Say hello to the bad guy, they say I'm a bad guy / I come from the bottom but now I'm mad fly / They say I'm a menace, that's the picture they paint / They say a lot about me, let me tell you what I ain't.
Candace Parker loves Jay-Z’s “Say Hello.” She too has been labeled many things: egotistical, standoffish to the media, difficult to play with, settles for too many jumpers, is too intense and argues with the referees too much.
“A lot of people love her, and a lot of people on the court hate her because of how good she is, how talented she is, but also because of the confidence she exudes,” says Connecticut Sun forward Chiney Ogwumike. “She’s very, very misunderstood.”
Few know the real Candace Parker. The woman who gets lost in books and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Kennedy family. The woman who almost two years after Pat Summitt’s death is still sometimes overcome with grief before taking the court. The woman who helped create the blueprint for 6’4” girls to pop threes, dazzle the ball between their legs and loop passes behind their backs. Parker is a pioneer, but she certainly isn’t past-tense.
Ten years into the league and she is arguably the most undervalued great of our time: two WNBA MVPs, one Finals MVP, two Olympic gold medals, one WNBA championship and trips to the Finals the last two seasons. And yet she seems to have been forgotten in a game that is trending younger and quicker. As women’s hoops has evolved into its most dynamic style yet, it’s easy to admire the building and forget about the architects.
“I feel like I’ve been playing this type of basketball for a long time,” Parker says. “It gets overlooked, you know? And it’s fine. I’m still going to continue to play and do what I do.” She smiles, in a way ballplayers do when they’re at the top of the key, crossing the ball left and right, looking their defenders in the eye, knowing they're about to give them buckets. “I’d rather be the hunter and not the hunted.”
Long before social media exploded over Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s dunking at the 2018 McDonald’s Dunk Contest in March, Parker was the first woman to win the contest, back in ’04, covering her eyes with her left arm and throwing down a right-handed jam. Parker went on to defeat future NBA players JR Smith, Rudy Gay and Josh Smith.
Parker was also one of the first to float between all five positions before doing so was en vogue. “She didn’t want to be put into one box,” says Holly Warlick, Tennessee’s head coach.
What she brought was new, thrilling, alarming. “Some coaches weren’t open to bigs being that way,” says Dawn Staley, USA’s coach for the 2020 Games in Tokyo if the team qualifies. “She was one that broke some traditional rules in American basketball.”
Staley isn’t the only one to recognize Parker’s groundbreaking style of play.
“She’s been doing this so good for so long, people kind of underestimate her,” says Seimone Augustus of the rival Minnesota Lynx. “They don’t look at what she’s doing as amazing. We may not see another player like this at her position for another 10 or 20 years.”
“I think she really is slept on,” Augustus says. “It looks so effortless, and people are like, ‘Oh, well, that’s what Candace do.’”
Parker was notoriously left off USA’s 2016 Olympic Team, which featured younger players like Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart. “They told me I wasn’t a top player at my position,” Parker says. Last March, it was unclear if the snub would affect her plans for 2020 (“I don’t know,” she told reporters). But now she reveals that she’ll never play for USA again. “I felt disrespected,” she says. She says it’s no secret she isn’t best friends with former USA coach Geno Auriemma (he’s UConn; she’s Tennessee). “In a sense, I’ve always been different.” (Auriemma, through UConn sports media, declined a request for an interview).
USA Basketball, according to Parker’s father, told her that she could essentially “resign”: Tell the public she wanted to take a step back and pass on the 2016 Olympics. That would give her cover.
Nope. She wouldn’t do it. “You guys make a decision, you call it,” Larry says, recalling his daughter’s mentality. “It’s nothing against Stewie. It’s nothing against Delle Donne. But if that’s the way you guys wanna do it, be my guest. Say what you gotta say.”
USA Basketball declined to comment and referred to 2016 statements from Carol Callan, the chair of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Selection Committee.
When standing firm with USA Basketball, Candace thought of her daughter, Lailaa. The 9-year-old girl with already size-7 ½ shoes who has traveled so much she has a second passport, who spent many months eating borscht with her Russian classmates while Candace played for UMMC Ekaterinburg. The bubbly girl who loves popcorn and Full House, who is silly, polite and vibrant—she is the one Candace seeks to impress. What the Olympic Committee sees or doesn’t see matters far less than her daughter’s vision of her.
“I’m not seeking approval. I’m seeking my daughter’s respect,” Parker says.
Lailaa is who she thought of as she pushed the Sparks to the 2016 Finals. In Game 5, she maneuvered past three defenders, twisting her body for a left-handed scoop, falling down after being smacked at the rim. She sprung back up, posting 28 and 12 en route to Finals MVP honors to win her first title, which had been elusive for eight dogged years.
Don’t challenge Parker.
In seventh grade, Parker’s dominance so frustrated her defender that the girl spit on her: A giant, wet blob landed on Parker’s jersey. The next three minutes? Parker flew, swatting shots, intercepting passes, drop-stepping in rampage, as her team won by more than 20.
Coach Pat Summitt wanted that Parker, so she had reserves foul the daylight out of her in practice at Tennessee. But it didn’t matter. Parker would churn out six, seven and eight straight points. “Fire coming out of her nostrils,” Warlick says about one of those practices.
She won a national championship while battling through a twice-dislocated shoulder, ignoring the pain bolting up her arm every time she caught the ball. And as a pro, she came back, full speed, to the Sparks just five weeks after giving birth to Lailaa. “People were like: ‘Oh, you can’t be a professional athlete and a mother. You have to be one or the other,” Parker says.
So much for that.
After pregnancy, more challenges and more tests arose. Shoulder and knee injuries marred most of 2010 and 2011. She watched the 2011 All-Star Game from her couch, crying and angry, feeling left out. Four years into the league and she hadn’t been healthy enough to play in the event. “I’m going through this for a reason,” she told herself, and would keep telling herself, as injuries lingered and losses stung.
Parker exploded for 33 points, 15 boards and four blocks against the Lynx in the 2012 Western Conference Finals but lost the series. Season over. Again.
The next season, she played in her first All-Star Game and earned MVP. Then the Sparks fell to the Phoenix Mercury by one point as Brittney Griner sank a series-winning turnaround over her in the Western Conference Semifinals. Parker buried herself in her maroon and gold sheets the next day and didn’t do much for the next few weeks.
In 2015, she sat out the first half of the season and then came back to record a league-best 6.3 assists per game, the only non-guard to ever achieve that mark. Last season, she poured in the game-winning layup against the Mercury in the 2017 Western Conference Semifinals despite a sprained ankle but fell to the Lynx in the Finals again.
Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you.
“Why can’t I be healthy? Why can’t I catch a break?” Parker has questioned. She has felt disappointed about not yet capturing the six rings she set out to win to match Michael Jordan.
But the black-and-white lens in which a young Parker once viewed success has grayed. She’s learned to live with outcomes, not as she wants them to be but exactly as they are, in all their glory and agony.
She says reading Chop Wood Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf on a flight shifted her focus from the result to the process. She reached page 49, a section about how golf balls were first created perfectly smooth, without any dimples. Then a man tested how far balls with imperfections would travel, given that such blemishes can create a thin layer of turbulence around the ball, which can affect its trajectory.
“They figured out that the balls flew better the more dented and hit they were,” Parker says. “So I was just like, ‘Wow.’ That’s kind of how it is. I feel like I’ve flown farther because I’ve been hit, bruised, challenged.”
Parker doesn’t allow just anyone to see those bruises. “You have to earn her trust,” says close friend Justine Brown. “But when you do, then you get the whole world.”
Back at Naperville Central High School, Parker once sprinted to the water cooler after being subbed out. “She’s the best player in the country, and she’s filling up cups for people,” says Naperville Central’s coach, Andy Nussbaum. Another game, she scanned the stat book. Naperville Central assistant coach Alan Harris chided her, thinking she was admiring her line. “No, I’m trying to see who hasn’t scored so I can give them the ball.”
“I tell her all the time: ‘CP, we know you can do everything, but you don’t have to,’” Nneka Ogwumike, Parker’s Sparks teammate, says. “She has to hold a lot on her shoulders, but she’s realized that she has a support system that can help her and it doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s being weak.”
When Ogwumike, who played the same position as Parker and had the potential to be just as dominant, joined the Sparks, Parker wasn’t resentful. She helped Ogwumike rise to league MVP in 2016 by becoming a better passer. “A lot of times veterans may feel threatened by younger players coming in and establishing themselves, but she embraced it,” Ogwumike says.
Parker took the team out for dinner in downtown Minneapolis the night before Game 5 of the 2016 Finals. She popped in the 30 for 30 on the Detroit ‘Bad Boys’ Pistons, explaining that some think the Sparks are soft. No more. They’d need to be gritty, nasty, all-out, all-game, like Detroit. She opened up to her team that night: “We have to dig deep.”
Parker’s brother Marcus understands why his sister can still be guarded: Her every move is dissected; her every word is analyzed. But he wishes people knew how funny she is. “I told her, you should do a podcast, do something,” Marcus says. “At this point, you could let more of you out there.”
She’s starting to. As a studio analyst during the 2018 men’s NCAA basketball tournament, sports fans watched Parker, grinning, bouncing up and down in her Tennessee-orange blazer as if she were trying to ignite a run for the No. 3 Vols against No. 11 Loyola of Chicago. Then she grew serious, crossing her arms and narrowing her eyes. She bent over like she was about to lock someone up. The hunter isn’t done yet.
It’s a new season, but some things will probably stay the same. Parker visualizes plays, moves, offenses for hours in her head. “She’s always thinking,” Sparks general manager Penny Toler says. “She’ll probably analyze a game before it starts in 100 different ways.”
She will still be overcome with thoughts of how Summitt would scream, “PARKER!!!” and kick her out of drills when she failed to deny the high post, or the hours the two talked after practice or the ice cream Summitt made from scratch.
Parker will still take comfort in her tattoos: “Left foot, right foot, breathe,” a Summitt saying, is scribbled on her right forearm. “To whom much is given, much is expected” is on her left wrist.
Maya Moore’s series-ending dagger runner in the final seconds of the 2017 Finals is still probably tattooed in her mind, burning in her chest.
And there will probably be more hurdles to overcome.
“I was always taught to dream extremely big, that nobody should have higher expectations for myself than myself. I don’t want to say I expected this, but I dreamed of this,” Parker says, with the wisdom of someone who seems of this moment with the foresight to see beyond it.
“I didn’t dream of my injuries, my setbacks,” she says. “I think despite that, to still be where I am? I take a lot of pride in that.”