Candace Parker, At Long Last, A WNBA Champion

MINNEAPOLIS — At this time last year, Candace Parker and the Los Angeles Sparks were walking out of the Target Center dejected following a season-ending Game 3 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Lynx. Another year of high hopes, another year of failing to rise up to meet them. Thursday night, the Sparks’ season once again ended at the Target Center, but this time their heads were held high.

This time they were WNBA champions.

After a brilliant regular season and a exhilarating five-game Finals series against the defending champions, the Sparks finally completed their journey back to glory. And what a journey it has been for Parker. Since her days at Tennessee, where she formed an intimate bond with legendary coach Pat Summit and became the first woman to dunk in a NCAA Tournament game, Parker has been moving the game of women’s basketball forward. Her versatile skills and athleticism made her unique, and at times unstoppable.

She was the Naismith College Player of the Year, won two NCAA National Championships, captured two Olympic gold medals, was the Rookie of the Year and MVP in her first WNBA season in 2008, won another MVP in 2013, boasts four All-WNBA First Team appearances, played in three WNBA All-Star Games, and was named to the WNBA’s Top 20@20 list of the greatest players in league history this summer.

All of which are incredible achievements, and speak to the brilliance of her game. But as Los Angeles Sparks GM Penny Toler said late Thursday night, “You all know, you can have as many awards as you want to have, but if you don’t have the hardware, somebody’s gonna say something.”

Throughout her career, Parker has often faced criticism and questions about her lack of a ring. As head coach Brian Agler put it postgame, “I’ve never been around somebody that has been critiqued so hard… It’s unbelievable.” This year, that mounting pressure, coupled with professional slights and personal heartbreak culminated in the toughest year yet of Parker’s basketball journey.

Since her days at Tennessee, where she formed an intimate bond with legendary coach Pat Summit and became the first woman to dunk in a NCAA Tournament game, Parker has been moving the game of women’s basketball forward.

It started in the spring, when Parker was surprisingly left off the U.S. Women’s National Team that would be heading to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics. A member of both the 2008 and 2012 Gold Medal winning teams Parker at the time said she was “surprised — very surprised. It’s tough on hear.”

She moved on from the decision rather quickly, however, with the help of her young daughter, who was probably one of the few people happy about USA Basketball’s decision. “She’s like, ‘Well, great, I get to spend time with you here,'” Parker told USA Today earlier this season. “And it kind of put everything in perspective.”

Parker’s ability to take that step back, to put things in perspective, was not lost on her teammates this season. “This year more than any other year I’ve seen a change in her with her maturity, with her willingness to do what’s best for the team,” Sparks guard Kristi Toliver told WNBA.com following Game 5. “Her selflessness, knowing that she can’t do it on her own, that was flat-out the difference between other years and this year in her maturity and growth, understanding that it takes 12 [players].”

That maturity and growth helped Parker on the court, and also off of it, as she dealt with the loss of Summitt in June. Few coaches and players are as close as Parker and Summitt were, and the pain her death caused Parker was evident following the Sparks’ win later that night. After Parker put on a vintage performance, finishing with 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists, she broke down while talking to Holly Rowe.

Immediately after Thursday’s win, a similar scene played out, as Parker told Rowe, “This is for Pat.”

While Parker’s performance was for Pat, head coach Brian Agler playing Tennessee’s fight song “Rocky Top” to open their postgame press conference was for Candace. The bond between Parker and Summitt may no longer be physical, but their connection will live on. Parker, who now wears orange shoes to commemorate her former coach, said she listened to one of Summitt’s speeches before the game: “She would have been proud about rebounding because it came down to rebounding and defense.”

Even once she got over the hump and into the WNBA Finals, the obstacles did not cease. Before Game 3, she found out she was left off both All-WNBA teams for the first time since 2011. After years of racking up personal accolades, those decisions were not going Parker’s way in 2016. But as Sparks co-owner Magic Johnson told reporters following Game 5, “She’ll forget about the Olympics and the All-WNBA team, ’cause what you play for is championships.”

And a championship is what Candace Parker won Thursday night. She was the best player on the floor, dropping a game-high 28 points to go with 12 rebounds, which also matched a game-high. Her rebounding was key in helping the Sparks win the pivotal rebounding battle, 33-27, and her scoring was crucial, as she knocked down more than one-third of the Sparks’ made shots. For her performance in Game 5 and throughout the series, Parker earned the Finals MVP award, which is one personal accolade she won’t soon forget.

Now, the journey is complete. From personal setbacks she matured, through personal pain she persevered, and on the biggest stage, in the most important game of her life, she played as well as she ever has. “I’ve been with Candace for five years now,” Game 1 hero Alana Beard told WNBA.com postgame. “And this was the first year she trusted her teammates. She became vulnerable, and when you become vulnerable you grow. On the court, off the court, she trusted the process, she trusted Brian, and in the end it paid off.”

At long last, Candace Parker is a WNBA champion.

Her mission complete, she stood surrounded by her teammates in a cramped Target Center locker room already inundated by the smell of champagne. They all raised a glass and Parker led one final championship toast:

“This is to the journey!”