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57 Minutes With Candace Parker

As the Los Angeles Sparks enter the playoffs in her 12th season, an all-time basketball great discusses the WNBA postseason format, heartbreaking losses, and the legacy she will leave behind

Juliette Toma

This perhaps will sound dumb, or possibly weird, or potentially strange, but: Candace Parker has a quiet walk. I’m not sure what I thought it would sound like. “Thunderous” feels too dramatic. And “heavy” isn’t right either. She’s too fluid, too controlled, too pliant for any sort of movement she makes to ever be described as “heavy.”

Saying I thought each of her steps would be accompanied by a “smallish rumble” or a “faint boom” feels a little closer to correct, but neither of them are all the way correct. It’s just quiet. Her walk is quiet. Not quiet in a timid way, mind you. Certainly not that. It’s quiet in the opposite way. It’s quiet the way, say, a leopard is quiet, or the way a shark is quiet. There is no hesitation in her steps. There is only purpose. And an economy of motion. And confidence. It’s like the sound asked her for permission to exist and she said no. That kind of quiet.

Anyway, Candace Parker has just walked up. She’s smiling and holding out her hand by way of an introduction. We’re inside of a nice restaurant in Beverly Hills. It’s August 23. And we’re going to talk to each other for the next 57 minutes.

The final two years of Candace Parker’s high school basketball career ended with her team winning a championship. And the final two years of Candace Parker’s college basketball career ended with her team winning a championship. But it wasn’t until 2016, her ninth season in the WNBA, before she got her first championship there.

She’d already been through a few serious injuries (shoulder, knee, etc.), and she’d already been through a few serious heartbreaker playoff losses (like the one when she hit the go-ahead bucket against Minnesota only to lose by one, or the one when she hit the go-ahead bucket against Phoenix only to lose by one), and she’d already shown everyone a few times that she could be the best player on the planet (which only seemed to amplify the But When Will She Win Her Title? conversation). And then—finally, seemingly suddenly, and with great certainty—the Sparks were champions, and Parker was a champion. She wasn’t selected as an All-Star that season. And she wasn’t selected as a pick for Olympic team that season. And she wasn’t selected as a first or second team All-WNBA player that season. But she was a champion. And a Finals MVP. And she’d done it on the road against the Minnesota Lynx, the team that not only had ended the Sparks’ season two out of the previous four seasons, but also the team that had won three of the five previous titles.

When Holly Rowe tried to interview her afterward, Parker, fully crying and fully overcome with emotion, could convince her mouth to say only eight words. “This is for Pat,” she said through tears, referencing Pat Summitt, her college coach who’d died less than three months earlier. Then a few breaths. And then again: “This is for Pat.” Then she was done. She started crying again and looking around for someone to hug. You can watch the whole exchange here. It’s 0:34 long. And it’s perfect.

Atlanta Dream v Los Angeles Sparks
Candace Parker
Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

There is a PR person from the Los Angeles Sparks sitting at the table with me as Candace Parker walks up. He introduces us to each other, though it’s clear it’s only half-necessary. Because Candace Parker is Candace Parker. She’s a former Rookie of the Year, a two-time league MVP, a WNBA champion, a Finals MVP, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a current TV analyst, and a consistent name in the Who Are the 10 Best-Ever WNBA Players discourse, and that’s really only the top 20 percent of her résumé. But still. He makes the introduction and she sits down and then he leaves.

Talking to Candace Parker is easy. She is smart, and insightful, and unhurried. You ask her a question, and the process is this: First, she looks at you while you’re talking. Then, when you’re done talking, she takes a second to absorb your words and consider your words. If you’ve asked a question that requires only an easy response, she responds in kind. If you’ve asked a question that requires a longer, more nuanced answer—like if you ask her about, for example, the potential trajectory of the WNBA, or the everlasting impact of her relationship with Coach Summitt—she looks off to the side for a second, formulates her answer, and then, like a cash register printing out a receipt at the end of a transaction, she answers the question fully and conclusively. It feels like someone’s emailed her the questions ahead of time to prepare, because that’s how every conversation with someone smarter than you feels.

Like, if you ask her about the current WNBA playoff format, which features two rounds of single-elimination games to start, she says: “I understand what the league is trying to do. But it’s just hard because if you’re a professional, you play your entire season to be out … in a game? I thought in the pros you really wanted to find out who the best was, and by doing that you do it in a series.”

(The Sparks will host the Seattle Storm on Sunday. Parker has been in the league for 12 years now. Her team has made the playoffs 11 times. The only time they didn’t make the playoffs was the 2011 season. That’s when she tore her lateral meniscus and missed half the season. “I remember being like, ‘Man, I’m gonna go out and dominate,’” she says. “And I remember winning our first four or five games and feeling like, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing anybody can do with me at this point.’ And it’s amazing because I felt that same way at 17. And I tore my ACL the next game. Life just has a way of being like, ‘Hold on. Wait a minute. Not so fast.’”)

Or, if you ask her about the parts of basketball that ring out the loudest in her head, she says: “I don’t remember the date of our title in high school. I don’t remember the date of when we won the NCAA tournament. But I can tell you when I got hurt. I can tell you when we lost. I can tell you the score. I can tell you, like, the play. I can see every play of what happened at the end of the Phoenix game when we lost on the last-second shot. Like, I can see every play that we made leading up to that. I don’t know. It just sticks out more.”

(The game she mentions here—the Phoenix one—was a crusher. It was Game 3 of a best-of-three series to advance to the 2013 Western Conference finals. They were playing in Los Angeles. Parker, the league MVP that year, scored with seven seconds left to put the Sparks up by one. On the next play, DeWanna Bonner inbounded the ball to Brittney Griner. Griner, who was only a rookie but already a force, caught it near the baseline, spun to her left, then rose up over Parker, who had overpursued the play. The ball dropped in, giving the Mercury the lead, and when it did you could see all of Parker’s strength and power insta-drain from her body. Carol Ross called a timeout for the Sparks, and Parker’s immediate anguish was such that it folded her in half, her hands touching the court to keep herself upright. Parker missed a desperation heave at the buzzer over two defenders to end the game, and that was that. “If you look at it as a whole game,” says Parker, “everybody hits a game-winner if you win by one. Everybody screws up a game-winner if you lose by one.”)

Or, if you ask her about which boxes she has left to check on her basketball résumé before she’d be comfortable arguing that her playing career was an unquestionable success, she says: “You’re never really gonna be satisfied, you know? You’re always gonna want more. You’re always gonna be like, ‘Man, I could’ve won MVP if I was healthy.’ There’s all that. But at the same time, I think I’m more satisfied with being OK with being done when I don’t want to prepare the way that I prepare.”

(Parker is 33 years old and, as mentioned, in her 12th season in the WNBA. As such, we spent a fair amount of time talking about what the rest of her playing career might look like. There are just so many different ways it could go. Maya Moore announced an indefinite leave from the WNBA at 29. Is there a chance Parker, who recently signed a multiyear broadcast deal with Turner Sports, will decide to just shut it down early and lean into that part of her life? Lauren Jackson, an all-world talent who last played in the WNBA at 31, had a sour final few seasons because of injuries. Will Parker’s body, which has already been through seven knee surgeries and also a shoulder surgery, decide it’s had enough before she does? [This would be the fucking suckiest thing, to be sure.] Lisa Leslie played until she was 36 and was first team All-WNBA in her penultimate season and second team All-WNBA in her final season. Is that how Parker’s career will end? With her reminding everyone that she will forever be a threat to cut your head off and throw it into the stands during a game? Or maybe it will go for Parker the way it did for Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper, both of whom played in the WNBA until they were 40? “I think if you plan stuff,” says Parker, “the universe does stuff that may not be in your plans. So, I don’t know. I can’t say. If you’d have asked me three years ago, I would have probably said ‘two years.’ If you’d have asked me four years ago, I would’ve said ‘five years.’ Right in this moment, I know I have way more basketball behind me than in front of me. And I’m OK with that.”)

Before meeting with Parker, I asked several former players, commentators, and WNBA columnists about Parker’s position in the history of basketball. Where does she sit when you start talking about the league’s most important players? The general consensus: She is obviously one of the all-time greats, but more specifically she is likely the player most will point back to and say, “There it is. She’s the one. She’s the one who made positionless basketball a viable thing in the WNBA.”

My favorite examination came from ESPN’s LaChina Robinson, who said, “She would be in everyone’s top 10 in history, but only one ’ship, so it’s hard to put her in the top five. If that changes, she shoots up a ton. Skill-wise, it’s a different story because she is so rare, with size, vision, IQ; a point forward with a smoothness like the league had never seen. A unicorn.”

The reason I like this one so much (aside from it coming from LaChina Robinson, who is an unquestionable authority figure in the space) is that it gets at the most appealing part of Parker’s basketball existence, which is: Even after a dozen years in the league, there is still an uncertainty about how exactly to measure her brilliance. Consider this, which is the most recent example of the dichotomy:

On September 4, The Athletic published a roundtable discussion with players and personnel from each of the WNBA’s 12 teams to talk about various things, including but not limited to: Who is the best player of all time? (Diana Taurasi was the consensus.) Which player talks the most trash? (Taurasi again, which makes sense.) And What’s the biggest issue facing the league at the moment? (Salaries.) It was a good and interesting and fun article to read. And Parker makes an appearance in it. She’s the player who led the vote in the Who’s the most overrated player? category.

So that story came out on September 4, and then five days later the WNBA announced that Parker had won the Player of the Week award. The league picked her because she averaged 17.3 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game, and 3.7 assists per game for the week while shooting nearly 53 percent from the field, which are numbers that no player in history has been able to match for a season. (Only three players have ever even gotten close, and Parker was one of them.) Both of those things happened for Parker in the span of a week.

Here are two fun stats that speak to the skill-by-skill mastery of Candace Parker, rooted in the numbers from the section above: (1) There have been 10 seasons during Parker’s career when she has averaged at least 15 points and 7 rebounds per game. The only player ahead of her there is Lisa Leslie, who did it 11 times. (2) There have been only six times during the 23-year run of the WNBA when a player has averaged at least 15 points, seven rebounds, and four assists per game. Six. SIX. Out of everyone of all time. That’s it. SIX. And here’s the kicker: Tamika Catchings did it once (2007). And the other five instances all belong to Candace Parker. She did it in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The last question: Is there a point when you’re a professional basketball player that you start measuring yourself against the history of the game? Where you start asking yourself questions like, “What’s my legacy? Where am I going to belong?” Are you having that conversation with yourself now?

“I have an interesting perspective [on this],” Parker says. “Because on the one hand, I feel like the measuring stick really only happens after it’s all said and done. But then, when it’s all said and done, people are going to forget your greatness. … And that’s just the age we’re in. We’re in the age of debate. We’re in the age of Were they really that good? Would they be able to play in this era? You know? So, I don’t know. I think it’s [more complicated than that].”

Candace Parker is getting ready to leave.

The Sparks will go on to win five of the final seven games of the season, securing the third seed in the playoffs and at least one home game at Staples. If they can win seven more games, they’ll win another title. If they can’t, then they won’t. And that’s where we are with things.

Candace Parker gets up and walks outside. She says goodbye, heads down the street, and then, somehow, just like that, she’s gone from view. You wouldn’t think it’d be easy for a person who is 6-foot-4 to disappear like that, but it turns out it is.

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