all scores

Chicago Sky’s storybook WNBA championship has been years in the making

Courtney Vandersloot and her Chicago Sky teammates celebrate after winning the 2021 WNBA championship. (Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

CHICAGO — Courtney Vandersloot smiled and paused to look around the postgame press conference room, content with the secret she was about to let everybody else in on.

Vandersloot has been with the Chicago Sky since they drafted her with the third pick in 2011, riding the ups and downs that, 10 years later, led them to the mountaintop. As Vandersloot, the longest-tenured Sky player, tried to put the franchise’s historic first WNBA championship into words after the 80-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury in Game 4 on Sunday, she recounted a conversation that brought this team’s storybook season full circle.

Several years ago, when the Sky were going through some personnel changes, Vandersloot and Candace Parker were together in Europe, training and playing with USA Basketball. At a club in Spain one night, Parker told Vandersloot about this coach she had her eye on named James Wade.

“I told Michael [Alter], ‘Candace Parker told me we need to hire this guy,’” Vandersloot said, referring to the Sky’s owner. “Now she comes to play for him, and the first year we come here, to win a championship — I don’t think you can write it better than that.”

Parker has said she knew this team was capable of winning a title in her first year — the two-time WNBA MVP left Los Angeles after 13 seasons and a championship with the Sparks to sign in her hometown of Chicago. She knew the caliber of players the Sky had, but she also believed in their coach.

Parker said something she’s appreciated about Wade is the adjustments he makes. One of those decisions came with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter Sunday and the Sky trailing the Mercury 70-65, when Wade subbed Stefanie Dolson back in for Azurá Stevens despite her having five fouls. Dolson made the layup at the 1:22 mark that gave the Sky the lead and put in another one 36.2 seconds later that helped them ice the game.

Chicago, which had trailed by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, rode a 15-2 run in the fourth to win the title at home and avoid a Game 5 back in Phoenix on Tuesday.

“I told Stef, ‘You’re going to be big for us in this next series, so I need you to stay ready,’ and she was ready,” Wade said. “She gave us some good, valuable minutes, and she leaned on [Brittney Griner] a lot throughout the game, so BG didn’t have the same legs in the fourth quarter as she did in the first three quarters.”

About a month ago, the Sky might not have been as resilient as they were on Sunday.

Allie Quigley — who had a team-high 26 points Sunday on 5-for-10 shooting from 3 — said they reached a “breaking point” not long before the playoffs. Frustrated with their inconsistency after following up a seven-game losing streak with a seven-game winning streak early in the season and entering the playoffs as the No. 6 seed after going 16-16, they nearly buckled under the strain of it all. “We didn’t know who we were,” Quigley explained.

At that point, they took a hard look at themselves. They leaned on their leadership and made a conscious decision to grow stronger and closer from the adversity.

“Candace, the first thing she said was 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,” Quigley said. “And everybody went around and said who they were playing for. In the end we all wanted to play for each other, and that’s what you saw tonight in this whole playoff experience.”

Since that team meeting, the Sky started playing their best basketball when it mattered most. They won two single-elimination games against Dallas and Minnesota. They took down the mighty Connecticut Sun in four games in the semifinals to earn a rematch with the Mercury, who swept Chicago in the 2014 Finals for Diana Taurasi’s third championship and second Finals MVP award.

When reflecting on that series during Finals week, Quigley said they were “babies” in terms of WNBA experience. Since then, Quigley and Vandersloot not only fell in love off the court and got married, but they also committed to stay with the Sky and bring a championship to Chicago.

“We did get a taste early what it felt like to be in the Finals, and we got our asses kicked, but we did get that taste,” Vandersloot said while sitting next to Quigley, Parker and Kahleah Copper, named Finals MVP after overcoming career adversity of her own to put the league on notice this year.

“We knew if we got the right people — exhibit A and B — that we could be in this moment, and it would be special here. We didn’t want to go seeking that. We didn’t want to go seeking this feeling. We wanted to do it here, and we just knew that we had what it takes. We just needed a few more pieces and people to believe, and that’s exactly what we got.”

The story of the Chicago Sky’s 2021 season? No, you can’t write it much better than that.

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.