CHICAGO -- With just over three minutes to play on Wednesday night, Candace Parker was isolated in the post with the ball palmed in her right hand. After taking a second to compose herself and survey the situation, Parker faked one way, went middle, and spun back baseline to convert a tough lefty leaner over Alyssa Thomas and push the Chicago Sky's lead to 15 points. A quick timeout from the Connecticut Sun ensued, and the in-arena DJ responded by blaring Swag Surfin' over the speakers. The party was on in Chicago.
A short while later, when the final buzzer sounded on a 79-69 Game 4 victory, the jubilant Sky players poured onto the court to celebrate a 3-1 series win and their first trip to the WNBA Finals since 2014.
It was a moment that many expected prior to the season, but that seemed ever more unlikely as the summer went along. There was the 2-7 start, multiple ankle injuries for Parker, and a sixth-place finish that forced them to enter the playoffs in the first round and win two single-elimination games just to get to the semifinals. This season, as Parker emphasized postgame, was "hard."
The @chicagosky and Coach James Wade embrace @Candace_Parker as she comes over after helping them punching their ticket to the WNBA Finals 🧡— WNBA (@WNBA) October 7, 2021
In just her first season with the Sky, Parker has helped lead this team to a Finals appearance for the first time since 2014 ‼️ pic.twitter.com/2f2YC8xi8E
By the time they did reach the playoffs, they had largely been counted out. The inconsistency, the lackluster defense in the second half, the long road through the playoffs, all of it seemed too much to overcome. After all, since the league adopted this new playoff format back in 2016, no team had ever started in the first round and made it to the Finals.
The Sky, now, are the first, and that they were able to do so despite facing so much adversity throughout the season made it all the more meaningful for the players and coaches. Winning at this level is always special, but watching and listening to the Sky postgame, you could truly sense the combination of joy and relief they were feeling.
There was Parker, who during the offseason made one of the biggest free-agent decisions in league history to return home to Chicago and sign with the Sky. She did so, at least in part, because she wanted to help bring the franchise its first WNBA title. Now, she's just three wins away from accomplishing that goal.
"It really is emotional," Parker said on the court after the win with tears forming in her eyes. "I know we're not done yet, we don't want it to be done yet, but you sometimes have to stop and think and really appreciate this moment."
Later on, sitting in the postgame press conference, a more subdued Parker reflected on the series of events that brought her to this point. Of course, there was the draw of coming home, but there was a real belief that she was the missing piece to complete this team -- both from herself and other players.
"Yesterday Allie [Quigley] texted me and you know how iMessage keeps everything so I was scrolling up and there was a picture where they sent me Chicago goods, like pizza, all this Chicago home stuff," Parker said. "And then I looked at the text messages and it was like 'let's do this.' Like, 'I'm coming home for a reason.' And they were like, 'let's do it.'"
"So kind of a full-circle moment," Parker continued. "To look up in the stands and see all the people I started playing basketball in front of is super special. This is a special group. I think the way you face adversity it's built our character and it's revealed it. All of us going into the playoffs believed we would be sitting here, honestly. We knew it was gonna take a lot of work, but it's super special to be with this group."
There was Courtney Vandersloot, who was the No. 3 overall pick by the Sky back in 2011 and has spent her entire career with the franchise. She's been there for the highs like making the Finals back in 2014. She's been there through the lows of stars forcing their way out of town and playoff failures. Along the way, she's turned herself into the best point guard in the league.
"It was special because like you said, I've been here a long time," Vandersloot said. "We've had rocky seasons, we've had people want to be out of Chicago, bad reputation, hard to get free agents. Like, I'm out there texting everybody trying to get people to come here at some point. It's been a lot… But when I was out there and looked up and saw that sign that said 'Finals bound.' I just stopped Allie [Quigley] cause she's been with it the whole time with me and it just hit me. I looked up in the crowd and I didn't see an empty seat in that lower bowl. It was very heartwarming. I got a little emotional too, but I had to pull it together and act like 'G' of course."
There was James Wade, who ahead of the 2019 season was hired as head coach with the mandate of turning the franchise around. But despite his best efforts, things hadn't worked out in the playoffs. They were bounced in heartbreaking fashion in the first round in 2019, then beset by injuries in the bubble in 2020. Now, in perhaps the most difficult season yet, he finally has the team where he hoped to be all along.
"I grew up with that chip on my shoulder of always trying to prove myself and it was tough," Wade said. "It was really tough. You get used to it. You get used to being looked over, you get used to not being in the 'in crowd.' So when somebody believes in you and they say we're gonna invest in you it means a lot, so you don't let those opportunities go to waste. It's always a humbling experience when that happens, and it was a rarity in my life when it happened. So I was very appreciative and didn't want to prove them wrong. So when I get up every day and I go to work, I go to work like it's my last day. I never felt like I cheated the players and I never felt like I cheated the organization and I never will."
Because of all the ups and downs they experienced this season, the Sky were never able to relax or take their foot off the gas. That made things difficult, yes, but it kept them focused on the task at hand and helped forge the mindset that's gotten them through it all. So while there was great joy and excitement at what they accomplished on Wednesday night, there's also the knowledge that they haven't reached the finish line yet.
"It gives us an opportunity to keep playing," Wade said. "I'm really into the next game. I'm gonna appreciate this, but as soon as I walk through that door, it's time to concentrate on who we play next in the Finals."