The final buzzer had just sounded on the 2016 WNBA season and, still, Candace Parker was hustling back. There was a news conference to attend in Minneapolis, deep inside the Target Center, following the Los Angeles Sparks’ 77–76 road upset of the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 of the WNBA finals. And Parker—who contributed a line fit for distinction as series MVP (28 points, 12 rebounds and, stunningly, only one foul)—for the victorious side, didn’t want to be any later to this welcome obligation than, well, she already had been.
Little did she know that her coach, Brian Agler, had not only saved her a seat at the dais, but also a song. When she walked into the pressroom, he struck up his smartphone. Out of its tinny speakers leaked “Rocky Top,” the fight song she made her standard at the University of Tennessee. “I was really excited just to be in that moment,” Parker says of her professional breakthrough, days later, from her home in Los Angeles. “And then obviously to walk in and to know that he thought that out? It meant a lot to me. He knows how much Coach meant to me.”
The capital-C coach that the 30-year-old Parker means to evoke here of course is the great Pat Summitt—her fierce mentor, second mom and chief tormentor from 2005 through ‘08. It was under Summitt’s icy blue gaze that Parker overcame a devastating ACL injury that wiped out her freshman season on the way to becoming a two-time NCAA champion. It was through Summitt shouting herself hoarse and stomping her feet numb that Parker emerged as the most unstoppable force in the college game: an ankle-breaking, a turnaround-jumper-swishing, loose-ball-snatching dynamo who—oh by the way—could throw down the occasional dunk or two.
Weeks after winning title No. 2, Parker was selected first in the WNBA draft. (This after rumors that she might leave school early.) What’s more, she was picked by the Sparks, a two-time WNBA champion led on the floor by Hall of Fame center Lisa Leslie and coached by former Showtime Laker Michael Cooper. Really, Parker’s life looked destined to play out in an infinite loop, with one shining moment fading into the next. That ’08 year, which ended with her winning league MVP and rookie of the year and a gold medal in the Beijing Games with Team USA, seemed but a sweet sampling of things to come.
But then Parker threw the basketball world into a spasm with her marriage to Sheldon Williams, the former Duke All-America who nearly recruited her to Durham. Not long thereafter, she announced that they were expecting their first child and would be missing part of her second pro season as consequence.
At that time, pregnancy wasn’t exactly a new WNBA phenomenon. LA, after all, never drafts Parker without Leslie going on maternity leave in ’07. Still, Leslie was wrapping up her career. Parker’s was just beginning. To more than a few, it appeared she was already finished. “I think a long time ago I cared what people thought about me,” Parker says. “I don’t anymore. You have to live your life and do what you feel is best for yourself and for your family. At the end of the day, if you do something to please other people and it doesn’t work out, you’re gonna get the same blame. So you might as well do what makes you happy.”
And while motherhood hardly diminished Parker, who earned another MVP trophy and three All-Star nods after giving birth to a daughter, Lailaa, she soon found herself being overshadowed nonetheless by a fresh wave of once-in-a-generation talents. None has loomed larger than Maya Moore, merely a humble national freshman of the year winner at UConn when Parker and the Lady Vols buzzed through her and the Huskies en route to the ‘08 NCAA crown. After that, though, the women swapped roles. Moore, a bona fide superstar for the Lynx, became the one who wins titles wherever she dribbles, while Parker labored through more injuries, a stacked Western Conference and the possibility that her team might wind up in the Bay Area under new management.
All of it felt like such a hardship to Parker until late last June, when Summitt passed away at age 64 from complications related to her protracted battle with Alzheimer’s. “I think all her life lessons come about at different points,” says Parker. “I hear her words come right out of my mouth.”
One Summitt saying in particular, Handle success as you handle failure, really buoyed Parker when USA Basketball bumped her from the roster for the Rio Games—ostensibly to make room for Breanna Stewart, a rookie pivot for the Seattle Storm. That Stewart also happened to play her college ball at UConn, Tennessee’s ancestral hoops rival and the chosen school of four national team players and its esteemed head coach, Geno Auriemma, was too rich a coincidence.
Even Summitt, still the most fiery competitor this game’s ever seen, would have to appreciate Parker’s reflex to retreat into her feelings some. “You get upset a little bit. You ask why a little bit,” says Parker, who spent the Games following everything but Team USA Basketball—soccer, gymnastics and every start her Sparks teammate Ana Dabovic made for Serbia (which finished two levels below the US on the medal podium). “But hindsight is 20/20. I think [the snub] allowed us (the Sparks) to really focus on this goal of winning the WNBA championship.”
And focus the Sparks did, winning 20 of 21 games out of the gate on the way to the league’s second-best record. When the WNBA begun seeding playoff teams by order of finish in the league and not by conference, the Sparks, anchored by Parker and Nneka Ogwumike (another prominent Team USA snub who was voted league MVP this year), went on something of a Rio revenge tour. In the semifinals, they dispatched with the Chicago Sky (whose star, Elena Delle Donne, is a USA Basketball newbie but missed the series because of injury).
In the finals they squared off against the Lynx, which count five newly minted gold medalists on its roster: Moore, center Sylvia Fowles, guards Simone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen, and coach Cheryl Reeve, who flanked Auriemma on the bench. The supporting cast, on both sides, was no less impressive. Guards Kristi Tolliver (of the Sparks, who may well have splashed the second-best jumper of the series) and Renee Montgomery (of the Lynx) aren’t that far removed from leading their college teams (respectively, Maryland and UConn) to NCAA titles. It’s no wonder then that folks turned up by the tens of thousands to watch them all ball; at the Staples Center, the Sparks home gym, some revelers even found themselves sitting among the likes of Kobe Bryant, Snoop Dogg and Cedric the Entertainer.
On Thursday, midway through Game 5, which saw a slew of lead changes and both teams hit a combined 48% from the floor, you could follow on Twitter as one primetime viewer after another flipped over from a drowsy Thursday night NFL feature, to the W’s decisive game. In a career full of big-stage moments, this was easily Parker’s biggest. “When we got up eight with two minutes to go,” she says, “that’s when I started saying, this is possible. It reminded me so much of just different stages in my life in high school, in college. There have been so many times in that Lynx locker room where we’ve been upset and disappointed after losing a game that was within reach—like last year, our season ended there.”
When Ogwumike’s bucket gave LA a go-ahead lead with 1:12 left in the game, a weight was lifted. A wait was over. Never mind if the shot should not have counted. “We’ve been on the other side of these calls—last-second shots, phantom fouls, backcourt violations—a lot,” says Parker. “So I do believe that referee error is part of the game. And so when you critique something that happens in the closing minutes of the game over the big picture, my response to that would be, ‘What about the previous game? What about the backcourt violation?’ That changes the series, and maybe there isn’t a Game 5. You can go back and forth.
“The bottom line is we scored one more point than they did and won the championship. Nobody’s gonna tell us otherwise.”
Nobody can tell Parker that shot changes the trajectory of her career, either. “Am I a different player if Nneka doesn’t hit that putback and we lose? No. We just finally did it, finally won. I think everybody has to understand that people’s journeys are different. If [San Antonio’s] Sophia Young’s shot doesn’t go in my rookie year [of the ’08 Western Conference finals, which LA lost in three games], me and Lisa probably win a championship. Then where’s my legacy?
“It’s like the little possessions—one or two points, a rebound, a last-second shot—that separates people’s opinions from who you really are. But I didn’t train any different. It’s just that now I’m reaping the benefits. It’s just that now I let go. I relinquish the results. I focus on the process, on doing the little things well. I think in years past, especially when I was playing with Lisa, I was focusing on the prize. But you lose sight of all the little things you have to do to get there.
“I’m sorry for my tangent, but I just think in the sports world it’s so unfair that LeBron James went from one second, being the goat if Kyrie doesn’t hit that three to, We always knew you were great! You know what I mean? That one thing can change the whole course. If Kyrie doesn’t hit that three, does Kevin Durant go to the Golden State Warriors? It’s just little things to me that are so funny to watch how people’s opinions change based on one event.”
So Parker will keep marching to her own beat. She’ll keep playing for herself, for Lailaa (who’s 7 now) and for Summitt—who Parker swears was with her Thursday night. “Before the game,” she says, “I watched one of Pat’s speeches, the one she gave us at halftime of the North Carolina game in ’07, and . . . I felt it, you know? She was definitely present. I felt her presence that night. I think she’d be most proud of the journey that it took to get here. This is definitely for her.”