Chasing That Championship Feeling

MINNEAPOLIS – When the buzzer sounded to end Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, every player on that Los Angeles Sparks team won her first WNBA championship.

After Nneka Ogwumike’s putback gave the Sparks a one-point lead with 3.1 seconds to play, the players watched as Lindsay Whalen’s desperation half-court attempt hit the backboard and fell to the court.

The game was over. The series was over. The pursuit of a WNBA championship was over.

For Candace Parker, it had taken 10 seasons to become a WNBA champion.

For Alana Beard, it took 11 seasons on the court and two seasons missed due to career-threatening injuries.

For Ogwumike, it capped off a year that saw her win her first MVP award as well as her first title in her fifth WNBA season.

After all the practice, all the workouts, all the focus and energy on pursuing a singular goal of being the best in the world, it happens. Then what?

“You hear stories about athletes who reach the pinnacle and they think that’s going to be the end-all be-all, what really creates the person that they are, and the athlete that they are,” Ogwumike said following Friday’s practice less than 48 hours prior to a Finals rematch with the Minnesota Lynx. “But for me when it happened you’re just kind of like whoa, it happened. And then when it’s over, you’re like all right, what’s next.

“And for me it wasn’t necessarily the winning the championship part that was so amazing. When you experience that, you want to be great all the time. That’s what drives me now. That feeling is really what you’re chasing.”

That burst of euphoria and joy from accomplishing such a feat is so short compared to the countless hours of work and preparation put forth in order to achieve the goal. Not only is the payoff worth the effort, but that feeling can become addictive.

“I think as soon as you do it, you’re greedy. You want to feel that feeling again for sure,” said Parker. “That’s the thing with success, you want more of it. You get that taste of victory and you’re like, ‘Man, now we’ve experienced it, now we kind of know what it takes to win.’

“I’m not saying it’s going to be the same things, but at least we know the feeling of winning and we know what it takes. And then you’re hungry and you’re greedy to do it again.”

While Ogwumike relished the championship in the moment and prepared to move on to her next goal, Parker said it took a while for everything to sink in before she could thoroughly enjoy becoming a WNBA champion for the first time.

“You’re drained after something like that just from putting everything you have into something,” she said. “So you’re drained and you really don’t have a lot of time to reflect. But I think as time goes on – I know for me – when you lay in your bed in January, February, March, you look back and you’re like, ‘Man, that was pretty special.’”

Last season saw Parker earn her first WNBA title and first Finals MVP, but it was far from the first time she’s experienced that championship moment. And in each instance, she needed time to appreciate the accomplishment.

“For me, I won an Olympic gold medal, but I didn’t really get it until months, years later,” she said. “For me, [in the moment] it’s still unbelievable. You still feel like you have a game the next day. We won [the Finals] and it was like, ‘Are we playing the next day? When’s Game 6?’”

We’ve all heard athletes talk about taking things one game at a time, or one possession at a time. And while that may sound like a cliché, it’s a perfect example of the laser focus needed to achieve greatness. Parker was so focused on Game 5, she couldn’t completely enjoy the accomplishment because her mind immediately went to focusing on the next game – even though there was no next game to play.

Which brings us to Sunday’s Game 1 of the first WNBA Finals rematch in 15 years. As questions come left and right about being back on the same stage against the same team for the second year in a row, the Sparks are not giving thought to what they did last October and are strictly focused on what they must do over the next two weeks.

Beard, who made the game-winning shot in Game 1 of last year’s Finals, is locked in on creating new memories this year rather than reflecting on what she did a year ago.

“Last year I can tell you I watched that play over and over and over again after the series,” Beard said. “After we were done, it was one of the best feelings. But I don’t bring that into this moment. It’s over. Different things are going to happen. Different memories will be made.”

While the Sparks can’t cling to their previous accomplishments, they do bring the experience of being on the Finals stage before. Plus, they know what to expect from a Lynx squad that has made a near full-time residence in the Finals over the last seven years.

“Last year it felt very new,” said Ogwumike. “No one had experienced the Finals except for [head coach] Brian [Agler]. So it was just a Candyland, Disneyland kind of feeling, you know? And then this year it’s still fun, but we have the experience and the maturity that comes with the responsibility of knowing what you have to do to finish as the last team.”

After tasting that championship glory once, the Sparks are eager to have that feeling again.

“My philosophy is you can do a lot of things one time, but you can’t really mess up and do things twice,” said Parker. “That’s consistency. Winning two is like that.”

Parker already has two high-school championships, two collegiate championships and two Olympic gold medals under her belt. Can she and the Sparks keep that theme going by adding a second WNBA championship to the résumé?