Ex-Sparks star Candace Parker fires up hometown fans as Sky close in on WNBA title

The Sky's Candace Parker reacts after scoring a basket against the Mercury during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals

For 14 years, Candance Parker heard all about the WNBA’s growth. TV audiences are soaring. NBA stars fill courtside seats. She’s even been the face of the league's evolution, becoming the first women to be featured on the cover of NBA2K. But with each whisper of progress, the Chicago Sky forward still needs to see it with her own eyes before she can believe it.

So it took confirming on her own that no tickets remained for Game 3 of the WNBA Finals in Chicago’s Wintrust Arena to make Parker believe the report that the Sky would return to a sold-out crowd.

Yup, the Candace Parker effect in Chicago is real.

The Sky's Candace Parker makes a move under pressure from the Mercury's Brianna Turner during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals

In the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014, Sky fans packed Wintrust Arena on Friday to see a native daughter lead their team to within one win of their first championship. Chicago, leading 2-1 in the best-of-five series, is expecting another capacity crowd for Sunday's potential championship-clinching Game 4 against the Phoenix Mercury. Tipoff is at noon PDT and the game will air on ESPN.

After anchoring the Sparks for 13 years, taking the mantel from Lisa Leslie and winning two most valuable player awards, Parker came home for this precise moment. Her blockbuster free agent decision last winter shook up the WNBA and injected Chicago with a shot of locally grown energy.

“[She brought] a lot of hope,” said Oregon State freshman guard Greta Kampschroeder, who grew up in Parker’s hometown of Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “She came back and people knew right away that team had potential to finally go to the Finals and win a championship.”

The achievement, if the Sky can get past Diana Taurasi and the Mercury, would be Parker's second WNBA championship after she helped the Sparks to the top in 2016. For the two-time high school state champion and two-time NCAA champion, a second WNBA title is “really the bar,” Parker told The Times last year.

The chase for No. 2 led to her divorce from the Sparks. Their championship window was closing as the franchise recovered from the dramatic dismissal of longtime general manager Penny Toler. With the team's three best players in need of new contracts, coach Derek Fisher took on general manager duties and lost Parker and starting point guard Chelsea Gray. Pinning their hopes on Nneka Ogwumike, the Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

The Sky, meanwhile, looked like a team on the rise. Chicago had an elite point guard in Courtney Vandersloot and three-point sniper Allie Quigley, another Chicago-area native. The coaching staff molded Kahleah Copper from a three-year bench player to the team's leading scorer in 2020. What they lacked was championship pedigree and experience.

The Chicago Sky's Candace Parker hugs teammate Allie Quigley at the end of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals
The Chicago Sky's Candace Parker hugs teammate Allie Quigley as they watch the end of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals at Wintrust Arena on Oct. 15 in Chicago, Illinois. The Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury 86-50 to pull within one win of a championship. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Enter Parker.

The 6-foot-4 forward delivered, helping the sixth-seeded Sky find their momentum in the postseason after their 16-16 regular season record. Parker scored 17 points with nine rebounds and seven assists in Game 4 of the semifinals as the Sky knocked off No. 1 seed Connecticut to clinch their Finals spot. The home crowd included Chicago icons Scottie Pippen and Chance the Rapper, who cheered courtside for another hometown legend.

“I knew Chicago showed up for sports,” Parker said on ESPN, grinning as her eyes scanned the packed stands, “but this is special.”

Parker has played in front of big crowds in her hometown. Fans have arrived in droves to watch her dominate at Naperville Central High, about 35 miles west of her current home court

“She brought a lot of attention, for sure, and it was deserved,” said Naperville North High girls basketball coach Erin Colletti, who played against Parker in high school. “She was a 6-3 girl who could go between the legs, pop back, shoot from three, take it inside, dunk on you, and go coast-to-coast nonstop.”

Kampschroeder attended Parker's high school games as a baby with her parents, both former basketball players. Kampschroeder's first introduction to Parker’s legend came at age 6, when she learned Parker was the first woman in their suburban city to dunk.

“I was so mesmerized,” said Kampschroeder, a versatile 6-foot guard.

Kampschroeder attended Naperville North but often marveled at Parker's McDonald's All-American jersey that hung in Naperville Central. She looked at it as motivation and hoped to get one of her own one day.

The guard is now the second female basketball player in Naperville to be named a McDonald's All-American.

“When people think of basketball in Naperville, you think of Candace Parker,” Kampschroeder said. “She’s the greatest player to ever come out of Naperville, in my opinion and I think in many other people’s opinions. To be able to have my name next to hers … it’s just super cool because of who she is now, it just inspires me to reach the same level as her.”

Weeks away from starting her college career at Oregon State, Kampschroeder hooks her laptop up to the TV to watch WNBA Finals games and cheer on the Sky. She's noticed more people from her hometown talking about the team this year.

Sky forward Candace Parker is pressured by Mercury guard Diana Taurasi during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals
Sky forward Candace Parker is pressured by Mercury guard Diana Taurasi during Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Oct. 10 in Phoenix. (Ralph Freso / Associated Press)

To Colletti, who played with Quigley at DePaul and faced Parker again in college, this is the Sky’s time.

That sense is engulfing the city. Chicago celebrated Candace Parker Day on Sept. 16. The lion statues outside the Art Institute of Chicago were dressed in oversized Sky jerseys before Game 3. Fans lined up for hours before the game and stayed in Wintrust Arena through the entire night to watch the Sky run away with a WNBA Finals-record 36-point win, and as starters rested late in the fourth, preparing for Sunday's championship opportunity, Sky fans only grew louder.

"Sky in four!" they chanted. "Sky in four!"

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.