For the Los Angeles Sparks, the road to the WNBA championship would begin and end with Candace Parker. It started with Parker making the full-time commitment to attend training camp and seeing this season all the way through.
For Parker, that meant making sure her routine overseas, offseason basketball commitment that usually interrupts the beginning of her season every year, would not do that this year. That meant getting snubbed from the U.S. Olympic team.
That meant not being good enough to make the 2016 All-WNBA First and Second teams, despite averaging 19 points and 8 rebounds a game. That also meant there was big, fat a chip placed on the proud shoulders of Parker.
She played like it, too. Especially in the postseason where upped her game a couple of notches, going for just a shade over 20 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. The Sparks would need every inch of Parker’s 6-foot-4 inch frame in every game this season to help them go through through the rigors of what it mean to play championship-level of basketball.
Playing for a title would mandate that Parker and her teammates be on board from beginning to end if they were to knock off Maya Moore and the mighty Minnesota Lynx. It would take all five games in the WNBA Finals to get this accomplished.
It would take two, one-point victories, including the Game 5 title-deciding contest, to illustrate the magnitude of the importance of attending training camp, scratching, fighting and crawling through the regular season and the building of trust between teammates. You don’t get that with a part-time commitment.
A part-time commitment gives you part-time results. Part of the reason the Sparks have not been able to finish the season until now has been those overseas stays that has engulfed Parker’s schedule. To be fair, when training camp opened this season, whole plethora of veteran players, not named Parker, were still winding down their own overseas platform.
It’s different when your leader leads by example. That’s what Parker has done throughout the season. Yes, Nneka Ogwumike is the regular season WNBA MVP. But it is Parker that still makes the Sparks’ engine go.
Yes, it was Ogwumike who hit the Game 5 winning-shot with 3.1 seconds to go to give the Sparks a 77-76 win against the Lynx in Minnesota. But if it was not for Parker’s 28 points and 12 rebounds, Ogwumike and the Sparks may not have been around to close the deal on their first title since 2002.
“I can’t even describe this journey that this team has been on,” said Parker. “I mean, everybody on this team has a story, and this last year has been really tough for me personally, and my teammates and my coaches were always there for me.
“I think I’m excited because we won a championship, but the journey to get here, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anybody else, with any other team, any other coaches. It’s amazing when you surround yourself with great people how fun it is and how exciting it is when you get what you want.”
Then there is the Pat Summit factor for Parker. Summit, the University of Tennessee coach who passed away earlier this year, guided and molded Parker into the player she is today. During her stay at Tennessee, Summit stressed defense and other fundamentals of the game that Parker has embraced in her pro career.
“Well, I think it’s ironic — well, not ironic. I think Coach has been telling me this all year, that this series really was about defense and finishing plays rebounding, and I heard that for four years at Tennessee,” Parker said. “I wasn’t upholding my end of the bargain in this series for my teammates. I think in years past maybe I was doing a lot and maybe I could have used a little help, but this year it was on me.
“My teammates were doing their part, I had to step up and do mine. You can’t control if shots go in or if shots don’t, but what you can control is defense and rebounding, and that was kind of my mindset tonight, that I had to keep Sylvia off the boards and I had to do that not just for myself but for my team, as well.”