Candace Parker on why she returned to the Chicago Sky, and the value of telling her own story

If she's being honest -- something Candace Parker makes a point of doing these days -- there were plenty of moments after the Chicago Sky (at Washington Mystics, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC) won the WNBA Championship last fall when she considered retiring.

Parker's wife, Anya Petrakova Parker, was pregnant with their first child together. Though Parker's body was still passing the test she had set for herself as a condition of continuing to play -- "'Can I still play with my kids?'" -- she had just completed one of her greatest athletic accomplishments in leading her hometown team to its first ever championship.

If there was a moment to ride off into the sunset, this was it.

But every time Parker weighed the pros and cons, she kept coming back to one thing:

"I just really value happiness," she said in a wide-ranging interview with ESPN. "I really do."

And the life she and Anya had built for themselves over the past five years, the choices they'd made to get to this exact moment, had made her happier than she's ever been. So why not enjoy it a bit longer?

Bask in it.

Then build off of it.

Parker's legacy in the game was secured after a second WNBA title, to go along with two NCAA titles and two Olympic gold medals. Her career as a broadcaster for TNT was taking off. She had never been hotter as a businesswoman or spokesperson.

This was the time to command the stage and see just how far her voice carried now, not exit from it.

For too long in her life, Parker had tried to do what the world expected Candace Parker to do. But over time something wonderful happened. The more Parker chose herself and the things that made her happy, the more the world seemed to like her.

But before she committed to another season and leaned once again into the spotlight, she made sure to take a moment to think through what she wanted to say.

"In those moments I really reflected on the journey -- those moments where it was bad," Parker said. "The rehabs and doctors' appointments where the news just kept getting worse and worse [Parker has dealt with knee, shoulder and ankle injuries during her 15-year WNBA career]. Then going overseas right after the season, not spending time with my family... I remember the divorce [from her husband, Shelden Williams] and going through all of that in terms of it being public.

"But all of that led to this... which just makes it so much sweeter."

That journey had been difficult, but it had also shaped her into who she was now. How much time and energy had she wasted trying to live up to an ideal she'd never even wanted and was never really her? Where had that gotten her? Injured, unhappy, missing home and her family.

And so after the 2021 season, as she and Petrakova prepared for the birth of their son Airr Larry Parker Petrakova, it was time to let the world in on their relationship and how happy it had made them.

On Dec. 14, 2021, Parker publicly wished her wife a happy second wedding anniversary and shared with the world that their family was growing.

"To know me or you is to know our love," Parker wrote in an Instagram post. "This journey hasn't been easy. I am proud of us and what we have built and who we have grown to become both individually and together."

It was the first public acknowledgement of their relationship. Those close to Parker and Petrakova had long known they'd been together since meeting while playing on a team together in Russia, but for the general public it was a big reveal.

"I feel like everybody that knew me, knew her and the people that didn't, don't really know us," Parker said. "I don't remember telling many people, 'I have a girlfriend.' It was just like, 'Hey, this is Anya' and people would eventually figure it out."

It's hard for Parker to say whether she'd have eventually come out publicly if a child wasn't on the way.

"I don't know. I just never felt like you should have to come out," Parker said.

But once Petrakova became pregnant, they knew it was time. "There's so many people out there that don't have the best intentions and you worry about that because this is our story to tell," Parker said. "This isn't anybody else's. So I'm so grateful that it was able to be told by us."

Neither knew what the response would be. Petrakova said she mostly worried how the news would be received in her native Russia, which has passed a number of discriminatory "gay propaganda" laws in the last decade.

"I was nervous, to be honest," Petrakova said. "I didn't know if there would be any government repercussions or my Instagram would get shut down. [LGBTQ+ rights are] a very uneasy subject in Russia. So I wanted to wait until I got my green card."

As it turned out, the worry was misplaced.

"Since then I feel so liberated," she said. "I haven't had much backlash, even from the Russians. A lot of my friends DM me and tell me they're so proud of me and I'm so brave. They'd be scared to death, but now they're more brave because of me.

"But mostly I just love owning the fact that I'm Candace's wife. I'm not just Anya anymore."

In a lot of ways, Petrakova said, it's like they're back in the newlywed stage.

"She told me the other day, 'I was with these investors and was like, 'Me and my wife... I just love saying me and my wife!'" Petrakova said. "So it's fun seeing her own it as well. She's definitely her most authentic self now. She loves to almost brag about us...'Me and my son and daughter and my wife.'"

Parker said it's surprised her, too, by how good it has felt to be out publicly.

"Honestly, Anya is like my favorite person," Parker said. "I think to everyone else I might seem like this bold and confident person. But with her I'm allowed to be that vulnerable person. I think that vulnerability has allowed me to make these choices because I wasn't afraid of it. I wasn't afraid to be vulnerable. I wasn't afraid for people not to like me, I wasn't afraid of people saying mean things. I laugh at stuff like that now. I'm OK with people not being OK with some of the things, as long as it's what's best for me and my family."

Parker's main concern before making a final decision on playing this season -- which she has admitted could also be her last -- was rooted in such family considerations. It was hard to move from their home in Los Angeles to play in Chicago last year. Her 13-year-old daughter, Lailaa, remained in L.A. for most of the season, and Parker had never been separated from her for that long. And in a few months, Parker and Petrakova would have a newborn.

Petrakova reassured her that everything would be fine.

"For me it was kind of like an adventure," Petrakova said. "We are both used to traveling and changing teams all the time. That's the lifestyle we lived our whole lives."

Then Parker talked to her daughter, who encouraged her to return for another year.

"She was like, "Lai, what do you think? Do you think I should go? Or do you think I should stay and be with you?'" Petrakova said. "And Lailaa was like, 'No, Mommy, I want you to play. I want to come to games and I want to come to Chicago. I think you should play.'"

With her wife and daughter's blessing, Parker took one last look at her own feelings.

Everything about returning for another season felt like honoring the person she'd become over the long journey she'd been on. She wasn't just choosing to keep playing, she was choosing to keep being that person.

"It's so empowering when you're able to live like that," she said.

A few months later, when Parker sat down to write a TED Talk, which she delivered on Jan. 14, 2022, that was one of the main points she wanted to address.

All her life she'd despised being put into boxes assigned by others.

"Barrier-breaking is about not staying in your lane and not being something that the world expects you to be," Parker said in her TED Talk. "It's about not accepting limitations."

People would see her height and build and ask if she was a basketball player, and reluctantly she would admit that she was.

"But inside I scream I am so much more," Parker said.

Eventually, Parker explained in the 11-minute speech, she realized she was the one who needed to change.

"I realized I was the one putting basketball in a box all along," she said.

Why couldn't a basketball player thrive in business while she's still playing? Or as a broadcaster? Or produce a Title IX documentary? Or take her family to Chicago so she could keep playing the game she loved?

Parker had been doing all of those things for the past few years without judging herself for it, so why would anybody else?

"Everybody needs mentors, so I just started asking a bunch of questions, showing up to meetings, showing up to things," she said. "As a vet, when a rookie comes in and is eager to learn and asks questions and things like that, you're not mad at them. You want to help them even more. So I'm a rookie in this game so I got to do just that."

When she was with the Los Angeles Sparks, she'd pepper CEO and Managing Partner Eric Holoman with questions about how he'd helped Magic Johnson build his business portfolio. Parker worked closely with her business manager Gary Scharf and agents at WME to plan out her broadcasting and producing career.

She talked to broadcasters including Michael Strahan and Robin Roberts as often as they could make time for her, and would closely follow their advice.

"They literally take time, all the time, to reach out to make sure I'm good, to ask questions to be a sounding board," she said. "The biggest thing [Michael] told me is he said he woke up on Mondays after Sunday games, when a lot of his guys were taking days off and not doing anything and he did a radio show.

"So it's like that inspired me to then get my ass up and go do things like that. I mean, I wasn't full time at Turner when I started. I was doing stuff with Kevin Garnett on his Area 21 [segments for TNT's Inside the NBA] and then it became, 'Can you fill in on NBA TV? Can you do [the NBA TV segment] 'Players Only?' Then, it escalated. That's what has set the stage for life after basketball and preparing for this moment."

It's tempting, when someone is in a moment like Parker is now, to try and preserve it for as long as possible. To hold onto it, sentimentally, like it's going to pass and never be as good again.

But Parker did not arrive here burdened by those kinds of fears. She arrived because she faced them along the way and kept going.

"I value all the choices I've made and the journey I've been on," she said. "All the hard parts. Because I know it's helped me be a better mom, a better spouse, a better person and player. It's so important to value these things."