Saying goodbye to Candace Parker, without cheating the game, herself or her fans

Candace Parker never wanted to cheat the game.

You would expect nothing less from a player shaped by Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols legacy. Through 10 operations. Her pregnancy and birth of her first child, Lailaa, after her rookie season. He spent the offseason playing in Russia, China and Turkey, and later spent the offseason behind the counter at TNT, NBATV and CBS. Over a career that spanned sixteen seasons and three cities in the WNBA, four years in Tennessee and two Olympic Games, it's safe to say: Parker never cheated. Instead, it almost feels like the game should have given her even more than it did.

Parker, 38, announced on Instagram on Sunday that she has retired from the WNBA. From her home, a hotel or a gym somewhere, Parker quietly pushed send and let the world know that one of the greatest to ever step foot on a basketball court would not be playing again.

There were no heads-ups or warnings to the WNBA community or the players she has competed against for years. And there will be no farewell season or a months-long march toward retirement. It was quick and concise. And it was exactly how she wanted it: completely on her terms. After a career that was all too often derailed by injuries, it was her fault.

“I always wanted to leave the field without a parade or tour,” her Instagram caption read. “Just in private with the ones I love.”

That Parker's last WNBA game was a two-point loss on the road to Dallas in 2023 is a footnote in her story. That may have been her last game on the floor, but her last WNBA game was a league championship. Her third. She may have been at the end of the bench and not suited up, but she was vital to the Las Vegas Aces every step of the way. Parker went out as she always was: a winner, an incredible teammate and an advocate for the game.

Reading Parker's post, the first memory that comes to mind is not of her final season in Las Vegas, but of her final game of the 2021 season. She had come to Chicagoland after thirteen seasons in Los Angeles to bring the city a title To deliver. It was the first offseason under a new CBA in which free agency could flourish and she — fittingly as one of the players who helped build the league — was one of the first to deliver shocking free agency news. Months later, in October, in a decisive WNBA Finals Game 4, with five seconds left, Parker pulled down the final rebound of the 2021 season and began dribbling down the court. As time passed, she picked up the ball and sprinted to the corner of the field, where her family waited. She jumped into their arms.

She returned to center court to celebrate with teammates until she saw Lailaa and motioned for her to come running. Then the tears really started to fall. Parker played part of her rookie season while pregnant with Lailaa, so Lailaa has been on Parker's basketball journey since her birth.

“Look at the city, man, they all showed up,” Parker said, looking up at the sold-out arena with her arm around her daughter. “They all showed up.”

But Parker had always been a player people showed up for: fans, cities, her family, free agents. That season had its own harbinger of a rapidly changing league as viewership and attendance increased. In that final match, Chance the Rapper and Scottie Pippen were courtside, but it was Lailaa who she held on to the tightest after the match.

Her basketball career spans the sport's epic growth, which has only accelerated in recent seasons. In 2003, she became the first women's basketball player to ever announce her college commitment for ESPN. She would later become the first women's player to dunk in an NCAA competition. In the WNBA, she became the first (and still only) player to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors in the same season. She subsequently became the first player to win three league titles with three franchises.

She was one of the first women's players to test the limits of positionless basketball. Even in college, her unicorn-like skills were undeniable. In the national title game during her senior year, play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick said, “This is almost unfair – someone her size with this kind of speed and this kind of ball handling.”

But it wasn't unfair. Parker was just different. Perhaps ahead of its time. Maybe just in time. She pushed the boundaries of what people saw for female basketball players. And she would continue to do so as a player in the WNBA, both on and off the court.

She became a broadcaster, investor, owner of a professional women's soccer team, face of Adidas basketball, producer and mother (in addition to Lailaa, she and her wife, Anna Petrakov, are expecting their second child together). She did all this while continuing to battle injuries that compromised her career, but rehabbing so she could remain one of the best players in the WNBA. Her dedication to the game never wavered. She refused to give less than everything. A memory of Summitt not hesitating to kick her out of college practice for not giving 100 percent was still fresh in my mind even 20 years later.

In the wake of her retirement announcement, social media was flooded with photos of people – WNBA players, NBA players, athletes and fans – admiring Parker, both the player and the person.

“The most important thing is that she always did it her way,” said former teammate Courtney Vandersloot The Athletics. “She was the type of player who changed the game. What we see now is what Candace did early on.”

Parker never cheated on basketball. She changed it. And at least she was owed a few more attempts at a title and more wins while she was fully healthy or had a full complement around her. Regardless of her last game, her last win or her last title, Parker changed the expectations of a women's basketball player and WNBA player by being 100 percent herself. She stood on the shoulders of giants and at the same time made others stand on her shoulders.

Over 16 WNBA seasons, Parker played for her family, her city and her league. She proved that she could be almost as effective at this on the bench as a motivator and coach, when life far too often required it, as on the floor. Even now in retirement, her impact will be felt through the sport she helped grow.

Now the girl who fell in love with “a little orange ball” at age 13 can relax in retirement, knowing that thanks to her, it will bounce back better for the next generation.

(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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