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All eyes are on Candace Parker as the Sparks fight to clinch the WNBA championship

All eyes are on Candace Parker as the Sparks fight to clinch the WNBA championship
Sparks forward Candace Parker reacts after assisting on a teammate's basket during a Game 3 victory over the Minnesota Lynx on Friday night. (Harry How / Getty Images)

Candace Parker strode onto an empty Galen Center floor on Friday evening sipping a Starbucks iced coffee. 

Parker placed the coffee on the scorer's table, plucked a ball off the rack at midcourt and walked toward the far hoop to warm up for an eventual Game 3 win. That's where people slowly flocked to her: an assistant coach to snag her rebounds; another Sparks staff member to feed her passes; a cameramen, then another, then two more.

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It's normal for Parker to draw a crowd when she has a basketball in her hands. Sometimes it is a crowd of defenders. Other times it is a crowd of fans. And then there is her crowd of detractors, who have popped up throughout one of the most decorated careers in women's basketball history.

The Sparks lead 2-1 in the best-of-five WNBA Finals, which means Game 4 (5:30 PDT on ESPN) on Sunday will offer the one thing Parker doesn’t have. 

She won two NCAA championships at Tennessee. She was the first overall pick in the draft shortly after. She won the rookie of the year award. She has twice won the league's most valuable player award. She has played in three All-Star games. She won an Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012. Before Game 1 one of the finals, the 30-year-old was named one of the WNBA's 20 most influential players as it celebrates its 20th season.

But Parker has never been a WNBA champion. Not yet, at least.

"It's been a long time coming," Parker said after the Sparks' 19-point Game 3 win, of finally playing a home WNBA Finals game. "We said that this whole year, and it felt great to get out and to play."

Right before that, Parker was asked how badly she wanted this championship. At first she pursed her lips, looked at the microphone in front of her and shook her head. Then, after teammate Essence Carson detailed the Sparks' desire to finish it off, Parker subtly nodded at Carson to indicate her answer was the same.

It is, naturally, hard for her to describe her first tangible shot at winning it all.

When the Sparks walk into the Staples Center on Sunday, they will be 40 minutes away from the franchise's first title since 2002. Lisa Leslie was the face of the franchise then, and she helped the Sparks capture their two titles in back-to-back years. Parker has been the face of the franchise since 2008 and has led the team to the postseason in eight of her nine seasons. This is, however, her first trip to the finals.

"She just told me, 'Hey, we're not going to get a second opportunity like this,'" Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike said after Game 3. "That's her speaking from her experience, and point blank that's really what it's all about."

The Minnesota Lynx, on the other hand, have won three championships since 2011 and have four Olympians in their starting lineup. Parker has shrunk against them this season, and scored just six points in the Sparks’ 19-point Game 2 loss in Minnesota. 

That led to a charged performance on Friday, as Parker netted a game-high 24 points. She made deft moves on the block. She calmly buried mid-range jumpers. She spent most of the night gritting her teeth, at the refs, at her opponents, at herself.

"That was a product of me being nonexistent in every game we played against Minnesota this year," Parker said. "I went back and watched the film, and my presence wasn't there."

Now she is here, surrounded by crowds but also alone.

After the final buzzer sounded on Friday, Parker's daughter, Lailaa, ran to meet her at center court. Lailaa, wearing a purple Sparks jersey with her mom's name on the back, could not wait to brag about her own achievement.

"Mommy, I watched the whole game," Lailaa said to her. "No iPad!"

It was only confirmation that all eyes are on Parker. Next they could see history.

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse

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