Candace Parker revolutionized basketball, but she’s not done
It started to sink in at home. Candace Parker was at the crescendo of her career: two high school state titles in Illinois, two college national championships at Tennessee; finally her first WNBA championship.
The height of her success also came during a year of significant heartbreak: the loss of her legendary college coach Pat Summitt, to whom she tearfully dedicated the long-awaited title, and a controversial snub from the 2016 Olympic team.
It weighed on the Sparks star forward after she returned to L.A. from Minnesota, where she was named Finals MVP of an epic five-game series against the Lynx. She was exhausted. She was happy.
She wasn’t content.
“There are a lot of people that have one,” Parker said recently, “but winning two is really the bar.”
Parker reaffirmed her status as one of the best in the WNBA this season, when the 34-year-old averaged 14.7 points, a league-leading 9.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists and carried the Sparks to the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, where they earned a bye to Thursday’s single-elimination second round.
What started as a “trial year” to test her body against the toll of time and injuries has ended with the Associated Press defensive player of the year award and a most valuable player campaign. Yet there are no stat lines or individual awards that seem to appease Parker. She is a two-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time All-Star. There’s only one trophy that can put the final embellishment on her Hall of Fame resume.
“If she wins another championship, she is no doubt amongst the greatest,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said. “I do think that it’s something that people frown upon that she’s only won one. But still, she’s changed the game.”
There were no limits in the Parker household, whether it came to gender or sports. Growing up in suburban Chicago, Parker remembers her mother, who stayed at home while raising three kids, mowing the grass as often as her father cooked. Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali were celebrated in the Parker home as advocates as much as athletes.
It’s no surprise that when Parker stepped onto the court, she also didn’t fit one role.
The 6-foot-4 Parker was always tall for her age, but Parker’s father warned she might suddenly stop growing because her grandmothers are 5-11 and 5-5. Larry Parker, who coached his daughter’s youth teams, didn’t want her to be a guard with only post moves. People gave him curious looks when his star player, who dominated shorter players at the basket, was passing, dribbling and shooting from distance as a point guard.
Sparks forward Candace Parker was voted the Associated Press defensive player of the year Tuesday. She was also named to the AP All-WNBA team.
Those side-eye glances turned into awe-inspired looks.
“She broke a lot of barriers for women,” said Holly Warlick, a former Tennessee assistant under Summitt. “I think she was one of the few that started that trend of women being able to play any position they want to play regardless of their height.”
Parker’s unique abilities made her a draft dream for the WNBA in 2008 as the league looked for marketable stars. No one seemed better than the two-time John R. Wooden Player of the Year.
Parker signed deals with Adidas and Gatorade before making her pro debut. She was the first WNBA player to win rookie of the year and MVP in the same year, and quickly booked commercials alongside Ali and Dwyane Wade for Gatorade and with Dwight Howard for McDonald’s.
Now with endorsements that include shoes and cereal, Parker’s off-court ambitions might be just as influential as her iconic game.
“She is the face of that Black girl hooper,” 24-year-old Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson said. “She’s still my role model to this day.”
From initiating Parker into the league with brutal practice battles, former Sparks forward turned Old Dominion head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones is seeing glimpses of Parker’s legacy on the recruiting trail. There are talented post players who can handle the ball, but none who has all the skills, grace and athleticism of Parker. Yet.
“There’s a second coming of her,” Milton-Jones said. “It’s just a matter of time before we see it.”
If Milton-Jones gets a Parker-level recruit, it will be “the highlight of my career,” the two-time WNBA champion said. She is holding out for Parker’s daughter.
Lailaa, 11, is the center of Parker’s busy world, which also includes roles as an NBA analyst on TNT and an active voice in the WNBA’s calls for social justice.
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The busier the schedule, the better, Parker said. It keeps her engaged, yet it is also the cause of occasional “mom guilt.”
Lailaa traveled the world as a baby during her mother’s overseas playing career and is in the WNBA bubble. Parker prides herself on knowing all of Lailaa’s teachers and best friends’ names. But she can’t be at every practice like Parker’s stay-at-home mother did for her.
Though she must make some sacrifices at Lailaa’s expense, Parker hopes they pay off as her growing career creates a larger platform for advocacy. Parker penned an essay in Time this year on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and voiced the Sparks’ promo video for its “Change Has No Offseason” social justice initiative.
Parker wants her nieces, nephews and daughter to see adults voting. She wants the next generation to be as excited about casting their first ballot at 18 as they are to buy their first legal drink at 21. She used to hear stories of Russell and Ali standing alone for their beliefs, but now she’s helping the WNBA stand united for a greater impact.
“To have entire sports leagues trying to make it better and to try and make it better for the next generation, that’s inspirational for me,” Parker said.
More than a decade after she became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game and the second to do so in the WNBA, Parker keeps pace with young stars by relying on her smarts. She plays the angles, studies the scouting reports and knows tendencies. Boxing out on rebounds? She actually has to do it now, the veteran chuckled.
While Parker might have lost a step, her experience makes it look “like she’s in the matrix,” Milton-Jones said.
When Parker was a rookie, she teased Milton-Jones for her “science kit,” a rolling suitcase full of physical therapy tools the veteran carried everywhere. Now Milton-Jones is the one laughing. Parker’s room in Bradenton, Fla., is full of every massage gun, stretch band and foam roller possible.
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When hamstring and ankle injuries led to career-low averages in points, rebounds and blocks last year, Parker defiantly tested the theory her career was in irreversible decline by buying a Peloton bike and working out five to six times a week through the offseason and coronavirus outbreak. What looked like the beginning of the end now looks like a second beginning; Robinson estimates Parker could play an additional five to seven years if she wanted.
With the desire for a second championship still burning, Parker doesn’t have a timeline for when she’ll step away, but said she’ll know when it’s time. She doesn’t want to cheat the game.
“I want to go out still standing,” Parker said.
Where Parker stands among the game’s greats can be debated endlessly. Many of her longtime rivals in that conversation have multiple championships with their individual accolades. Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi each have three titles. Sylvia Fowles, the league’s all-time-leading rebounder who was drafted second behind Parker, has two. Seimone Augustus, now Parker’s teammate, has four.
Early in Parker’s career, Milton-Jones told her that although she was already a star in the league, she needed a championship to go to another galaxy. In 2016, she did that. To her view, Parker remains in rarefied air.
“[Pundits] like to throw that term ‘GOAT’ around,” Milton-Jones said. “It would behoove them to add Candace Parker to that list. … If she’s given anything less than that, then she’s been cheated.”
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