CHICAGO – Before the game Sunday, Candace Parker—the now-two-time WNBA champion—kept all of her emotions in check. She was expressionless and didn't want to think or talk about the moment that potentially lay ahead.
"I just want to stay present," she said. "That's been my goal this year, to stay in the moment, to stay present."
After hitting the game-tying three-pointer with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, Parker was ready to let her emotions take over. The Chicago Sky had inexplicably outscored their opponents by 15 points in the final quarter to come from behind to beat the Phoenix Mercury, 80-74, to claim the franchise's first-ever WNBA title.
Parker dribbled out the clock, and with her parents and extended family in attendance, the two-time league MVP admitted it felt like she was about to win the high school state championship, not the WNBA Finals.
As the gold confetti came down, Parker hugged WNBA Finals MVP and close friend Kahleah Copper. The two text every morning before games, keeping each other locked in mentally for what lies ahead. Copper squeezed her teammate hard, but Parker's walls hadn't quite collapsed.
She then saw an outline of someone in light blue jeans and a black pinstriped Sky jersey over a sky-blue long-sleeve zip-up and a black beanie hat. Parker smiled and gestured for the person to come over.
Once her daughter, Lailaa, dodged the yellow rope where the championship trophy and celebrations were taking place, Parker's walls fell. She sobbed, her nose turned bright red and she rocked back and forth, holding her child.
They both ducked under the rope with Parker holding the game ball. "Hey, it's amazing," the 2016 Finals MVP said. "Look at the city. They all showed up, man. They all showed up."
Parker lives by her actions, not necessarily by her words. She's a thoughtful speaker but wants you to know her career isn't about the boxes checked off in her 14 seasons in the WNBA, but rather the journey to get there. The struggle. The mental and emotional toll the game she loves puts her through.
"I think sometimes you don't have to tell your story; time will," Parker said after the game. "I think that's something that I've lived by. I think everybody up here has had that moment where they've felt like they have to tell their side of the story, and you don't have to. Like, just put your head down, continue to work, do what's right, be a good person, work hard, give energy, and the world will give back to you."
She's been called overrated and even benched in the postseason. But now her household name status in Chicago has been sealed. The same goes for veteran Sky teammate Allie Quigley.
Quigley, a DePaul grad playing on her former college's court, knocked down shots when Courtney Vandersloot and Copper went cold from beyond the arc. The Mercury had dared the Sky to shoot from deep and played more aggressively in the paint defensively in Game 4. Phoenix's game plan worked until Quigley heated up in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 of her 26 points on 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
Finals MVP Copper, who was contained Sunday by more of a physical Phoenix defense, knew Quigley was going to come up huge.
"I knew we were going to win this championship yesterday when Allie was the only one in the gym shooting," Copper said. "We came in for film, everybody was gone, we knew we didn't have [a] shootaround. Allie was the only person in the gym shooting. At that moment, I knew we were going to win the championship."
As the other hometown hero, much was at stake for Quigley. On Sunday morning, Parker sent the shooting guard a photo of when the two were in high school. They were two of the best basketball players in the state—fast-forward 17 years, and they were back together where it all started for the two WNBA veterans.
Sky head coach and general manager James Wade reflected on the journey and all of the untold stories of his players. "Now, this is how you make household names in your city," he noted postgame. "People are going to go around, they're going to know who Sloot [Courtney Vandersloot] is; they're going to know who Kah [Kahleah Copper] is."
Sky point guard Vandersloot was one rebound shy of a triple-double in Game 4. Parker hauled in the last rebound to run the clock down but regretted not knowing of her point guard's stat line:
"Sorry. I'm just saying, a triple-double in Game 4 of the Finals?" Parker asked. "I feel like we should have known that. I would have tipped it."
A theme that the fab four in Parker, Quigley, Vandersloot and Copper all expressed was gratitude. This championship wasn't for any individual. When Copper addressed the press in her WNBA champions attire, she thanked a few people, including those who do all of the work behind the scenes that goes relatively unnoticed.
Quigley recalled the team came to an understanding after the Sky ended their season on an inconsistent note. To get out of the funk, they all stated who or what they were going to play for.
"We did this for each other," Quigley said. "[We were at] Kind of like a breaking point probably a month ago, and I feel like we all looked at each other and we said, 'what are we going to play for?' And Candace, the first thing she said she was going to play for me. It was just so inspiring that she wanted me to win a championship so bad, and I just—it just made me want to play harder."
The Sky were fueled by their belief in each other, to prove all of their haters wrong, including this writer, who wrote about their topsy-turvy regular season before embarking on the postseason.
I questioned if Parker could really take her new team of less than a year to the Finals and win it all. She and her team defied expectations.
Game 4, which clinched the Sky's first championship in franchise history, wasn't pretty. They didn't blow out the Mercury like Friday night's 86-50 win. Chicago trailed Phoenix for a majority of the game. But similar to their season, they buckled down in the fourth quarter and played for each other after a less-than-perfect previous three quarters.
Parker saw their championship-clinching game as a symbol for their season. They lost seven straight at one point before winning seven straight. Their defense was brilliant. Their offense was out of whack.
But anyone familiar with the Sky's season knows Parker did this for more than one reason: She wanted this for Chicago, for her support network, for her family.
She went through spring, summer and fall with her daughter Lailaa not always by her side. It was a new normal for Parker. When Parker didn't feel like working out or continuing to grind, Lailaa kept her going. Lailaa sacrificed time with her mom so she could fulfill her dream and bring a championship back to her hometown.
"She came out to the court and said, 'we did it,' and it was just, like, surreal," Parker said.
Cue tears of joy.