experience.”

Seventeen years ago, Parker left Chicago as a teenager to begin her basketball journey, and along the way accomplished everything there is to accomplish in the sport. Then, she came back home and led the Sky to their first title in franchise history in stunning fashion. She did it her way, and with her family by her side. 

“I think sometimes you don’t have to tell your story; time will,” Parker said. “I think that’s something that I’ve lived by. I think everybody up here has had that moment where they’ve felt like they have to tell their side of the story, and you don’t have to. Like just put your head down, continue to work, do what’s right, be a good person, work hard, give energy, and like the world will give back to you. I think that’s my message with all of this is like you don’t have to yell from the rooftops who you are or what you do. Let time tell.”

Time told long ago that Parker was one of the all-time greats. But now, with a second ring to her name, her legacy is solidified. 

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