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Candace Parker savors the taste of first title after Sparks' championship run

Candace Parker savors the taste of first title after Sparks' championship run
Sparks Owner Magic Johnson hugs Candace Parker as they celebrate the team's WNBA championship after defeating the Minnesota Lynx Thursday. (Hannah Foslien / Getty Images)

Candace Parker waited her whole life for this moment, so she did not want to take any chances. 

As Minnesota guard Lindsay Whalen’s half-court heave arced toward the backboard on Thursday night, the last seconds ticking off the game clock as it did, Parker held her breath. Or maybe she just couldn’t breathe. She watched the shot hit the glass, drop to the floor and then bounce right into her waiting hands. 

Then, and only then, it was clear this season wouldn’t end like all the others. A WNBA championship was firmly in Parker’s grasp, and no one could take it away from her or her Sparks teammates. 

"This is for Pat," Parker said immediately after the game, pointing to the basketball. "This for Pat. This is for Pat."

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Parker doubled over in tears, and then unfurled her body to once again stand tall. Pat Summitt, her college coach at Tennessee, died at age 64 in June. As the 30-year-old Parker chased her first WNBA championship this season, she heard Summitt’s voice inside her head the whole way. 

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Defense wins. Finish plays. Rebound. 

"I heard that for four years at Tennessee," Parker said, sniffling away tears, at her post-game press conference.

She did those things, and more, to help the Sparks beat the Lynx, 77-76 Thursday, in Game 5 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Parker scored a game-high 28 points in the title-clinching win.

Parker was named the finals' most valuable player. She wore Tennessee-themed orange and white Adidas sneakers. When Parker and Sparks Coach Brian Agler sat down for questions, Agler used his phone to play "Rocky Top," Tennessee's fight song. Parker started crying all over again.

It all came back to Summitt, and so it fittingly ended with Parker finishing on top.

"I wasn't upholding my end of the bargain for my teammates in this series," Parker said. "I think in years past maybe I was doing a lot and maybe I could have used a little help, but this year it was on me. My teammates were doing their part, I had to step up and do mine."

This narrative has followed Parker throughout her career, and here she was pinning it on herself.

She was drafted by the Sparks in 2008 and, before Thursday, had accomplished everything except winning a WNBA championship. She won two MVP awards, two Olympic gold medals, a college championship and a rookie of the year award. But each one of her first eight Sparks seasons ended with despair.

Parker was the star, the face of the franchise, and so it was ultimately on her to nudge the Sparks over the finish line. At the end of her ninth season, she finally  did.

"And what are they going to say now?" asked Sparks general manager, Penny Toler, in late Thursday night. "I am so happy for Candace, because now she has it all. There is nothing anyone say about all her accolades, because now that title is right next to everything else."

Toler, who was the general manager when the Sparks last won the title in 2002, has spent years piecing this group together. She drafted Jantel Lavender, the WNBA's sixth woman of the year, in 2011. She drafted Nneka Ogwumike, the league's most valuable player, with the first overall pick in 2012. She added Alana Beard in 2012, and then brought on veteran Essence Carson and point guard Chelsea Gray before this season.

Carson matched up with Lynx star Maya Moore for much of the finals. Gray was a spark plug off the bench. But Parker was always the key ingredient.  

Now Parker is finally a WNBA champion, and forever will be.

"I had a moment with Magic Johnson after the game where I was like, 'You did this five times? Like you felt this feeling five times? This is how it is?' " Parker said. "And I mean, the journey is difficult, but once you get here and you feel this feeling, you want to do it again."

jesse.dougherty@latimes.com

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse

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