CHICAGO — When Candace Parker became an unrestricted free agent earlier this year, she could have joined just about any WNBA team. That’s the kind of sway that comes with being a two-time MVP, a 2016 champion and five-time all-star.
But Parker, who grew up in suburban Naperville, chose the Chicago Sky, signing a two-year deal in hopes of bringing the city its first pro basketball championship since 1998.
Parker has had plenty of help, including from veteran guard Allie Quigley, a native of suburban Joliet, DePaul standout and three-time all-star.
“It means a lot,” Parker said. “Any opportunity to get in the finals — this is my 14th year and my third finals — I don’t take it for granted. To go back home, it’s special. I hope that the city is ready to cheer us on and give us the energy we need.”
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‘Women’s Basketball Has A Place In This Community’
Born in St. Louis, Parker’s family moved to Naperville when she was a toddler.
After two state titles at Naperville Central, Parker became the first women’s basketball player to announce her college destination on ESPN in 2003 when she committed to powerhouse Tennessee. Even with a storied history of legendary players, Parker’s time as a Lady Volunteer stood out, as she led the team to two straight NCAA titles.
Parker was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks, where she played the majority of her career, winning the WBNA title in 2016.
Now 35, Parker joins a line of Chicago hoops stars — including Derrick Rose and Ayo Dosunmu — who dominated in high school, left for college and professional success and then returned to where it all started.
“Women’s basketball has a place in this community,” Parker said. “And I know from a grassroots standpoint, people follow Chicago sports from high school to wherever they end up, and then hopefully back in Chicago.”
Even if Parker can’t deliver the city’s first basketball championship since Michael Jordan left the Bulls, she’s a driving force in the Sky’s shock-run to the WNBA Finals.
“It’s funny to say, but [Parker] is probably one of the most underrated women’s basketball players of all time,” head coach James Wade said after the Sky clinched their Finals berth. “They’re going to measure it by how many championships did this player win, but how she’s carried basketball on her back and how we’ve seen it transform into what it potentially could be in her [post-basketball] career.”
‘Her Story Is The Chicago Story’
Quigley’s road to the Sky was less of a blockbuster deal and more of a case of finally finding the right fit.
Quigley wasn’t available for an interview, but Doug Bruno, her former coach at DePaul, remembers her recruitment like it was yesterday.
“It happens all the time: There’s these grammar school phenoms that people call you about,” Bruno said. “You always pay attention to it, but more often than not, they’re just that — grammar school phenoms.”
Not Quigley. She was a WBCA All-American in 2004 and arrived in Chicago from Joliet as a program-changing talent. She scored more than 2,000 points at DePaul from 2004 to 2008, leading the Blue Demons to their first Sweet 16 in program history in 2006.
“She’s absolutely one of the greatest players DePaul has ever had, and she’s absolutely the most accomplished professional player DePaul women’s basketball has ever had,” Bruno said.
But transitioning to the pros proved a rocky road.
Quigley was drafted by the Seattle Storm in 2008 but was cut before the season. She signed with the Phoenix Mercury, then was cut mid-season. She spent the next few years bouncing around WNBA teams and playing in Europe before returning to the WNBA to play for the Seattle Storm, which released her after the 2011 season. Quigley played in just seven games that year.
Since joining the Sky in 2013, she has been a steady, irreplaceable presence in the team’s backcourt. Now 35, she’s also three-time league all-star.
“She got drafted, she got cut, she got picked up, then she got cut,” Bruno said. “She grinded it out in Europe with nobody watching her, then she goes back, she plays and then she gets cut. She just kept fighting, and that’s her story. Her story is the Chicago story. The city burns and it gets rebuilt.”
‘A Full-Circle Moment’
The Sky were burning at one point during the season, too. The team was 2-7 in June after a slow, frustrating start to the campaign, but it rebounded with a seven-game winning streak later in the month.
“I think that we were all questioning everything in a seven-game losing streak, it was all of us,” Quigley said during a media availability last week. “You lose a little bit of trust, but I think that in the end, we we just needed to get a win under our belt, and all you can do is believe at that point. And I think we did a little bit of that with each other like [Wade] did it with us. And we did it with him and kind of got through it together.”
But nobody in the organization is surprised to be at this stage, despite the Sky becoming the first WNBA franchise to clinch a Finals berth without a bye to the semifinals since the league changed its playoff format in 2016.
“From the beginning, [Wade] believed in us and thought that with what we had, we can go far and to championships,” Quigley said. “I think now it’s finally just all come together.”
Before Parker joined the Sky, she texted with future teammates about their potential to win a championship. After buying all the way in, the results have gone according to plan.
Quigley was with the Sky when the team was swept 3-0 in the 2014 Finals by the Mercury. This time around, they are determined to make things go their way.
It’s “just kind of like a full-circle moment,” Parker said. “To look up in the stands and just see all the people I started playing basketball in front of, to me, it’s super special. But this is a special group. I think the way you face adversity, it’s built our character and it’s revealed it. I think all of us believed going into the playoffs that we would be sitting here, honestly.”
Parker said the atmosphere was electric when they clinched the semifinal series against Connecticut at Wintrust, but a sold-out crowd will have a different kind of energy.
She also knows this could be her last chance at another championship.
“I definitely think I have a lot more basketball behind me than I do in front of me, and I know that,” Parker said. “I’m really taking in moments, how special it is, and opportunities.”
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