Candace Parker was on a routine bus ride with her teammates at Naperville Central High School to an away basketball game in 2004. Her school, located in Naperville, Ill., roughly 40 minutes west outside of Chicago, was looking to stay on pace to repeat as Class AA state champs after winning the title in '03.
In the previous championship season, Parker—who had solidified herself as one of Chicago’s best and one of the nation’s most elite players—had received both the USA Today High School Player of the Year and Naismith Prep Player of the Year. The then 18-year-old was focused and locked in on the opponent she was about to face.
Little did Parker know, there was something monumental waiting for her once she got off the bus and went inside the opposing team’s gymnasium—a McDonald’s All-American selection.
“I remember showing up to an away gym and I had no idea what was about to happen,” Parker recalls. “I saw the McDonald’s character, but I was like, What? … Then the announcement and the flowers, it was a special moment.
“I watched Carmelo [Anthony] in the All-American game, watching him participate in the three-point contest, seeing LeBron [James] in Cleveland in '03, those moments I always remember. When I got announced as an All-American after being on the watchlist, in my household, I felt like I had made it at that point because it was something that you dream of, especially when they opened the opportunity up for girls.”
Seventeen years after her selection, Parker—along with the Bulls' Coby White and McDonald’s—teamed up to unveil unique backboard designs at Starting With Me Court in Chicago. The All-American games also return to Chicago’s Wintrust Arena—the home of Sky—in March 2022 to celebrate 45 years of elevating the nation’s top high school basketball players into the next generation of stars.
Starting With Me is a nonprofit organization that built a gated basketball court and walking track for youth and families as a safe place in Chicago. The organization also offers sports activities, field trips, community cleanup and mentoring.
Chicago initially hosted the games in 1982 and then again from 2011 to '17. The games, which were scheduled to take place in '20 and this year, were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The national event began in '77 for the boys team but did not take place for girls until '02, 19 years later. Since then, 1,536 high school athletes have made their appearance in the iconic All-American jersey.
The Windy City is no stranger to prominent WNBA and NBA talent. Parker, who was recently listed in the WNBA’s top 25 players to commemorate the league’s 25 years, was also joined by Tamika Catchings, Yolanda Griffith and Cappie Pondexter as former high school hoop stars who played their high school basketball in Illinois. Tony Allen, Patrick Beverley, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker, Doc Rivers, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Isiah Thomas and Antoine Walker—to name a few—got their start on the courts of Chicago before joining the NBA ranks.
“Chicago is the mecca of just grassroots high school basketball,” Parker says. “There’s nothing like coming from here and just being around the Chicagoland area. Talk about Dwyane [Wade], Isiah [Thomas], he’s not even in my generation, but we have that connection.”
The current Sky forward and center grew up a huge Bulls fan and loved going to the United Center to catch games while relishing her high school experience.
“The amount of support and the amount of fans that really tune into high school hoops makes it so nostalgic to be from here,” Parker says. “This city has the type of fans who will follow you throughout your entire career. With the game being back here, I think it is in great hands.”
While Parker’s All-American experience took place at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City instead of Chicago, there was no shortage of excitement.
She left her mark on the event, becoming the first woman to win the McDonald’s All-American slam dunk contest, beating out former NBA players Josh Smith and J.R. Smith. Only one other person, Francesca Belibi, has won a dunk contest since it became official in 1987.
Parker, who was rocking her braids at the time, recalled the game being around April Fool’s Day. After she won the dunk contest, her brother—Anthony Parker—did not believe it.
“Yo, I already know it's April Fool's in America,” Parker laughed as she recalled her brother’s comment.
Beyond making history, the 6' 4" forward appreciated being in such an elite class of players on the girls and boys teams and the national exposure that came with being a part of the event.
Parker played on the team with three players who would become her teammates at Tennessee—Nkolika Anosike, Alex Fuller and Alexis Hornbuckle (the 2004 MVP)—Sa’de Wiley-Gatewood, Charde Houston as well as the current Lynx center and seven-time WNBA All-Star Sylvia Fowles, who started her WNBA career with the Sky.
“We had a number of women that played a long time in the WNBA on our team,” Parker says. “To be a part of that group, plus … we had Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, Sebastian Telfair, J.R. [Smith], our class was stacked.
“I know I am partial, but it speaks to how historic this game is … to see your place as one of the best and to see how players’ careers turn out has been fun.”
As the games plan to celebrate 45 years next year—20 for the women’s game—and the W currently celebrating 25 years, Parker says the event speaks to the growth of women’s basketball and the next wave of female athletes coming up.
“For a long time, girls couldn’t participate in this event,” Parker says. “I think it is huge now for young girls to aspire to play and want to be in it. All the greats have pretty much played in this game.”
The alignment and timing of things could not have been better for Parker. While giving back to an event that propelled her WNBA career, the 2016 WNBA champion and two-time league MVP returned to her hometown to play for the Sky this season under coach James Wade.
Chicago (15–15) clinched a playoff spot for the third consecutive season in a win against the Aces on Sept. 5 and currently sit second in the Eastern Conference and sixth overall in the league with two games remaining before the WNBA playoffs begin Sept. 23.
Parker, who has dealt with ankle injuries through different parts of the season, hopes her team can make a deep playoff run toward the franchise’s first WNBA title. To do that, the six-time WNBA All-Star says that it will take narrowing her focus, keeping a positive attitude and controlling things she can control.
“You go through ups and downs, injuries, bad luck and you can’t control that,” Parker says. “Basketball is a game of inches and throughout the season, those inches haven’t gone our way.
“We’re really good when we play teams that are supposedly better than us but we’re really bad against teams that aren’t as good, so, we have to fix that. If we can stay healthy, I like our chances.”
With the WNBA playoffs looming, Parker’s journey of coming back to Chicago goes beyond her own career. It also calls for preparing the next generation of young girls and athletes with guidance and wisdom for the big moment.
What better way than to do that than in her own backyard.
“It is nice to share Wintrust [Arena] with the future of basketball,” Parker says. “I love people who are not scared of the moment and want to embrace it and take over.
“I look for that in young talent and I think in these type of games, you definitely see where the NBA and WNBA is headed.”
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