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Candace Parker’s goodbye, without cheating the game, herself or her fans

Written by on April 29, 2024

Candace Parker never wanted to cheat the game.

Of a player molded by Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols’ legacy, one would expect nothing less. Through 10 surgeries. Her pregnancy and birth of her first child, Lailaa, after her rookie season. Through offseasons spent playing in Russia and China and Turkey, and later, offseasons behind the desk on TNT, NBATV and CBS. Through a career that spanned 16 seasons and three cities in the WNBA, four years at Tennessee and two Olympics, it can be said assuredly: Parker never cheated the game. Instead, it almost feels like the game should’ve given her even more than it did.

Parker, 38, announced Sunday on Instagram that she had retired from the WNBA. From her home or a hotel or a gym somewhere, Parker silently pushed send and let the world know that one of the greatest who has ever stepped foot on a basketball court would not play again.

There were no heads-ups or warnings to the WNBA community or the players against whom she has competed for years. And there will be no send-off season or monthslong march toward her retirement. It was swift and succinct. And it was exactly how she wanted it — entirely on her terms. After a career that was too often derailed by injury, she was owed that.

“I always wanted to walk off the court with no parade or tour,” her Instagram caption read. “Just privately with the ones I love.”

That Parker’s last WNBA game was a 2-point loss on the road to Dallas in 2023 is a footnote in her story. That might’ve been her last game on the floor, but her last WNBA game was a league championship. Her third one. She might’ve been on the end of the bench, not suited up, but she was crucial for the Las Vegas Aces every step of the way. Parker went out as she always was — a winner, an incredible teammate and an advocate for the game.

In reading Parker’s message, the first memory that comes to mind is not of her final season in Las Vegas, but of her final game in the 2021 season. She had come home to Chicagoland after 13 seasons in Los Angeles to bring a title to the city. It was the first offseason under a new CBA when free agency could thrive and she was — fittingly as one of the players who helped build the league — one of the first to deliver shocking free-agency news. Months later, in October, in a decisive WNBA Finals Game 4, with five seconds remaining, Parker pulled down the final rebound of the 2021 season and began to dribble up the court. As time expired, she picked up the ball and sprinted to the corner of the court, where her family awaited. She jumped into their arms.

She returned to center court to celebrate with teammates until she spotted Lailaa and motioned for her to come running. That was when the tears really started to fall. Parker played part of her rookie season pregnant with Lailaa and thus, Lailaa has been on Parker’s basketball journey since birth.

“Look at the city, man, they all showed up,” Parker said, looking up at the sold-out arena with her arm draped around her daughter. “They all showed up.”

But Parker had always been a player for whom people show up — fans, cities, her family, free agents. That season had its own harbingers of a swiftly changing league as viewership and attendance ticked up. In that final game, Chance the Rapper and Scottie Pippen sat courtside, but it was Lailaa to whom she held most tightly after the game.

Her basketball career spans the epic growth of this sport that has only hastened in the past few seasons. In 2003, she became the first women’s basketball player to ever announce her college commitment on ESPN. She would later become the first women’s player to dunk in an NCAA game. In the WNBA, she became the first (and still, only) player to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season. Then, she became the first player to win three league titles with three franchises.

She was one of the first women’s players who tested the limits of positionless basketball. Even in college, her unicorn-like skills were undeniable. In the national title game during her senior year, play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick said: “This is almost unfair — someone of her size with this kind of speed and this kind of ballhandling.”

But it wasn’t unfair. Parker was just different. Maybe ahead of her time. Maybe right on time. She pushed the boundaries of what people saw for women’s basketball players. And she would continue to do so as a player in the WNBA both on and off the court.

She became a broadcaster, investor, professional women’s soccer team owner, face of Adidas basketball, producer and mother (in addition to Lailaa, she and her wife, Anna Petrakov, are expecting their second child together). She did all of this while continuing to fight injuries that risked her career, but rehabbing so that she could continue to be one of the best players in the WNBA. Her commitment to the game never wavered. She refused to give less than her all. A memory of Summitt not hesitating to kick her out of college practice for not giving 100 percent sat fresh in the front of her mind even two decades later.

In the wake of her retirement announcement, social media was flooded with photos from people — WNBA players, NBA players, athletes and fans — who admire Parker, both the player and person.

“The biggest thing is she did it her way, always,” former teammate Courtney Vandersloot told The Athletic. “She was the type of player that changed the game. What we see now, Candace was doing that early.”

Parker never cheated basketball. She changed it. And, if anything, it owed her a few more attempts at a title and more wins while being fully healthy or having a full complement around her. Regardless of her last game, her last win or her last title, Parker changed the expectations of a women’s basketball player and WNBA player by being 100 percent herself. She stood on the shoulders of giants while allowing others to stand on her shoulders simultaneously, too.

For 16 WNBA seasons, Parker played for her family, her city and her league. She proved she could be almost as effective at that on the bench as a motivator and coach, when life necessitated it far too often, as she was on the floor. Even in retirement, her impact will be felt through the sport she helped grow.

Now, the girl who fell in love with “a little orange ball at 13 years old” can relax in retirement knowing it bounces better for the next generation because of her.

(Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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