Shakeia Taylor: Candace Parker’s impact, from a 3-time Ms. Basketball of Illinois to a 3-time WNBA champion

CHICAGO — What does it mean to be one of the greatest of all time?

It’s something we hear tossed around in sports discussions constantly. We each define it differently, some metrics carry more weight than others. It’s completely subjective, but we ask anyway. It’s one of the greatest and forever arguments in sports.

Is it championships? Is it individual player awards? Is it impact on the game?

Candace Parker attended her first basketball game at two weeks old. After a basketball career that spans nearly her entire life, the former Naperville Central hoops star announced her retirement Sunday on social media. Parker leaves the game a three-time WNBA champion, WNBA Rookie of the Year, two-time WNBA Most Valuable Player, seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, three-time Ms. Basketball of Illinois and with a host of other awards and accolades.

When Parker announced she was choosing to forgo her final season of eligibility at Tennessee to declare for the 2008 WNBA draft, a Chicago Tribune article titled “Candace Parker Goes Pro” asked, “Could Candace Parker do for women’s basketball in Chicago what Michael Jordan did for the Bulls?”

In that year’s draft, then-team President Margaret Stender and the Sky held the No. 2 pick. But with the hometown phenom Parker available, they wanted to trade up with the Los Angeles Sparks for the first overall pick.

“We’ve been talking to (L.A.) and they know we’re open to a deal. But Candace is hard to walk away from,” Stender said in February 2008 after news spread of Parker entering the draft.

The Sparks said their team would “keep its options open to the best thing” for the team.

“Candace Parker is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Magic Johnson all rolled into one — that’s how good she is,” Sparks coach Michael Cooper said at the time.

The Sparks kept their pick and used it on Parker, while the Sky drafted LSU star and future WNBA MVP Sylvia Fowles.

In 2021, after 13 seasons with L.A., Parker returned to Chicago as a veteran superstar. With teammates Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot and Kahleah Copper, she helped win the franchise’s first WNBA championship and the only championship by a Chicago professional sports team since 2016.

And the city showed up to watch her do it. For Games 3 and 4 of the 2021 WNBA Finals at Wintrust Arena, a sellout crowd of 10,387 was in attendance to watch the Sky defeat Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury.

Last summer, I wrote about how Chicagoans view the city as a basketball mecca. Parker represents that proud love and legacy.

“She’s the original Caitlin Clark. CP is Jordan and Caitlin is LeBron in terms of visibility,” Marquee Sports Sky reporter Karli Bell told me. “Candace Parker is the epitome of what a women’s Chicago basketball player is. She had a ferocity, intensity and grit that represented the city of Chicago on such a level that everyone who was playing basketball at that time really wanted to emulate it.”

Bell, a former basketball player, was first introduced to Parker when she read a March 2002 Tribune feature on Parker as the 2002 Ms. Basketball of Illinois when she was 8 years old.

“I remember when she was Gatorade Player of the Year and in the McDonald’s High School All-American Game. She represented the city on such a level — even though she was from Naperville, she still repped Chicago by the way she carried herself on the court. She has a swagger and grace with a basketball that is Chicago,” Bell said.

Like many young girls in basketball, Bell tried to perfect her floater to look like Parker’s and spent hours in her Chicago alley practicing Parker’s step and lay-in technique. There’s a generation of young women hoopers with this same story. Not only did Parker show them what it was like to win on every level — two-time Class AA state champion, two-time NCAA champion — she played with such versatility and confidence she changed the way the post positions are played.

While many who looked up to Parker didn’t make it to the WNBA, they can be seen in and around the game. And some of Parker’s fans, like the Sky’s Isabelle Harrison, did achieve WNBA dreams — a testament to Parker’s lasting influence in the game. Her two NCAA championships were the last two for legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summit. And with Parker’s retirement, Harrison becomes the last active WNBA player to be coached by Summit.

But it wasn’t just women who admired Parker.

“ ‘The real CP3’ has an Illinois girls basketball high school resume that’s going to be extremely hard to top: four-time first-team all-state, back-to-back state titles, back-to-back-to back unanimous Illinois high school player of the year, back-to-back back unanimous USA Today, Naismith and Gatorade high school player of the year,” said Eugene McIntosh, co-founder of The Bigs and former Mt. Carmel basketball player. “Even though she’s not officially ‘from the crib,’ she was so raw that we adopted her. And you know how we feel about suburbanites claiming Chicago. Her Illustrious NCAA and W careers, specifically coming back and winning one with the Sky, have etched her name into legendary status.”

As a high school sophomore, Parker dunked for the first time in a game. It was the first dunk by a female athlete in Illinois. But she didn’t stop there. Parker made slam dunk history again when she became the first woman to enter and win the dunk contest in the McDonald’s All-American game.

Over her 16-year WNBA career, Parker averaged 16 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4 assists. She closes this chapter ranked ninth in WNBA history in career points, third in career rebounds, second in career defensive rebounds, seventh in career assists, fifth in career blocks, seventh in career made field goals, ninth in career field-goal attempts, fourth in career double-doubles, eighth in career rebounds per game and third in defensive rebounds per game. Parker is one of five players in WNBA history with multiple triple-doubles.

In addition to her on-court contributions, Parker advocated for women and girls in sports and became an example of motherhood among female athletes.

As she moves into whatever the future holds, Parker has said she is interested in WNBA team ownership. I can think of a local team who could use her at the helm.

“Dear Summer,” Parker wrote on Sunday. “I know you gon’ miss me.” A reference to the Jay-Z song from rapper Memphis Bleek’s fourth album. The song, Hov’s metaphor-filled love letter to his rap career, was the perfect ending note for her career. She often used the legendary rapper’s lyrics to make points and motivate herself, so I’ll use some to remember her in kind. In “Young Forever” Jay-Z says:

“Reminisce, talk some s---, forever young is in your mind / Leave a mark they can’t erase, neither space nor time / So when the director yells cut, I’ll be fine / I’m forever young.”

Throughout her basketball career, Parker grew up before our eyes. She won, she lost, she fell down and got back up again. In the face of disrespect, she’d hit a new milestone. Parker showed us what it meant to never cheat the game, but most importantly to never cheat ourselves. When the time was right and she was at peace, she made her exit.

So to answer the question: Did Parker do for women’s basketball in Chicago what Jordan did for the Bulls?

When the history is written, she’s in there. She’s up there. She’s at the top, near the top. You have to speak about her.

That’s her impact.