Hometown hero Candace Parker leads Chicago Sky to WNBA Finals over Connecticut Sun

CHICAGO -- Candace Parker laughed Wednesday about the food deliveries she got in January from her prospective Sky teammates to convince her she should come home to Chicago. But it was the hunger for another WNBA championship that truly lured Parker back to her hometown.

"This is a special group," Parker said after the Sky's 79-69 victory over Connecticut in Game 4 of their semifinal series, which put them into the WNBA Finals. "This year was hard. We're sitting here, and this is great, but it was hard this year.

"We have a bunch of people who get back up. You get knocked down, and you get back up. After playing against them for so many years, I wanted to be a part of it."

Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot, one of those responsible for sending Chicago culinary favorites to lure Parker during free agency, said the Sky wanted her just as much.

"We were missing one piece. And it was Candace Parker," Vandersloot said. "We knew what she brought to us. She was going to take us to this point that we are right here. That's what it means to us for her to come here and come home."

Parker grew up in suburban Naperville, Illinois, won two NCAA titles at Tennessee and then was drafted No. 1 by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2008, when she was both MVP and rookie of the year. She won another MVP award in 2013 and a WNBA championship in 2016. Last year, she was the league's defensive player of the year.

With her 35th birthday looming in April, Parker opted in February to leave the Sparks, the only WNBA team she had played for, and sign with the Sky.

The fit was instantaneous from both personality and playing-style perspectives. The hard part that Parker alluded to? A 16-16 regular-season record, making the Sky just the third team in WNBA history to make the Finals with a record of .500 or worse.

The record was in part because Parker missed nine games this season dealing with injury. After opening with two victories, Chicago lost its next seven, and coach James Wade admitted that he was questioning himself. But Parker being in the lineup makes a world of difference.

The longest-tenured Sky player, Vandersloot was with Chicago previously when it made the WNBA Finals, in 2014. The No. 3 draft pick in 2011, Vandersloot said throughout the organization's ups and downs -- which included stars Sylvia Fowles and Elena Delle Donne forcing trades to leave the Sky -- she kept believing.

"We've had rocky seasons. We've had people that wanted to be out of Chicago. A bad reputation; hard to get free agents," Vandersloot said. "I'm out there texting everybody trying to get people to come here at some point. It's been a lot.

"But when we finally got that core group and were building around players that wanted to be here, we had something very special. And I knew it because of the previous seasons I've been here. It was an easy sell to Candace."

For all her years in Los Angeles, Parker's heart remained in Chicago. She wore a Bears jersey after Game 3 of the semifinals and a Blackhawks jersey after Game 4. Parker had 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists Wednesday and was thrilled that Chicago celebrities, including Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, were at Wintrust Arena to see the Sky knock off the top-seeded Sun.

There is still another big series to go: the best-of-five WNBA Finals starting Sunday at either No. 2 Las Vegas or No. 5 Phoenix. But the sixth-seeded Sky believe with Parker on their side, they could bring the Sky organization its first WNBA title.

"We are so happy to have her," Vandersloot said. "Whether we win a championship or not, she changed this franchise."