Sports

The Chicago Sky’s WNBA championship with Candace Parker feels too good to be true

CHICAGO — The elevator pitch for Candace Parker’s decision to sign with the Chicago Sky as a free agent had so much promise from the start. The Sky were seen as a team on the rise with the league’s best point guard, an all-time great shooter on the wing, and a head coach on the cutting edge of offensive innovation. All they were missing was one big piece. Enter Parker, the hometown hero and living legend, ready to impart the wisdom learned over two decades in the spotlight to restore glory to Chicago basketball and do it in front of the people who raised her in the game.

It always sounds so much easier on paper. Parker would hurt her ankle in the second game of the season, and the Sky lost seven games in a row without her. Just when it seemed like the Sky had found their groove, they hit a snag at the end of the regular season, losing four of their last six games to enter the playoffs as a .500 team. Chicago needed win two single elimination games just to get to a standard best-of-5 series. Their prize for doing it was a matchup with the top-seeded Connecticut Sun, the team led by the newly crowned MVP and boasting one of the stingiest defenses ever.

The Sky had consistently found a way to thrive in the face of long odds since entering the playoffs, but now they were staring down their biggest challenge yet. With the opportunity to clinch the first championship in franchise history on their home floor in Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, Chicago found itself getting punched in the mouth. When star center Brittney Griner hit a layup to open the fourth quarter, the Sky trailed the Phoenix Mercury by 11 points. A loss would mean a decisive Game 5 in Arizona, the site of a heartbreaking overtime defeat for the Sky just days earlier.

Stories like the one Parker was trying to author often feel predestined once they’re complete, but in reality they’re decided in small moments that could swing either way.

Allie Quigley, the Sky’s other local star, had to hit three clutch three-pointers in the fourth quarter, and another turnaround in the post that might have been her most difficult look of all. The Mercury had to miss layup after layup in the final minutes. Courtney Vandersloot had to wilt the defense with her dribble penetration and precision passing, and Stefanie Dolson had to get her flip shots to fall, even when the ball seemed to hang on the rim for an eternity.

With the Sky down three with two minutes to go, Parker had to hit an open three-pointer from the wing despite being 1-of-4 from deep to that point in the afternoon.

Somehow, it all fell into place. As the Mercury ended the game with one last miss, Parker grabbed the rebound and raced to the other side of the floor as the final buzzer sounded. She hugged her mom and dad, the parents who used to drive her to games all over Chicagoland during her storied career at Naperville Central High School. She hugged her daughter, the child she gave birth to after just one year in the WNBA, when she was coming off an MVP season as a rookie.

“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.”

The Mercury won every quarter except the fourth in Game 4. With a championship on the line, the Sky closed with a 26-11 period to steal a game they were largely outplayed in. Parker called it a microcosm of the season when it was over. The thought of the Sky becoming WNBA champions just seemed too far fetched to be true until it actually happened.

Parker’s arrival in her hometown gave Chicago the opportunity to dream about a championship, but she didn’t win it by herself. The Sky embodied a true team approach throughout their charmed postseason run, winning with an egalitarian offense, trapping defense, and pristinely spaced floor that required everyone in the uniform to be on the same page.

It could have fallen apart so many times. In the end, Parker’s decision to come to the Sky and her team’s championship run really did feel like it was meant to be.

WNBA Finals - Game Four

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, the married couple who had been the foundation of the Sky for so long, never needed to be sold on James Wade when he was hired as Chicago’s head coach and general manager ahead of the 2019 season. Wade was already coming with the highest possible recommendation from one of the greatest players of all-time: Candace Parker.

Parker had played for Ekaterinburg in Russia earlier in her career when Wade was brought on as an assistant for the team’s postseason run. When Parker saw Vandersloot at a club in Spain during a USA Basketball event years later, she gave Wade her full endorsement. At the time, Parker was still under contract with the Los Angeles Sparks, the only WNBA team she had ever played for.

“He just saw the game,” Parker said. “He played the game the way that it was evolving, and I just felt like the way that they play, that’s like the perfect coach for them.”

At the time, no one could have envisioned Wade’s immediate success and the opportunity to add Parker in free agency two years later. Things just didn’t work out like that for the Sky. This was a franchise that seemed snakebitten for most of their existence.

The Sky were coming off their first WNBA Finals appearance in franchise history in 2014 when everything fell apart. First, superstar center Sylvia Fowles demanded a trade and sat out the first half of the 2015 season until Chicago eventually sent her to the Minnesota Lynx. Two years later, Elena Delle Donne demanded a trade, and the Sky ultimately sent her to the Washington Mystics.

Fowles would win two championships and an MVP in Minnesota. Delle Donne won an MVP and a championship in Washington. For a variety of reasons, the Sky couldn’t make either happy. Chicago just wasn’t a place WNBA superstars wanted to play.

Things began to change for the Sky when moved out of their cavernous suburban arena in Rosemont for the newly built Wintrust Arena on Chicago’s near south side for the start of the 2018 season. Wade was hired the next year, and immediately transformed the team in his image. The Sky went from 13-21 to 20-14 in Wade’s first season, and finished with the league’s second best offense.

The Sky lost a heartbreaking playoff game when Dearica Hamby stole a pass from Vandersloot and hit a halfcourt shot to send the Las Vegas Aces over Chicago in a single elimination playoff game.

The pandemic interrupted the next season as the league moved to a bubble in Bradenton, Florida. The Sky were seen as a team ready to take a jump into contention, but it never happened. Diamond DeShields and Azura Stevens both suffered injuries and left Florida before the end of the season. The Sky lost another single elimination playoff game, this time to the Connecticut Sun.

People around the league could see what Wade was building, but the team still felt like star short of true contention.

WNBA Finals - Game Four

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Chicago was attractive to Parker for reasons that went beyond her hometown roots. She knew Chicago had the type of veterans championship teams need already in place with Vandersloot and Quigley.

Parker and Quigley go back to their high school days as the two best players in the state in the class of 2004. Parker was a sensation out of Naperville who was hyped as the equivalent of LeBron James in the women’s game. Quigley lacked a national profile, but had risen to local prominence playing alongside her sister Sam at Joliet Catholic Academy. Parker went on to win two national championships and two Wooden Awards playing for legendary coach Pat Summit at Tennessee. The Quigley sisters stayed at home to play at DePaul.

Both players were taken in the 2008 draft, with Parker going No. 1 overall and entering the league to massive fanfare, while Quigley was taken No. 22 in the middle of the second round.

As Parker ascended to stardom, Quigley bounced around the league, playing for five teams in her first four years. She was ready to give up professional basketball for good when the Sky gave her a camp invite in 2013.

“I feel like that was in my mind, going to be my last go-around. It was like, I’m tired of going to all these different teams and not playing, and my confidence was down,” Quigley said. “I think I just gave everything I had for this last chance because it was home, and I wanted it to work so bad.”

That’s around the time she met and quietly started dating Vandersloot. The two were a perfect match on the court. Vandersloot was the genius floor general who had a unique ability to pass her teammates open. Quigley was starting to establish herself as the best shooter in the league. The symmetry off the court was even better, and the two announced they had gotten married just before the calendar flipped to 2019.

It’s hard to imagine where one would be without the other. With Quigley spotting up off her playmaking, Vandersloot blossomed as one of the greatest point guards in league history. She has led the league in assists the last five seasons, and holds almost every record associated with passing that the WNBA has. Quigley went from almost out of the league to a three-time All-Star, and the most decorated long range shooter of her generation.

The ties that bind the Sky to Chicago and to each other could not possibly be stronger. They just needed a deep playoff run for the world to take notice.

WNBA Finals - Game Four

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Sky won’t just be remembered for the headline stars at the top of the roster. The entire rotation made huge contributions to this title run.

Kahleah Copper came over in the Delle Donne trade, and spent her first three seasons as a bench player who never scored more than 7.1 points per game. She made a star turn in the bubble in DeShields’ absence, and turned into an even bigger star in this year’s playoffs. Copper’s relentless slashing, strong point of attack defense, and transition attacking earned her Finals MVP.

Dolson made a layup off a feed from Vandersloot to give the Sky their first lead of the second half with 1:22 to go. On the next possession, she hit another layup set up by Vandersloot to build the lead to four points. Dolson faced questions about her defense and her mobility throughout the season, but in the playoffs she consistently hit big three-pointers, made smart passing reads, finished inside, and did enough to slow down a monster inside scorer like Griner when her team needed it.

DeShields provided athleticism and defense on the wing. Stevens gave the team another post presence that could stretch the floor on offense. Dana Evans solved the team’s long-running backup point guard problem, and Astou Ndour-Fall and Lexie Brown also helped bolster the bench.

For most of this season, the Sky seemed like a team that had all the pieces but couldn’t put them together. That changed when the postseason run began.

“I think when the Playoffs started, we gave ourselves a clean slate,” Copper said after the championship celebration. “We totally forgot about the regular season, didn’t care about seeding. We knew we just needed to treat every single game like a single-elimination game, and I was glad we got to play those single-elimination games and feel that pressure because once we got to a series, we already knew what it takes.

“I’m so proud of this team on how we had a short-term memory on forgetting the regular season, which was very important, and coming into the playoffs and completely killing.”

Parker’s dream of going home and bringing a championship to Chicago looked like it would never materialize for so much of this season. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. This Sky team is the exception to that rule.

“I had flashbacks to high school from when I first realized we won the state championship.” Parker said when asked what was going through her head as the final buzzer sounded.

Nearly 20 years later, Parker was a champion in her city once again. She couldn’t write it any better if she tried.



Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *