After spending her first 13 years in the WNBA with the Los Angeles Sparks, early last month Candace Parker, a five-time All-Star and first-time unrestricted free agent, signed with her hometown Chicago Sky. It was a monumental decision that shattered WNBA norms, foreshadowing a possible future where personnel movement is fluid enough to mirror the NBA’s player empowerment era.
Her space in the world of sports—as one of the best players in WNBA history—doesn’t end there, though. About 24 hours after news of her groundbreaking commitment first broke, Parker was seated in a studio alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, analyzing a Tuesday night doubleheader on TNT. As she does every week. Now 34, coming off a season in which she won Defensive Player of the Year and finished third in the MVP race, Parker is shining in several roles.
In addition to being a mother and high-level athlete preparing for her upcoming season, Parker is also a detailed commentator and, most recently, an executive producer. Her list of responsibilities is at once impressive, daunting and a reminder of the dramatic pay disparity that still exists between men and women who play professional basketball in the United States.
Last week, as Parker watched the G-League Finals at her home in Los Angeles, (her brother, Anthony Parker, is the general manager of the 2021 G-League champion Lakeland Magic) the most important signing in Sky history spoke to Sports Illustrated about the legacy she hopes her free agency decision will leave, what she asked Kevin Durant before making it, going toe-to-toe with Shaq on national television, and more.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: When did you first realize that you wanted to be in front of a camera?
Candace Parker: I started to major in communications when I was in college. And my dad is a firm believer in business and management and finance and stuff like that. So after talking with him, I figured I would get practice with basketball and communications, just because of the interviews and all that stuff at Tennessee. So when it came time to major, I actually switched my major from communications to business. But I still got the practice, and I started doing stuff behind the camera, and I was always interested in the [sports information director] and what they were doing, and who was doing interviews and things like that. So I just asked a bunch of questions. And then it kind of started catching my interest, probably like six or seven years in. My brother retired and went to the little broadcasting camp that was in Connecticut. So I kind of took interest in that and started really kind of thinking about it. And then from there just took opportunities that came about, and now I kind of ended up here.
SI: How long did it take before you got comfortable on television? Or was it immediately something that felt natural?
CP: I don’t think you’re ever really comfortable because you’re always trying to do other things. I think initially I was uncomfortable, like, answering questions. You get your heart rate up, and you get nervous. But now it’s branching into reading off the teleprompter and doing more, asking questions as opposed to answering them and that type of thing. I’ve always been comfortable because I try to prepare as much as I can, but I still get butterflies and my heart races sometimes when we come on camera, just from excitement. It’s almost like you’re going into a game or something like that.
SI: You recently executive produced an episode of The Arena that centered on women in sports. How did that come together?
CP: I got a call from Tara August, Boss Lady at Turner, VP of talent. And she called me and said that they were interested in me executive producing and that they would be willing to have me involved as much or as little as possible. And I was like, well, this is my passion. This is what I want to do. I would love to be behind the camera, and this is a passion project because it’s women’s sports. It’s something that I really want to represent and do it service. Keith Robinson was the actual producer for the show. Him and I had a number of meetings, and he was gracious enough to let me into all of them. When they asked, we talked about what was important to me and what was influential in my life. And the 1996 Olympics was the first time I can really remember sitting down and watching women’s sports and being like, wow, I really want to be like that. I remember the time and place. I remember laying on my couch and my dad and mom telling me, you know, one day you can be in the Olympics. At that time, I thought I was going to be a soccer player. But ‘96 was a huge Olympics for women. And I think it really catapulted women’s sports forward.
SI: What’s another topic that you’d like to explore using a platform like that, that you really haven’t had an opportunity to yet?
CP: I honestly think that there’s a wide range of topics. I think we covered them in the documentary, but in a short period of time, an hour to cover basically 35–40 years of women’s sports history in the United States. So I would like to really go in depth as to why and how sports impacts other avenues of life. Because honestly, if you look at it, the boardroom, everything is ran almost like a sports team, sports locker room, sports setting, and it is a team sport. So if we don’t learn how to operate in that environment, then I think women are going to be behind in more than just sports.
SI: Broadly speaking, how do you prepare for your job analyzing the league on television? Where do you get information? How many games do you watch?
CP: My TV is constantly on. If I’m not watching a basketball game, then I definitely catch a recap every night just to kind of catch up and see what’s going on. What the highlights are. But just in terms of the Tuesday night show where you know your games farther out. I’ll watch those teams more closely, and see what their beat writer is writing about, what they’re saying, what the hot takes are. I’ll even sign on and see what the odds are just to see who’s projected to win. I listen to podcasts. As you know, there’s a number of them. I’m a HoopsHyper. I’m on Hoopshype.com, so I can catch up on all the breaking news. But TNT is great, because you only have four teams that week that you’re really talking in depth about, and then maybe a hot topic. So coming in, I just make sure I know what the team did the game before, who scored what, just so I’m caught up on what’s going on.
SI: As an analyst, most of your colleagues are former players, and some haven’t played in a very long time. What advantage or disadvantage, if any, do you feel as an active athlete who’s more directly present with what’s happening right now in the game of basketball?
CP: I think that there’s a huge advantage because I know what it’s like when I listen and watch the game, and how the announcer sounds. I’m not saying that I try to appease the players or appease the viewers or whatever. What I am saying is that I do know when you’re going into a game, and maybe you have a bad game, or you play great or whatever, what are they saying? And what points are they making that really resonate with me. And then as a player, being able to almost hear myself. What would I say about myself at halftime? How would I analyze myself?
SI: Do you treat your role as an analyst and an athlete in similar ways?
CP: I think I’m constantly looking for a way to improve. But it’s interesting, because it was hard for me my first couple years to watch myself on television, where as a player I’m really into game film and watching myself and trying to make corrections and seeing where I could attack better at different points in the game. As an analyst, early on my producers told me to stop watching myself because I was being too critical. Like I caught on that I said a word a certain amount of times and then I purposely would try not to do it and then it would just come off wrong. So for a while, I couldn’t watch myself. And now I’m getting to the point where I’m able to constructively criticize myself.
SI: You recently had this genuine back-and-forth with Shaq that went viral, about how teams need to defend Denver and the pick-and-roll. From my perspective, it felt like a real, spontaneous discussion about basketball strategy. What do you remember about that interaction? What were you thinking as it was going on?
CP: I don’t know if I was thinking anything to be honest with you. I think that’s what we do all the time. And that’s what’s so great about...I feel so lucky to do my job in the sense that, you know, we’re all players, all discussing different strategies, or different philosophies of the game, and everybody’s entitled to their opinion. Everybody’s confident in themselves that they’re not going to take it the wrong way. And so, just as Shaq comes at me and challenges me, I feel confident in my preparation, and my knowledge. Just as I come at him and challenge him, he feels confident in his philosophy and his resume. I just thought of it as a regular segment. I actually was kind of blown away that people really took it like that, because it was just us talking basketball. That’s what Turner pays us to do.
SI: You were surprised by the reaction?
CP: Yeah, because I just, I don’t know. We focus so much on what people look like and who people are, as opposed to like, I’m a basketball junkie; I love watching basketball. I would do that without it being my job. I won’t say that it wasn’t fun to be a part of that show, you know, because I’m literally talking hoops with my idols. But I think it goes to the environment and the culture that we have, like, the producer can talk and tell off so and so and tell them how they feel and vice versa and that’s just what it is. It’s not like Shaq, the four-time champion Hall of Famer versus Candace, women’s basketball player. That’s not the way that we look at it. It’s two Turner analysts up there debating. At least that’s our take on it.
SI: When you’re watching games backstage, are similar debates off camera a regular thing?
CP: We debate anything and everything. We legit have so much fun, and often say the show is great, but it’s second to what goes on in the makeup room and the film sessions. I mean, we talk so much s--- in the back room. That’s all we do. And we challenge each other. And we laugh, and we joke and we pull up facts, we Google stuff. That’s what we do. I love that because that’s the way I grew up, like my brothers and I, all we did was watch basketball and debate things. We would pick a player and be like, ‘Well if you switch this player on this team would they be better?’ And it was just the entire debate. And there’s no right answer. It’s a fun way to watch basketball.
SI: Does anything from those debates stand out?
CP: I mean, it’s on a daily basis. Let’s see. We have debates about certain teams, like we all talk about Milwaukee. We also talk about eras all the time, like if certain players would have been able to play in different areas. [Laughs]. I think that’s the biggest debate, honestly, which is, you know, I mean, that’s what it is, when you get older and you’re retired. Obviously, everybody thinks that their era was the hardest or the best or whatever. So we have debates about that. And then it’s also fun to hear the stories between D Wade and Shaq. You’re in the back, and you’re hearing stories about what happened in Miami. But I watched it as a viewer. You know, like, remember that game when we did this, this and this. And we had this practice and I called you out in that practice. It’s just fun to hear the stories.
SI: I want to read a quote that Ticha Penicheiro, a former teammate of yours, had about you. “Sometimes I wonder, does she have 24 hours in one day? Or does she have more? She bought some extra hours on Amazon or something?” You wear a lot of hats right now, I know, it’s the offseason for the web, but you are still an active player. Just what’s the most challenging part of juggling so many different roles that you found?
CP: I’ve always loved doing a lot of different things. I love these opportunities, honestly. There are days where I feel overwhelmed, for sure. But I try to lean on my village and my family and my friends to help me out. I would be lying to you if I told you I did this all by myself. I have amazing people around me that make me feel great and solid at what I’m doing. And if I didn’t have that support, I don’t think I would be able to do what I do.
Now there are days where we have 50 million zoom calls, or we have something that we’re supposed to do or whatever, that get to be challenging, don’t get me wrong. But I honestly love doing what I’m doing.
You just said it. If I would have told myself at 15 years old when I’m watching Kobe and Shaq win championships that I would sit in a screening room with Shaq and he would be my teammate. And D Wade would be my teammate, like, that’s ridiculous. I can call Reggie Miller up tomorrow and we’ll go cycling and bike riding. Steve Smith, who I grew up watching play, he gives me tips all the time. I called Kevin Durant to make a decision about whether I wanted to go home, like, that’s a dream.
SI: Your decision to leave Los Angeles as a free agent was somewhat of a watershed moment in the WNBA’s history. Before making it, how much did you consider the broader impact it would have on other players who might want to go elsewhere in the future?
CP: I think the impact that player empowerment has had on me has been huge. I will say that whether I spark others to choose what they ultimately want to do, or I don’t, I want people to know that it’s okay to be happy. Everyone calls this a job when it’s convenient in terms of, well, you get scrutiny, it’s your job, you get paid for it. But it’s also my ability to go and do what I want. I look at it like this: I signed a contract. And I upheld that contract. I played with the Sparks my entire career. I didn’t leave disgruntled or demand a trade. I was always taught to finish what I started. And so for me, that’s kind of how I looked at it. At that point, I could go where I wanted to go. So if anything, that’s what I want to bring to light.
SI: Do you think that more player movement can help elevate the WNBA’s popularity, as it’s done in the NBA, where for better or worse, free agency and transactions are talked about and speculated on and almost a greater draw than the actual games?
CP: Yes, because I think everyone loves storylines. But, you know, regardless, the WNBA is going to grow the way the WNBA grows. I mean, if you look at the history of the NBA, usually players stayed put. There are a couple top players that moved. But early on, in the NBA, like player empowerment wasn’t what it is today. I’m going home to Chicago to play in front of people that watched me play since I was 18. They followed my career, and that’s why they’re gonna come to the Sky games. I think that that’s the reason why Lisa Leslie got drafted out here to L.A. and played at home. People followed her and this is where she grew up. And so I think that is to the advantage of the WNBA. You’re seeing like Elena Delle Donne went back home to D.C. or Delaware, where she grew up. So there’s a number of players that are going back home, but I do believe that no matter what you should be able to go where you want to go.
SI: Before making the move to Chicago you consulted Wade and Kevin Durant. What type of questions did you set out to ask them, and how did those conversations go?
CP: I just asked them if they could do it over again, or if they were in my shoes, or when they were going through this process what are the questions and what are the things that they looked for. This was huge for me. I mean, my home is here now. I’m still staying [in L.A.]. This is going to be my permanent residence. I’m not moving to Chicago. So this is home. It’s almost like leaving home all over again to go there. And so I just kind of was asking them questions and getting their opinion on the final decision because they’re able to kind of look at it ... and every situation is different but to be able to have that role with extra people to call and ask for their opinion and run things by, it was really cool to get the different perspectives.
SI: When you saw LeBron go to Miami and then back to Cleveland and then to L.A., and KD goes from OKC to Golden State to Brooklyn, were you ever at all envious of their ability to move as freely as they did? Do you wish that there was more fluidity in the WNBA throughout your playing career?
CP: Yes and no. I didn’t want to go anywhere, and I couldn’t before this. You know, I was cored and all of that. So this was really my first opportunity to be a free agent. And before, I signed contracts before I was up, usually. So this was the first opportunity.
I think everybody should do what makes them happy. And the fans and the people that are paid to scrutinize will eventually come around if you win. Like, look how much drama happened with LeBron going to Miami. But then they were the same people that were like, ‘Wow, this is the most ridiculous Finals ever’ when they beat San Antonio. Even look at Brooklyn. Everybody was doubting whether that was the right move and going in on James Harden for wanting to leave Houston. And now everybody’s like ‘They might come out of the East. They’re the best team’ and all this stuff. So I think it’s just important to remember: Do what makes you happy.