If you’ve just begun to follow the WNBA, there are a few names you are probably aware of. Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart have led the Seattle Storm to two championships in the last three years. A’ja Wilson just won the WNBA MVP and helped the Las Vegas Aces get to the WNBA Finals. Perhaps Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore have stuck in your mind as the centerpieces to the Minnesota Lynx dynasty. Then there are the newer stars like Sabrina Ionescu and Crystal Dangerfield, who burst onto the scene injecting their franchises with life.
But if there’s one player whose name and game have crossed your path, it’s more than likely Candace Parker, the former star of the Los Angeles Sparks.
After being the first overall pick in the 2008 WNBA Draft, Parker finished her rookie season by not only taking home Rookie of the Year honors but by winning Most Valuable Player. That’s a historic first season, as Parker became the first woman to win both awards in the same year. Talk about putting the rest of the league on notice.
For the Sparks, the emergence of Parker as a phenom signaled the changing of the guard and the end of the Lisa Leslie Era. Since the league’s inception, Lisa Leslie had been its face and the WNBA’s ambassador to the rest of the world. Even for this writer, the first WNBA player to catch my eye was Leslie after SportsCenter featured her dunk, the first in WNBA history.
In 2008, the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game and the first woman to dunk in an NCAA game were playing on the same team. The Sparks were launching themselves into the 2010s with a new face and a new attitude.
However, at that same time, the Minnesota Lynx and the Seattle Storm were beginning to build their own dynasties, leaving LA on the outside looking in. But in 2016, the Sparks were able to finally break through and win it all. The 2016 WNBA Championship, the elusive title that took Candace Parker 8 years to win, felt like the first of many. It would appear that the Sparks had finally arrived on the scene.
But four years later, after a tumultuous few seasons, Parker would be moving on from the Los Angeles Sparks, finding her way back home to the Chicago Sky in free agency.
It’s funny when you look back on how things might have gone if one or two things were different. Parker, who grew up outside of Chicago, was almost selected by the Chicago Sky. While there was no way the Sparks weren’t going to take her with the 1st overall pick, the Sky held the second pick.
The Chicago Sky narrowly missed out on winning the WNBA draft lottery, despite having the worst record in the Eastern Conference. For the next few seasons, the Sky would fail to finish a season above .500, until their franchise star came to town.
Elena Delle Donne was taken 2nd overall by the Sky in the 2013 WNBA Draft, and she was just what Chicago needed to pull themselves out of the basement. After drafting Delle Donne, the Sky finished 2013 in first place in the Eastern Conference.
The 2013 WNBA MVP? Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks.
The Sky would flirt with a WNBA title for the next few seasons, including a Finals appearance in 2014, where Diana Taurasi’s Mercury swept them in three games.
The closest they would come to a WNBA Finals after that loss would be in 2016, in a semifinals matchup with Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks, the eventual WNBA Finals MVP and League Champions.
That season’s MVP, however, was not Parker. Instead, it was her teammate Nneka Ogwumike. The 2012 first-overall pick was the perfect tandem to Parker’s game. But it also felt like Ogwumike was there to take the reins from Parker, who had now been with the team for almost a decade.
The Sparks would repeat their dominance in 2017, this time facing off against Whalen and Moore’s Lynx. Minnesota fended them off, taking the series in 5 games. The Sparks have not been back to the Finals since.
And neither have the Chicago Sky, as they fell back to the middle of the pack after that 2016 series against Los Angeles. But perhaps the biggest change for them was the trade that sent Delle Donne to the Washington Mystics, where she won a title in 2019.
And now, the Sky have a new face, a familiar face, leading their franchise.
The decision for Candace Parker to leave Los Angeles is one that should be sending shockwaves through the league, and through the sports world. It’s a shift in the landscape of the league for sure, but it’s also a LeBron returning to Cleveland of sorts.
Candace Parker has been a force for women’s basketball both on the collegiate and professional level for the better part of the last two decades. Even more, she took the torch from one of the most prolific basketball players of the last half century, and she ran with it. And now, she’s returning home, after making a decision she did not take lightly.
While making her call to leave LA, Parker called Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant to ask for their advice on how to navigate free agency as a superstar.
“The biggest thing that I got from them was ‘You need to follow your heart,'” Parker said to Insider. “‘You need to follow what you want and what you desire and let all of that other stuff take care of itself… And so I think that’s what I ultimately did.”
It cannot be easy to leave a team that has relied on you for so long and completely change the backdrop you’ve played in your entire career. And yet, here’s Parker taking it in stride, heading home to Chicago, playing for her city. But even further, she’s blazing a trail for those who have come after her. And she’s putting the WNBA on the same level as its male counterpart.
“I’m leaving because, contractually, I can go where I want, and I can make that decision. I think player empowerment is something that is super important and talked about more. I do believe that the WNBA and the NBA kind of mimic each other.”
“[If] my journey gives others the power to do what they want to do, I think it’s great.”
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