Candace Parker continues to be an all-around threat. On the basketball court, the 6’4” Los Angeles Sparks star can play every position—a product of studying NBA power forward Chris Webber’s style of play as a kid. During her time at the University of Tennessee, Parker was listed as a forward, center, and even a guard at one point. “I think initially when I first came to the game, everybody was looking at me crazy like, ‘Wait, bigs don't handle the ball—outlet it to the guard,’” she says. “Now I'm watching as everybody is bringing the ball up and playing smaller ball.”
While her legacy will, in part, be about her ability to switch up on the court, Parker has also found a way to adapt and transform off of it. This past offseason, the St. Louis native began working as an analyst for Turner Sports. After a successful run contributing to March Madness coverage, she agreed to a season-long deal with NBA TV and NBA on TNT. Despite still being an active WNBA player and mother to a 10-year-old, Parker has found talking hoops on TV to be a natural transition.
“Since I can remember, all we did in my household was debate and talk about basketball,” she says. “When I had the opportunity to 1) be on television doing it and 2) get paid for it, it was like a no brainer.” And like playing basketball, she still sits in on film sessions looking for ways to improve. Part of her versatility also lies in being coachable. “It's really hard to watch yourself because you notice every little thing that you do,” Parker adds. “You notice that word that you say, you notice facial expressions—like why am I doing that?”
“We're the most dominant country in the world. We are bigger, stronger, faster. We shoot great. We probably could win three Olympic medals.”
She’s obviously made the right in-season adjustments, as both ESPN and Turner Sports have reached out with offers for the upcoming NBA season. Parker attributes her on-air success to being authentic and partnering with organizations and corporations that feel “real” to her. “My friends have this joke—if you don't want to know the truth, don't ask me,” she says. “If you ask me, I'm going to tell you the truth.” Parker’s honest, direct attitude may not always keep her in the good graces of referees, but her consistency and authenticity have been the driving force behind her on-air approach. She credits basketball legend and Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt for instilling that commitment to being genuine early on in her career.
“[Coach Summitt] fought for change. She fought for equality, when nobody was talking about it,” Parker says. “In the process, she impacted all of us, not just on the basketball court, but off—in the way I parent my daughter and the way that I live my life. She did everything she said she was going to do. And that's in the good and the bad; that's in winning championships and in adversity.”
In terms of adversity, Parker has dealt with quite a bit this season—a hamstring injury led to back problems which eventually triggered a foot injury, all of which have sidelined her and prevented a consistent rhythm on a Sparks roster already riddled with injuries and absences. The team was down to seven active players at one point, but in the final stretch of the season the Sparks are looking to make a push for prime playoff positioning. “I definitely think we're a resilient group in terms of adjustment to change and individual ability,” she says. “By no means do I feel like I'm at my best right now, but I'm doing the best I can and just hoping to get better with enough time to make that push in the playoffs.”
Candace Parker is used to winning. Her trophy case includes two Wooden awards, two NCAA championships, two Olympic gold medals, and that epic 2016 WNBA Finals championship. Despite those career highlights, she still has to deal with the same pay disparities that forces many WNBA players to rely on international opportunities to supplement the meager salaries female athletes earn Stateside.
Working for TNT this past NBA season has allowed Parker to forego playing basketball overseas, where she’s previously played in countries such as Russia, China, and Turkey. Understanding that not all of her peers will have the opportunity to be an on-air personality, she supports the WNBA Players’ Association’s decision to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. In doing so, there are hopes that some of the most highly-visible issues for the WNBA will finally be addressed.
In addition to concerns over salary discrepancies, Parker would like to see the league revamp both its domestic violence policy and overall player experience. Over the past few seasons, the WNBA has been plagued with a series of travel issues. In 2018, for example, several delays and cancellations (25 hours of travel time total) caused the Las Vegas Aces to forfeit a game against the Mystics after arriving in Washington, DC mere hours before tip off. A similar incident happened this season to the Indiana Fever, who were forced to take an eight-hour bus ride after being left in limbo due to flight delays and mechanical issues. And even during an otherwise successful All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, the 22 WNBA All Stars flew economy, with 6’8” Brittney Griner paying to upgrade from an impossible middle seat assignment.
“Those are things that we need to discuss and things that need to be brought to the table,” Parker says. “Because I do believe that the WNBA is and can be a first-class organization and with that comes making the player experience a lot better.”
She also feels there’s an opportunity to change public perception of the league through its marketing strategy. “We always talk about getting to know the players off the court, but it's also getting to know the players on the court as well,” Parker adds. “When you're doing a WNBA commercial and you're showing something, don't show a layup because we're so much more than that. When you see that commercial, you just reaffirm that [stereotype]. And that kind of makes my skin crawl when I turn on the commercials and it's like a simple bounce pass and a layup.”
That visual doesn’t align with the physicality of the league, its star power, or the storylines and rivalries which make the WNBA one of the most fascinating basketball leagues in the world. “I want to see Breanna Stewart handling the ball, going in and out, coming down [the lane],” Parker says. “I want to see those plays because when you're looking at the NBA, we’re not as athletic as them, but they don't show Russell Westbrook coming down and doing a simple bounce pass. They show some of the best highlights. So just show the rest of us doing what we do.”
It’s an important time for female athletes. Following the outpouring of support for the US Women’s National Soccer Team, progressive sports fans have wondered online how to keep that same energy for women’s hoops for the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and more generally, for the WNBA in the future. Parker views things slightly differently. While she believes the Olympics are an incredible opportunity for women’s basketball to capitalize on the excitement of the game, she feels the athletic superiority of Team USA on the women’s side may actually hurt their popularity off of the court.
“It’s hard sometimes to root for dominance. I'm not going to lie—it is. You saw a lot of fans rooting for Golden State when they were the underdogs. Then when Kevin Durant came and they were completely dominant, a lot of people rooted against them because they didn't want to see the greatest win, they wanted to see the underdog story,” Parker says. “So for us, we're supposed to be good at basketball. We're the most dominant country in the world. We are bigger, stronger, faster. We shoot great. When we're playing other countries, and I mean this in the greatest of ways, like we really could field three teams and probably—speaking candidly—win three Olympic medals. Like, let's just be honest. And so that's hard for people to root for.”
“It's great that women are being hired in the NBA... in the future I HOPE it's a choice based on preference and not because There's more money on that side.”
However, there’s a lot to be excited for within the world of women’s hoops. For Parker, seeing more former and current WNBA players commentating or coaching signals opportunities that could change the future of the sport. “I love the fact that players are doing multiple things and I've been fighting for the right to choose what you want to do,” she says. “If you want to go overseas, go overseas, but if you want to stay at home you should have that opportunity. I think more doors are open, not just in broadcasting.”
Indeed, the tide is changing with former WNBA players like Becky Hammon and Lindsay Harding now coaching in the NBA, while current stars Kristi Tolliver and Sue Bird have spent the past offseason in assistant coach positions for NBA teams. “It signals that you have choices and I think it's great that women are being hired on the other side just as men are being hired on this side,” Parker says. “And I hope that in the future it's a choice based on your preference and not because it's just a tremendous amount of more money on that side.”
Parker’s versatility, authenticity, and willingness to push through adversity are a reflection of her commitment to breaking boundaries. Whether she’s dominating on the court as a player or as a commentator on the sideline, the five-time WNBA All Star is all about leading by example and setting the stage for other women to do more than what’s expected of them. “I'm not in any way going to completely leave women's basketball,” she says. “I want to always have some type of foot in it because I think it's important for us to continue to grow the game because the people who stayed in women's basketball grew the game so that the NBA would be open for women to crossover and to be able to have that same opportunity.”