Jenae Williams (center) poses for a photo with Chicago Sky players Diamond DeShields, left, and Lexie Brown, right. Credit: Provided

CHICAGO — The Chicago Sky are expecting one of their largest crowds ever for a sold-out game Friday as the team fights the Phoenix Mercury for the WNBA championship.

A sold-out crowd of 10,387 fans is expected to attend Game 3 at Wintrust Arena, according to the team. That’ll make it one of the largest crowds in franchise history — just as the team is tied 1-1 with the Mercury in the best-of-five series.

Candace Parker — a Naperville native who returned to Chicago to play for the Sky this year — has led the team on their playoff run. She’s become a hometown hero, leading the Bud Billiken Parade and having Sept. 16 named Candace Parker Day in the city.

But the entire team has inspired girl hoopers around Chicago, engaging a fanbase that often feels left out of the sports world.

Danielle Brooks, a 14-year-old basketball player who attends St. Malachy School on the Near West Side, won a 1-on-1 tournament this summer against girls her age and was named Queen of the Court. On Wednesday night, Brooks made sure she got her math homework done just before tip-off. Her new favorite player is Parker. 

“She can go,” Brooks said. “It’s inspiring me. I feel like I can do what the Sky are doing.” 

Asia Williams, a sophomore player at Kenwood Academy High School, wonders what the Sky’s star guards, married couple Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, talk about around the dinner table.

Asia Williams likes that Sky players aren’t afraid to be themselves. Players like Dana Evans and Lexie Brown wear lashes and nails and reject the “tomboy” stereotypes female players are often boxed into. 

“I know a lot of people feel like you have to have a certain image to play basketball,” she said. “Growing up, women’s players wasn’t something always talked about; it was mainly just NBA players. So, actually seeing a team in Chicago that gets somewhere, that’s doing well and enjoying themselves, it’s definitely something great to watch.”

The Kenwood girl’s basketball team was at Wintrust Arena to cheer on the Sky at the game they clinched playoff position. Asia Williams said her first WNBA game won’t be her last; on Wednesday, she rushed home after basketball practice to watch the Sky battle in Game 2. 

“They’re so smooth, and I love their jerseys,” she said. “If they win the [WNBA] Finals, I think it will finally put some honor and respect on women’s players in general.”

Jenae Williams, no relation to Asia Williams, said she’s only “kind of a sports fan,” but the Sky have inspired her to follow basketball for the first time since the Bulls championships. She fell in love with the players’ fashion, especially the “effortless cool” of ”rockstar” guard Diamond DeShields. 

Superfan Jenae Williams met DeShields after a recent game and got the player to autograph her “Space Jam” purse. She said Sky games create a safe space for fans like her — a queer Black woman — to exist outside the masculinity and misogyny baked into men’s sports fandoms. 

“Often you’re in spaces where you’re so used to people downplaying who you are as a person, your queerness, your personality, your interests, and then also your sports interest doesn’t matter, your favorite athlete who inspired you in high school doesn’t matter,” Jenae Williams said. “But this is a place where we can all be like, ‘Forget them. We love this.’”

Dorothy Gaters, a legendary women’s basketball coach who’s led John Marshall High School to 10 city championships, is happy to be enjoying Sky games as just a fan from her couch. Gaters took a step away from coaching at the start of the pandemic to spend time with her great-grandkids — but when she watches Sky games, she can’t quite turn her coaching X-ray vision off.

Gaters likes the team’s hustle, how they push the ball in transition and play together as a unit. She remembers coaching against Parker in high school and how, even back then, Parker had “all the tools” to be great. 

“Those young ladies are the epiphany of what it takes to become a pro. The hard work, the discipline,” Gaters said. “It shows we’re trying to get a little more parity. I hope that happens. These women players work as hard as the men. And actually, I prefer watching the women. Their execution is so much better.”

Camille Jackson, a University of Illinois basketball commit and Butler College Prep senior, has been tuned into the Sky’s playoff run, taking notes on the way guard Kahleah Copper brings energy to the floor and Parker pulls her teammates aside for pep talks. 

Jackson, one of the top recruits in the class of 2022, chose Illinois so she could stay close to home and represent Chicago basketball. If there’s any place that can level up the women’s game, Chicago is it, she said.

“Going to the last game I went to — seeing how many more fans and how cool the seats are and how exciting it is watching the game — I felt that excitement just spreading all over Chicago,” Jackson said. “But I think people shouldn’t take this like a one-year thing. The energy should just keep going.”

Fans can watch Game 3 at 8 p.m. Friday on ESPN2.

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