Candace Parker is a true baller. Her legacy only grew richer when she helped bring her hometown of Chicago its first ever WNBA title. When she hugged her 12-year-old daughter Lailaa while still clutching the game ball in her left hand, the tears flowed freely. This wasn’t Candace’s first WNBA championship – but this was different. Her first title came with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. Anytime a player can hoist the WNBA Championship trophy while showered with confetti, it’s certainly a joyous occasion. But, doing it in your hometown for the home team hits different.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri to Sara and Larry Parker, the 6 foot 4 inches star moved to Naperville, Illinois at the age of 2. Hoops were a family affair – Larry played for the University of Iowa, and older brother Anthony played nine seasons in the NBA and was recently named an assistant general manager for the Orlando Magic. Those can be big shoes to fill and that was the sentiment that made Candace a little hesitant to lace up and hit the hardwood. Her decision to jump in feet first in the eighth grade changed the trajectory of her life forever.
She spent the next four years at Naperville Central High School where she racked up a school-record 2,768 points and 1,592 rebounds while leading the squad to back-to-back state titles her junior and senior years. By the time she left for the University of Tennessee, the former soccer enthusiast had etched her name in the record books as the only two-time USA Today High School Player of the Year. She was also a two-time Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, the Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, and a McDonald’s All-American, among numerous other accolades. A scroll down her long list of accomplishments will also reveal the time a 15-year-old Candace dunked for the first time in competition. She later went on to win the slam dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-American game – beating out future NBA stars Josh Smith and J.R. Smith. Feats like that led to the forward/center becoming a household name by the age of 18.
Candace was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks with the first overall pick of the 2008 WNBA draft after leading the Lady Vols to back-to-back national championships and etching her name in the record books of the storied program. Her success in high school and college followed her into the league where she became the first player in the league to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Winning came naturally to her and that’s why her story is such a compelling one. A look at Candace’s career statistics and accolades would suggest that she has been merely one of God’s favorites – blessed with a unique set of skills that seemingly paved the way down the yellow brick road of prosperity. However, everything hasn’t always come up roses for the six-time WNBA All-Star.
Peppered throughout a 14-year professional career are twists and turns, obstacles and illusions. Off the court, Candace has loved and lost. She divorced former NBA player Shelden Williams in 2016 after eight years of marriage. Welcomed their daughter Lailaa in 2009, Candace played her rookie season not even knowing that she was pregnant. In a throwback post on Instagram, the two-time WNBA champion wrote in the caption, “Little did I know the best award I would take home 7 months later: Lailaa Nicole! She was in my belly in this picture. I was 8 weeks pregnant and had NO IDEA.”
Since the split, Candace has juggled being a single mother and a professional athlete with grace. But, of course, there have been hiccups. Injuries and heart-breaking losses made this title that much sweeter.
Sunday wasn’t Candace’s first Game Four. In fact, she had made two trips there before with the Sparks. In 2017, Los Angeles lost the final two games in the championship series after leading the Lynx 2-1. After being bounced in the 2018 playoffs in the second round by the Washington Mystics, the 2019 season ended on a peculiar note.
Candace, undoubtedly one of the faces of the league, was benched by head coach Derek Fisher down the stretch of an elimination game. LA was swept in three games by the Connecticut Sun. Voices around the league pondered what Fisher could have possibly been thinking. However, you don’t get to the level of Candace’s stature without some hate here and there. The same hate that labeled the star “selfish” for taking a year off for motherhood after winning rookie and MVP accolades was the same hate that led her fellow players to vote her “Most Overrated” in 2019. Benched and subjected to random movement of the goal post to indicate greatness, Candace has maintained that she is a winner. It’s that pedigree that led her to make a change. Prior to this season, she spent her entire WNBA career in the City of Angels. That’s 13 seasons, numerous records, and an indelible impression left on the franchise. It was time to go home – to Chi-Town.
After coming into the league amidst deafening fanfare, she didn’t win a championship until her ninth season. Everyone that has been an athlete knows that titles don’t come a dime a dozen. Skill hardly does it alone — there is the element of luck that many fail to acknowledge. In an interview with Chicago magazine this past spring, the 2-two NCAA champion brought some folks back down to reality. “Four times, I’ve been one shot away, so I could have been a four-time champion, but I still have the same knowledge and the same experiences,” she said. It’s that wealth of knowledge that came in handy for the Sky as they reined in the franchise’s first title. The team was founded before the 2006 season. In another Game Four, facing a determined Britney Griner, Diana Taurasi, and their Phoenix Mercury teammates, it was Candace’s turn. It was her time to shine. To win a championship on her home court after a 16-16 regular season and being all but counted out.
Winners are bred in challenging circumstances and Candace has shown that she can show up under pressure. Whether it’s as the lone female analyst going toe-to-toe with Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal – who can forget those epic debates on NBA on TNT – or balancing the rigors of motherhood while competing at the top of her game, Candace Nicole Parker is a winner. It’s an attribute that she is determined to pass on to Lailaa far beyond her playing years. As a matter of fact, she has prepped her offspring to succeed whether in the arena or outside of it. They are part of the ownership group of Angel City FC, a new National Women’s Soccer League team set to being competition in 2022. It was Lailaa that prompted Candace to leave the familiarity of Los Angeles as she was “eager to see her mother win again.” Something tells us this latest trophy isn’t that last victory we’ll see from the star athlete.