Candace Parker says she followed her heart in coming home to play
There will always be room for chocolate cake and chili cheese hot dogs from Portillo's.
In moderation, of course.
Candace Parker is ecstatic to come back home to Chicago for a lot of reasons, and getting to splurge at her favorite guilty-pleasure restaurant is one of them.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I am the biggest Portillo's fan ever," said Parker, the former Naperville Central basketball star who signed a two-year deal this week to return home to play for the Chicago Sky in the twilight of her long WNBA career.
At 34 and going into her 14th season after spending the previous 13 with the Los Angeles Sparks, Parker knows the key to getting as much gas out of what remains in her tank is to know when to say when with things like chocolate cake.
She is convinced the key to self-preservation and athletic longevity is treating her body well, inside and out.
"I just want a fair shot at this. I want to be healthy," Parker said Tuesday when asked in a Zoom news conference with more than 110 participants how she can contribute to the Sky as an older veteran. "I'm going to do everything in my power to come (to Chicago) in the best condition that I can."
A few minutes later, when asked about her favorite spots in the Chicago area, Parker lit up and smiled, certainly aware she was about to contradict herself.
"I just said I wanted to be in shape and be in the best shape of my life," Parker said with a chuckle. "I need to be like that before I get to Chicago because all the food spots, all those healthy spots, I'm definitely going to hit up. I'm a foodie."
Parker plans to continue to live in Los Angeles in the winter, and spend summers in Chicago during the season. She hasn't lived in the Chicago area for an extended period since she left Naperville at 18, after leading Naperville Central to two state championships and winning three straight Illinois Ms. Basketball titles. She then moved to Knoxville to play for the late Pat Summitt at the University of Tennessee, where she won two NCAA national titles and was an All-American.
In the WNBA, Parker is a five-time all-star, a six-time first-team all-WNBA selection and a league champion.
Last summer, en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, Parker led the WNBA in rebounding (9.7 rpg.) while also averaging 14.7 points, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
This full-circle moment, coming back near the end of her career to the place where her basketball career first blossomed, certainly hasn't been lost on Parker.
"It just felt like the right decision coming home," Parker said. "And playing in front of the fans, the city, the people I grew up in front of.
"During COVID, I think it's shined a light about how important it is to be around family and friends."
Parker says she is excited to play in front of her family on a regular basis again. Her parents still live in the area, and her grandma recently did a video chat with her, gushing about being able to see her again as she held up a newspaper with news of her return.
Parker is anxious to see her 11-year-old daughter Lailaa play on some of the same courts she played on.
And one of Parker's best friends still lives in the area and is excited to see Lailaa grow up with her friend's three young boys.
"I left Naperville at 18 years old and now I'll be 35 when I return. The lessons I've learned being gone have brought me back home," Parker said. "And I really appreciate it. I promise I'll give my blood, my sweat, my tears, my energy.
"This means the world to me. I'm excited. Now, let's get to work."
Sky coaches and players got to work recruiting Parker when free agency began. Players even sent her Portillo's chocolate cake and hot dogs.
"I want to reiterate how momentous this day is," Sky head coach and general manager James Wade said. "It's not just the fact (Parker) is a generational talent, but what we needed for our team was a leader. We need someone who will be there for us through hard times.
"She's the type of talent and person where she has expectations. Every year, the team she's on, you automatically consider her team a championship contender. So once we felt there could be an opening (for Parker), we went at it 100 percent. It was about making (Parker) feel comfortable and about putting our team in a position where we can win a championship."
Parker says her free agency came down to two teams. It was either going to be her moving to Chicago or staying in Los Angeles.
"Those have been the only two places I've wanted to play," Parker said. "For 13 years, I feel I gave everything I had to the Sparks organization as well as they gave everything they had.
"I'm not leaving disgruntled ... or upset or angry or demanding a trade. I'm leaving because contractually, I can go where I want."
Parker said she thought about her decision carefully, and consulted family members and NBA players such as Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant, who made similar moves, leaving a market they had been in for years.
They told her to follow her heart.
"This community means so much to me," Parker said of Chicago. "I think my legacy will be I wanted to come back. This was a choice.
"If anything, it's follow your heart and I don't think you can fail."
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