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Candace Parker's Roller-Coaster Career Finally Includes WNBA Championship

Michelle Smith@@macsmith413Special to Bleacher ReportOctober 21, 2016

Candace Parker speaks to reporters after the L.A. Sparks' thrilling win over the Minnesota Lynx in a decisive WNBA Finals Game 5 Thursday night.
Candace Parker speaks to reporters after the L.A. Sparks' thrilling win over the Minnesota Lynx in a decisive WNBA Finals Game 5 Thursday night.David Sherman/Getty Images

The emotion—a combination of elation and relief—poured out of Candace Parker for a long time after the buzzer sounded.

As Lindsay Whalen’s desperation heave at the buzzer bounced off the glass and away, and the 19,423 fans gathered at the Target Center stood in stunned silence at the Los Angeles Sparks’ 77-76 win over the Minnesota Lynx in Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, Parker fell to the floor, tackled by joyously sobbing teammate Kristi Toliver.

When she stood, the tears flowed as she hugged team owner Magic Johnson. As ESPN’s Holly Rowe interviewed her in the postgame celebration, Parker could barely speak, saying only that "This is for Pat," referring to her mentor Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach who died earlier this season. Her knees buckled and she bent over at the waist, overcome again.

This title meant everything to Parker.

"This is her life, her legacy, this is what you dream of," said Cynthia Cooper, who won four titles with the Houston Comets from 1997-2000. Cooper, now the USC women’s basketball coach, watched from San Francisco at a private dinner with the Pac-12 coaches and celebrated a Sparks win. "This is why she works hard every day; this is why you sacrifice for these moments. I know Candace Parker is feeling like it’s all worth it."

Winning a WNBA championship has been Parker’s goal, her quest and her albatross since she entered the league in 2008, played alongside Lisa Leslie and immediately became the league MVP and its Rookie of the Year in the same season.

When Parker arrived to take the baton, Leslie already had her titles in Los Angeles. She won two in a row in 2001 and 2002—making the Sparks still the last team to win back-to-back titles. Leslie mentored Parker and tried to set her up for the same kind of success. But it’s been a long wait. Longer than many people might have thought considering Parker’s immense talent.

The road has never been smooth for Parker, the Chicago native whose spectacular combination of length, grace and versatility redefined the women’s game.

"Her talent has never been in question," Cooper said.

She was a superstar at Tennessee who never seemed entirely comfortable with the unprecedented attention she received in college. She would win back-to-back titles with Summitt and the Volunteers before turning pro.

Parker earned a reputation as a supremely gifted but sometimes difficult player who didn’t always get along with WNBA coaches and didn’t always bring her A-game to the floor. And the Sparks got a reputation for underachieving, which also always seemed to be a knock on Parker. With Parker flanked by talent such as Toliver and eventually Nneka Ogwumike, Jantel Lavender and Alana Beard, the Sparks have been known best in recent years for falling short.

The shift toward Thursday's triumph began in January 2014, when the Sparks ownership group announced it would not be able to keep the team and turned it over to the WNBA. The team was nearly acquired by the Golden State Warriors for a move to the Bay Area and stayed in Los Angeles when a new ownership group, led by Johnson, took over.

Since then, Parker and the Sparks have settled into an upward climb. Johnson hired Brian Agler, who won a WNBA title in Seattle, to be the head coach. Parker chose to sit out half of the 2015 season to rest her body after years of year-round basketball, and she returned to lead the Sparks back to the playoffs.

Then this season, her ninth in the WNBA, proved to be a roller coaster like no other. Parker was left off the U.S. Olympic team after being a part of the previous two Olympic rosters, a move that many viewed as political and an issue of personality rather than merit.

She responded by helping to push the Sparks to a 20-1 record—tied for the best start in WNBA history. By the time it was announced she was left off the All-WNBA team, her team was deep into a playoff run that would culminate in the best five-game series in league history.

"I’ve never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard, and I’ve never been more happy than I am for Candace tonight for what she’s gone through this season," Agler said after Thursday’s game, playing "Rocky Top" on his cellphone. "It’s been unbelievable. She’s stayed on the high road, fought through everything, stayed with it."

Now her long-awaited reward: Parker will get her ring. She will be known as a WNBA champion. And perhaps most importantly, she will no longer be known as the best player who hasn’t won a WNBA championship.

"It’s been the one thing missing in her list of accomplishments," said ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, one of the WNBA’s founding players back in 1997. "It’s really driven her. She can exhale and enjoy and know that she won’t have it hanging over her head."

Parker can’t really blame anyone for thinking it might not happen this time, either.

The best chance looked to have come and gone Sunday night. With Johnson and Kobe Bryant sitting courtside and ready to celebrate, with a big home crowd at Staples Center and a national TV audience watching in anticipation of a closeout, Parker struggled.

The Lynx hounded her into a tough night, Maya Moore outplayed her and Minnesota came away with an 85-79 win that sent the series back to Minneapolis for a deciding Game 5 and a strong feeling that the momentum had shifted back to the Lynx. Minnesota was set up to become the second team to win four titles and the first to repeat since 2002.

The Lynx don’t lose often at home on a regular day. They are even tougher to beat at the Target Center in the playoffs. Moore, trying to add to her own legacy by winning her fourth title before her 28th birthday, wasn’t going to let it happen any other way.

Except…Parker wasn’t ready to give up on her quest quite yet.

Playing with energy and purpose, Parker pushed her team through another thrilling back-and-forth game, cemented by Ogwumike’s putback with 3.1 seconds to go.

"I wasn’t upholding my end of the bargain in this series for my teammates," Parker said. "In years past, maybe I was doing a lot, and maybe I could have used a little help. But this year, it was on me. My teammates were doing their part, and I had to step up and do mine."

Parker finally earned the title she coveted because she leaned on her teammates.

"It’s like the weight of the world has been lifted. She won a WNBA championship," Sparks TV analyst Mary Murphy said. "It’s something she’s had to carry since she entered the league. But it’s not just about Candace. It’s about Nneka being an MVP and veterans like Toliver and Jantel Lavender, and the European players they brought in and a great coach in Brian Agler. This whole thing is what made this work."

Parker finished with 28 points in Game 5 and the WNBA Finals MVP award. But that’s not the trophy she ever cared about taking home. Parker admitted after the game this last year has been difficult.

"My teammates and my coaches were always there for me," Parker said. "It’s amazing when you surround yourself with great people, how fun it is, and how exciting it is when you get what you want."

Parker said she talked to Johnson after the game about their now-shared experience.

"I was like, 'You did this five times? Like you felt this feeling five times? This is how it is?'" Parker said. "The journey is difficult, but once you get here and you feel this feeling, it’s like you want to do it again."

      

Michelle Smith has covered several sports, including college football, college basketball, the Olympics and the WNBA, for a variety of outlets, including AOL Fanhouse, espnW.com and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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