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Candace Parker’s Las Vegas motivation: ‘I can’t end like this’

Candace Parker signed with the reigning champion Aces in free agency after considering retirement. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

No matter where Candace Parker goes in Las Vegas, she’s recognized. At the airport, the grocery store, and even at the gas station when she’s filling up at the pump, people call out to her with a familiar refrain.

“Go Aces!” they yell and wave.

The 37-year-old WNBA legend can’t help but smile. The Aces started the 2023 season right where they left off after winning the 2022 championship. At 8-1, they are in first place in the WNBA standings and hadn’t lost a game until three weeks into the season.

The energy around town is palpable, and Parker feels it wherever she goes. The same fans that once rooted against her when she was with the Los Angeles Sparks (2008-2020) and then the Chicago Sky (2021-2022) are now cheering for her, elated to see her in an Aces jersey. Parker engages them, calls back and interacts with fans, young and old.

“We had a season ticket event with all our season ticket holders,”she says, “and just being able to meet all the fans that are little kids was a treat for me. Because I love getting to know [them].”

Parker’s reception of the fans is not an act. It’s a reflection of her genuine appreciation and awareness of just how far the WNBA has come. It’s also a reminder of how far she’s come in her basketball career, and the journey she’s still on.

Parker burst onto the national basketball scene in 2004 as the first woman to win the dunk contest during the McDonald’s All-American High School Game. She then went on to win back-to-back NCAA titles under the legendary Pat Summit at Tennessee. Among Parker’s long list of accolades are a collection of moments cemented in time: becoming only the second player in WNBA history to dunk in a basketball game (Lisa Leslie was the first), winning Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season (2008), playing for Team USA and collecting two Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012) along the way, and winning her first WNBA championship with Los Angeles in 2016.

After all, Parker is a moments person. Small moments. Big moments. Happy moments. Hard moments. It doesn’t matter. She savors each one down to the very last drop, then tucks the memory away in her back pocket like a Polaroid for safe keeping.

With 10.5 seconds left to go in Game 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals, the Sky were up 78-74 against the Phoenix Mercury, and Chicago veteran Courtney Vandersloot was at the foul line. As Vandersloot hit the first free throw and then the second, Parker couldn’t contain her emotions. She began to cry. After spending 13 seasons with the Sparks, she had returned to her hometown city with the goal of bringing the Sky their first WNBA title in franchise history.

In that moment, it was happening right before her eyes. Winning the WNBA championship in front of her family and friends, and for the city of Chicago, Parker reveled in the joy to the fullest extent. But in the days and weeks that followed the championship celebration and parade, she began to think about her future.

“I was like, I could just go out on a high, this is it. I mean, 14 seasons? That’s a lot, like, whatever,” she says. “I had my ankle injury that kind of kept me in and out. It was a tough season.”

Parker celebrates bringing a WNBA championship to her hometown with the Chicago Sky in 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Still, the thought of running it back with the same roster and playing another season fully healthy drew her back in. Chicago went 26-10 during the regular season and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed with expectations of another Finals trip. But after they beat the Liberty in Round 1, the Sky’s storybook run came to an end against the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals. Despite Parker’s best efforts in the series, the Sky were eliminated in Game 5 after letting the Sun go on a 24-5 run in the fourth quarter.

The retirement rumors swirled. But Parker wasn’t ready to bow out.

“We lost last year and the way in which we lost, having a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter, kept me up at night and just ate at my soul,” she says. “It was kind of just one of those things where I was like, I can’t end like this. The last time I play basketball, we’re not gonna blow a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. So, I think that kind of refocused and motivated me.”

Parker wants to win. And having the opportunity to win in different places, in different systems, with different pieces is a challenge she enjoys. She also loves to compete, even when she’s not on the basketball court.

“I mean, I’m an idiot. I’ll be on the Peloton and it’s like Pedals By Patty is trying to beat my score and I’m like, ‘Nooo!’” Parker laughs. “It’s just the competitive element. Even on chill days, I can’t let Pedals By Patty beat me.”

Feeding that competitive fire, Parker knew she wanted to play basketball for at least one more season. The only question was where. Going back to Chicago had been a dream opportunity, but the move had also been hard on Parker’s family, especially her daughter Lailaa. Flying back West for a couple of hours at time, and Lailaa missing school when she came to Chicago, didn’t make for a sustainable schedule. She also had a newborn son to care for with wife Anna Petrakova.

With her house still in Los Angeles, Parker says she considered a return to the Sparks. But it was Lailaa who suggested Las Vegas as a possibility, which had a lot to do with Aces point guard Chelsea Gray.

Gray and Parker became close friends while teammates with the Sparks from 2016 to 2020. They were in each other’s weddings. Parker introduced Gray to good wine. Gray and her wife, Tipesa, are godparents to Parker’s son. They’d spend hours sitting by a fire pit together talking about basketball and about life. And since they’d gone their separate ways to play for different teams, somehow they grew even closer.

“When you’re teammates, you know you’re gonna see that person in like a day or two. If it’s an off day, you know the next day you’re gonna see them,” Gray says. “And sometimes, it’s taken for granted — those moments. So being away from each other, we would have our long talks, but via FaceTime just to check in and talk about a bunch of stuff to make sure we’re not missing anything.”

Parker and Chelsea Gray became close friends during their five years together on the Sparks. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Watching each other succeed from afar became routine during the past two WNBA seasons, with Parker’s championship in 2021 and Gray’s transcendent playoff performance in 2022. Gray waited until the aftermath of the Aces championship to reach out to her friend.

“(At first) we were talking like, ‘How’s her body feeling?’ Like outside of just trying to get her in Las Vegas, just having casual conversation,” Gray says. “And then I’d make the statement, ‘I’m putting on my Las Vegas Aces point guard hat — listen, this is a franchise that’s doing right by its players, that wants the best, that wants to win championships.’

“And that’s when the conversation kind of turned.”

“One thousand percent Chelsea had an impact,” Parker adds. “I mean, we were close when we played together, but we’ve gotten closer even since.”

After her initial chats with Gray, Parker spoke with Aces head coach Becky Hammon. She also connected with Aces president Nikki Fargas — someone Parker has known since her days at Tennessee, where Fargas was a former player and an assistant coach.

“Obviously, I go back with Nikki,” Parker says. “I can’t call her Nikki Fargas, it’s Nikki Caldwell. But we go back, and we started having conversations.”

Despite those encouraging conversations and her ties to Gray and Fargas, Parker says her final decision came down to what was best for her and her family. The flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles is only 40 minutes, a fact that stuck with her when she ultimately chose to sign with the Aces on a one-year contract.

When Parker first arrived in Sin City, she says it took about a week and a half to get to know the lay of the land. She set up her home and got her family settled. Her teammates gave her tips on the best places to eat, shop and get her nails done. She reunited with Gray on the court and got to know her new teammates during training camp.

“Being away from her and then having her come back and seeing her every day in practice, it’s really cool to see,” Gray says. “Like, damn, I miss seeing you play this closely. And it’s been a cool dynamic to see her play with others that haven’t ever had that experience.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t really feel real still,” Kesley Plum marveled during a post-practice press conference before the season. “For me, I’ve just been really impressed with her humility. I think that Candace has come in from the jump and just been like, ‘Alright, what do I need to learn?’ Figure out the offense, learning our defensive schemes, how we do things. I know that our connection, with us two and then her with the rest of the team, is just going to continue to grow.”

Nearly a month into the WNBA season, the Aces look as if they haven’t lost a step since adding Parker to their championship roster. While her stats don’t jump off the page like they used to at 8.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, she’s still making an impact and has embraced her role as a supporting cast member on a team of All-Stars. She’s also enjoying all the amenities the organization has to offer — including the state-of-the-art practice facility and the fact that, for the first time in her 16-year career, she actually has a locker.

“I mean our practice facility is unbelievable. We have everything here, I don’t have to really go out of house,” Parker says. “It’s not like we gotta get on the court and off the court at this time because somebody else has to come in. That’s what I’ve been through in my career. I’ve been through two-a-days, I’ve been through 6 a.m. flights, I’ve been through all that.

“Now to be able to be in a place that makes sense, I think that’s a credit to the growth of women’s basketball as well.”

Parker has embraced her role as part of the Aces' stacked lineup. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

In her 16 WNBA seasons, Parker has seen the league evolve for the better in a variety of ways. Owners are spending money and investing in their players. Player visibility has never been higher. At the college level, NIL deals are changing the way players are marketed, setting them up to enter the pro game with a large following of dedicated fans.

“I think the progress in women’s sports has been being able to recognize women and know them from a long time ago,” she says. “You see that in the NBA. The players own their brand. It’s so important to understand the value and power of that. It’s not just about the game.”

Parker knows the importance of visibility, both as a longtime player and as an NBA analyst for Turner Sports. She sees the disparity between the men’s and women’s games firsthand and is doing her part to help close the gap.

“What it does with her sitting in the analyst seat is it allows people to really hear how smart women are when it comes to the game of basketball,” says ESPN WNBA analyst LaChina Robinson, who has been covering Parker since she came into the league.

“We’re just getting to the point where people are realizing how great of players women are, but now you’re adding another layer of she can talk the game. For people who need that validation, that women belong in sport, it’s just another opportunity to show that. Candace’s IQ is off the charts. It’s just awesome to hear her do that on such a big platform like the NBA.”

Broadcasting is only one facet of Parker’s life outside of playing basketball. She’s also dabbling in private equity, tech, wine, tequila and even artificial intelligence, setting herself up for life after the WNBA.

“I have a million things I want to do. It’s not gonna be just one thing. I truly believe the biggest thing I’ve taken from basketball is to be versatile,” she says. “That’s in income, but it’s also in the things that you do. I just like to do a lot of different things. My wife always jokes, ‘You will not be bored.’”

Parker talks on the set of TNT's NBA studio show with analyst Ernie Johnson. (Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images)

Back in 2020, when Parker last played with the Sparks during the WNBA’s pandemic-induced bubble season, she had already begun to think about what might be next. It was her 13th season in the WNBA, and she knew she had more basketball behind her than she did in front of her. Her career up until that point had been just as rewarding as it had been draining, with many challenging seasons mixed in with the championship years.

“I never thought of quitting after a hard season, 100 percent. If anything, I wanted to come back more and prove whatever I needed to prove,” Parker confesses. “I didn’t think I even needed to prove anything, but whatever. I think 2019 was really difficult. It was really hard. Just from a physical standpoint, from a health standpoint, but also from the moving piece of an organization.”

During the 2019 season, Parker battled through an injury, appearing in 22 games and recording 11.2 points per game, the lowest scoring average of her career. After going 22-12, the Sparks secured the third seed in the playoffs before being swept in the semifinals by the Connecticut Sun. In an odd twist, Parker played only 11 minutes in a must-win Game 3. Then-head coach Derek Fisher explained her benching in the fourth quarter as a way to initiate “a spark.” Shortly afterward, Penny Toler was dismissed as general manager and an ESPN report revealed growing tensions within the organization. Last year, Fisher was fired 12 games into the season amid additional team controversy.

As Los Angeles struggled to find its way forward and a new identity as an organization after years of success, Parker felt a shift. The WNBA’s power structure was changing, and she was changing as a player, a person and a mother. After the 2020 season, there was a rebirth. Parker emerged rejuvenated in Chicago. Now, at this stage in her basketball career and life, there’s a new feeling.

“Instead of using the word content, I think it’s peace,” says Gray. “Like she has a bit of peace about her in all facets of her life and the decisions that she makes, and being OK with that. Like, surrendering control but also having fun while she’s doing it. I don’t think she’s content or satisfied with where she is. I just think she’s at peace with how she’s going about life.”

When Parker does walk off the court for the final time, she’ll leave behind a lasting legacy as one of the greatest WNBA players of all time. For multiple reasons.

“Candace’s legacy is definitely far and wide-reaching,” says Robinson. “I don’t know that we had ever seen anyone that had inside/outside scoring, handles, passing ability, athleticism at the rim — just an incredible combination of skill set. Off the court, Candace has been one of those players that has allowed us a look into the challenges and the rewards of being an athlete mom, and when it comes to the marketing of the league, she has been arguably the most marketable player the league has ever seen and a trailblazer for Black women in that space.”

Parker is currently eighth all-time in the WNBA in career points (6,485) and second among active players, third in total rebounds (3,415) and seventh in assists (1,593). She’s also tied for first in the league with three regular-season triple-doubles in her career and first with three double-doubles in rebounds and assists. Parker is known just as much for her defense as her offense, ranking fifth all-time in blocks (612) and earning Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.

More significantly, Parker has become one of the most recognizable players in the history of the league. But before she became known around the world as CP3, she was simply “Ace” in the early days. Maybe it’s serendipitous then that she ended up playing for the Aces in what could be the final season of her career.

Parker will know when her playing days are over, just like she’ll know when it’s time to start her next life venture. Candace Parker is a moments person, after all, and the moment to hang it up hasn’t come just yet.

“I think the closer you get to the end, whenever that will be, I think the more you don’t take for granted,” she says. “And I said back in 2021 sometime — you don’t have to tell your story, time will. I firmly believe that. I’m still in the league, so … that’s a win.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League. Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.