Destiny has a funny way of finding you. When you least expect it, you look around and realize that everything you’ve gone through has led you to this point. That this moment in time is what was meant for you. Destiny is how one could describe Candace Parker’s career. A journey filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the Naperville, IL, native has achieved more than anyone could ever imagine in a lifetime.
It’s an early morning off day for the Chicago Sky, who are playing the New York Liberty in a back-to-back series. Candace arrives in her practice gear and backpack ready for her SLAM cover shoot, and the minute she recognizes Jay-Z’s “Heart of the City” playing, she lights up and starts rapping every lyric. As she waits for the set to be ready, she picks up a ball, starts shooting around and continues spilling out every word of the song without missing a beat. At first glance, you wouldn’t think she’s the champion, TV analyst and overall legend that she is, but rather just a kid who loves to hoop, joke around and listen to Hov’s best bars. But then the list of accolades that goes on for pages and all of the historic moments in women’s basketball that she’s made happen to come to mind and you remember the greatness that is Candace Parker.
It all began in the suburbs of Chicago, where the Parker family enjoyed all things together. Debates, watching movies, listening to ’90s hip-hop, but most important of all, basketball. The love for the game was immediate for almost the entire family. Almost.
“I think my memories of growing up in Naperville were just following my brothers around everywhere,” Parker shares with SLAM. “My parents always told me I could do everything and more, so I think those are kind of my first memories. Going to the basketball park, going to games, those were our weekends. We went to the park every weekend and played H.O.R.S.E. as a family. My mom had a video camera, we had Sunday dinners…We always ate one meal together at the table. I think those are my fondest memories.”
Her father Larry was a standout player at Iowa, her oldest sibling, Anthony, picked up the game immediately and was selected in the 1997 NBA draft by the New Jersey Nets, and middle brother Michael played from day one as well. It was an instant connection to the leather ball from the start for most of the kids in the Parker family except for one. This curious young girl wanted to pave her own journey in something new, but as the saying goes, life had another plan for her.
“When I picked up a basketball, I didn’t want to pick it up,” the 14-year WNBA veteran recalls. “I played YBA growing up, which was a great experience, but I didn’t want to play basketball, I wanted to have my own thing. I wanted to play soccer. When I watched the ’96 Olympics, I wanted to be an Olympic soccer player. I wanted to be like Mia Hamm, like Briana Scurry. I wanted to be like all of them.”
It’s insanity to think that we almost missed out on the greatness that is CP3, but Mama Parker knew what Candace could do in the family business of basketball.
“It was kind of my mom who pulled me aside, because at the time my brother was brilliant and played basketball, my other brother was pretty smart and played basketball…Anthony’s gonna kill me for that,” Candace says with a laugh. “But they were just so great, you know, and I didn’t know if I could follow in their footsteps. I remember my mom being like, Baby, you can do both, you can do anything you put your mind to.”
From that moment on, Candace started focusing on basketball more and more. Trips to the park to practice on her own became regular and she gradually fell in love with the family business. While that love may have been gradual, her gift for the game was evident immediately.
“I just remember being in the gym in seventh grade and everybody before school would come in early and play and we would have basketballs and soccer balls. I just remember grabbing a tennis ball and going up and dunking,” the five-time All-Star reflects. “One of the substitute teachers was like, Uh, could you do that again? I was like, Yeah! And just went up and dunked. After that he was like, How old are you? And I was like, I’m 13, and he just shook his head.”
That’s really how it was for the insanely talented 13-year-old who had just only recently fully committed to the sport. By her sophomore year, Parker was already leading Naperville Central to state championships and was one of the highest ranked players in Illinois, but that wasn’t enough for her.
“I remember in eighth grade I was rated as one of the best players in the state and I was like, In the state?! I don’t want to be top in just the state. So, I think it was always that motivational thing,” she says.
Intensely competitive was her nature, built not only by her family, but her environment and the Chicago area as a whole. The first glimpses of top women’s talent at the amateur level on a national level started during her high school years, but the local coverage was one thing that was always constant in the ’Go.
“In terms of youth development, in terms of following kids from the time they’re in fourth or fifth grade, even before social media, that was Chicago,” Parker says. “Hoops Prep, you could watch Eddy Curry, Cappie Pondexter and I think that bred the next talent. I watched that and wanted to go out and work on my game so I could do that.”
The level of competition in the area constantly motivated Candace. She continued grinding and ended up making history along the way, becoming the first woman to win the slam dunk contest at the 2004 McDonald’s All-American Game.
Although Naperville Central’s star continued on her meteoric rise to national stardom, aspirations beyond college weren’t something that she thought of often while growing up. At the time, the WNBA had just formed and there was no real precedent for Candace to believe that going pro was a possibility.
“I really didn’t start thinking about professional basketball until I was probably in high school. My brother got drafted when I was in middle school, and I remember that was the coolest moment for our family, because I had all the posters, SLAM posters and SLAM covers. Allen Iverson was my idol. I really loved basketball, but I didn’t really start thinking of it professionally until my brother got drafted and then that was a real thing,” the 2013 WNBA All-Star MVP says.
It was the reality for young girls back then. Many didn’t believe that professional sports were something they would be able to pursue as a career beyond college, but once that possibility arose for Candace, there was a new goal to achieve. With that came the decision of where to spend her next four years preparing for the WNBA, which meant finding the right coach to help build her career.
And then Pat Summitt came along.
Tennessee wasn’t a program Candace had always envisioned herself playing for, mostly because they won so much under Summitt’s reign while she was growing up. Parker liked being the underdog. She wanted to help build something special and new at the next level. With the Lady Vols having gone through a championship drought in the late ’90s, the dunking superstar was ready to restore the winning culture at Tennessee. In November of 2003, she made it official and committed to play for Pat.
“It was my sophomore year, and she came to see me play, I’ll never forget it,” Parker says. “In North Carolina, at the tournament, she sat to the left of the bench. She had her bright orange stuff on, and that was a moment. That was one of those moment pictures that I took in my mind, because that was something I dreamed of. Watching her, I think as a basketball coach was extraordinary but watching her as a person was even more. That’s why I think my parents wanted me to go there, because they wanted me to have a strong woman as a leader to kind of show me more than just basketball.”
Just like destiny had planned, it was a moment and a person who would change her life forever.
From the very beginning, Candace had a special relationship with Coach Summitt, one filled with deep respect and a mutual desire to make each other better people, not just better players or coaches. With that bond from early on, Pat made good on her promise to help develop Candace—“as a player, as a person, and a student. We can have a lot of fun in the process,” the Lady Vols head coach penned in a recruiting letter to the budding star.
A few years later, Candace brought the winning back to Tennessee, helping lead the Lady Vols to back-to-back NCAA titles in ’07 and ’08. But even more important than that, she grew as a person and learned more than she could have ever hoped from the legendary coach.
“It’s weird, because when you’re going through it, you don’t understand the impact that it’s gonna have,” Parker says. “At 18-22 years old, I don’t think I understood the impact that she was having on my entire life. But to be able to see a role model, even the way I parent as a career mom now, I watched her balance that and she was always present. I think that’s the biggest thing, being present in the moment, making sure that the people around you understand how important you are to them. And I also think that it’s no longer a do-as-I-say, it’s a do-as-I-do. There’s a lot of people that can say stuff, but if I’m not seeing it on a daily basis, then you’re not gonna believe it. And I think everything Pat, you know, from winning championships, to battling a terrible disease, she did it with so much grace.”
Just days after winning her second NCAA title, Candace was drafted first overall in the 2008 WNBA draft to one of the best franchises in the League, the L.A. Sparks. Her first season would be one of the most memorable years in the history of the League. In her first game, she dropped 34 points, setting the record for most points scored in a career debut. Then, a month later, Candace threw down a dunk against the Indiana Fever, making her the second woman in history to dunk in a game (Lisa Leslie was the first, in 2002). By the end of the season, she averaged 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game and became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.
Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe what she did in 2008, not to mention the part that no one knew during the season.
“I was actually pregnant with [Lailaa] at the end of the year, my rookie year,” Candace says. “I accepted the MVP and Rookie of the Year trophy with my daughter and then from there it’s just been our journey.”
And so began one of the biggest transitions of her life that she’s most thankful for.
“I think it kind of taught me to bemore selfless. It’s not just about basketball, there’s more to life than just basketball, and I have her to thank for that,” Parker says.
While she had already accomplished so much, there was one thing that the new mom and Sparks’ star had on her mind—a WNBA Championship. In 2016, the opportunity finally came along, and while she was on the cusp of the elusive title, there was something else on her mind.
Pat Summitt lost her battle with Alzheimer’s disease in June of 2016. With that, the world lost a legend and role model, but for Candace, she lost a mentor. In one of the toughest years of her life, Candace knew that season just meant more. It was about more than just winning a championship for herself; it was for the woman who guided her journey to that title.
In a grueling series for the ages against Maya Moore and the Minnesota Lynx, it all came down to a winner takes all Game 5. With the clock running out and no timeouts left, Nneka Ogwumike grabbed her own rebound and made the game-winning putback. It was a moment and a series fans will remember forever.
“I remember a lot about that series. Just the grind, the focus, the energy that it took to even get through that series,” the 2016 Finals MVP says. “I think it also speaks to my innocence, because in 2008, we had a chance to go to the Finals and we lost on a last-second shot. I had a number of baskets that rolled off the rim. And I think that recognizing that, like, we won off of a rebound putback…And everybody after that is telling us that we’re the best thing ever off of one moment. I think it just kind of speaks to how you gotta stay the course.”
It was a moment that only further cemented her place in L.A. sports glory.
Los Angeles is a place that will forever have Candace’s heart. It was where her daughter grew up, where she herself grew up, and where she had some of the best moments of her life, both on and off the court. After that season, Candace started a second career while managing basketball, which of course included more basketball. She went on to join the Turner family and the NBA on TNT cast where you’ve seen her school Shaq and clown around with Chuck, Ernie and the gang.
“I am a basketball junkie. I love it as a player. I love it as a fan,” she gleams.
After 13 seasons in L.A. though, it was time for a change. In a surprising move, Candace made the decision to sign with the Chicago Sky this past winter.
“Chicago is where my family raised me, where I first learned the game of basketball and where I first fell in love with this orange ball. I am excited to continue the next chapter of my career where it all began. To my new teammates, my new organization, and my new fans: I’m home,” Parker announced with the Chicago Sun Times.
There was something about coming home that just felt right to Candace. She was ready to share the place she grew up in with her daughter, take her to Colonial Special (one of her favorite restaurants in Chicago), or to the park where she grew up playing and that’s now named after her.
“I believe a lot of things come full circle,” Parker says. “I think just over the course of my career I realized how much important people have meant to my career. Coming back home, I mean, my dad fixed my blinds the other day, we went over to his house for Father’s Day, my mom cooks me pregame, picks up my daughter all the time. Dad brings doughnuts over sometimes for my daughter, like, it’s just, I can go see my grandma. I really respect the time that I moved away from home because I needed it. I needed to establish myself in my home and get away from that, but to come back, who I am now, to really appreciate it.”
It’s a move that’s made the Sky, with a highly athletic and energetic roster and one of the best backcourt duos in the League, one of the favorites for the 2021 WNBA title. While the goal is to bring a championship home, the future is about more than just basketball for CP3.
“This next chapter,” Parker says, “I’m really enjoying the moment. Like I say all the time, I have way more basketball behind me than I have in front of me, I can promise you that. But one thing I’m never going to do is cheat the game. I have a circle of friends that I told 10 years ago that when it’s time, you need to sit me down and have an intervention if I don’t see it myself.”
Candace was always destined for the game of basketball and we have Mama Parker to thank for making it happen in the beginning. While her love of the game has always been at the forefront, it’s been about doing something bigger, about making an impact on young girls’ lives, whether it be within the game of basketball, another sport or in the boardroom.
“I think when you’re able to change something, you know, if you’re able to leave any type of change within something, I think you’ve established and developed a legacy. I hope that I have made a difference and I have changed certain things that have always been. I think that that’s going to be the legacy, and I hope that’s the way it is in the next chapter.”
Cover story portraits by Jon Lopez. Photos via Getty Images.