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Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles on opposite sides again in the WNBA Finals

MINNEAPOLIS -- It goes all the way back to the late 1990s, when the Minnesota Lynx's Sylvia Fowles and Los Angeles Sparks' Candace Parker -- born six months apart -- first encountered one another.

"I think it was at the Deep South Classic when we were like 13 or 14 years old," Parker said of an annual girls' basketball tournament held in Raleigh, North Carolina. "It's cool to see our growth as individuals."

Tuesday, they will lead their respective teams into Game 2 of the WNBA Finals (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET), following a topsy-turvy opener Sunday when the Sparks took a huge first-quarter lead but needed a last-second jump shot from Chelsea Gray to win 85-84.

Parker dealt with foul trouble in that game, but finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Fowles had 22 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.

The No. 1 (Parker from Tennessee) and No. 2 (Fowles from LSU) draft picks in 2008, they are already acclaimed as two of the best players in WNBA history.

"They're both such difficult matchups and hard to defend one-on-one," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "They're in their 30s now. They are adults who've been through a lot, both on and off the floor. They've matured. They've gone from being counseled to being the counselors."

And they are playing as well as ever. Maybe even better. They've very different types of players, of course. A 6-foot-6 true center, Fowles is as good a pure low-block threat as there has been in women's basketball. And the 6-4 Parker -- listed as a center/forward but more accurately a stretch 4 who handles the ball like a guard -- is pretty much unmatched in the sheer volume of things she does well at her size.

"Candace has evolved her game, as Syl has," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "Parker's 3-ball has become something you really have to worry about. And the way that Brian has used her, they run the offense through her. It's incredibly difficult to guard.

"Parker can go one-on-one on the perimeter, shoot a 3, go down to the low block, is a dangerous passer, gets on the glass, can block shots, and run in transition after taking the ball off the rim. There's no one else in the league quite like her, with all the things you have to worry about."

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, who typically has to guard Fowles, added: "She is so strong; two feet in the paint for her is a guaranteed bucket. Maintaining position is imperative; you cannot lose her.

"She also thrives on finding the seal. When she catches the ball, she's already going into her move. You have to be resilient, take the contact, stay attentive."

And even if you do all that perfectly, you still might not stop her. Fowles shot 65.5 percent from the field during the regular season, averaging 18.9 points. In four playoff games thus far, she has shot 66.1 percent and averaged 20.5.

Fowles was the league's MVP this season, an honor Parker -- who averaged 16.9 PPG and 8.4 RPG this year -- won in 2008 and 2013. Each has won one WNBA championship. Fowles did that in 2015, after she was traded at midseason to Minnesota from Chicago. Parker won last year, beating Fowles and the Lynx, in her ninth season with the Sparks.

"You thought that both were going to have great careers, that you couldn't go wrong with either one," Reeve recalls thinking of Parker and Fowles in the 2008 WNBA draft. "You knew both were going to be franchise players."

Longtime WNBA fans recall that day: April 9, 2008, in Tampa, Florida. Parker wore a white suit, and laughs now recalling she did so because she'd always wanted to wear one and never had. Fowles wore pinstriped slacks and a vest, topped off by a fedora.

"I love fedoras and have a lot of them," Fowles said, smiling. "That outfit just matched me, but I took forever and a day to pick it."

Parker's Lady Vols and Fowles' Lady Tigers been going against each other for three seasons in the SEC; Parker had to sit out the first year they were in college, 2004-05, with a knee injury. Fowles and LSU lost to eventual champion Baylor in the 2005 national semifinals, and they also lost in that game in 2006 (Duke), 2007 (Rutgers) and 2008 (Tennessee).

The painful, last-second 47-46 loss to Tennessee that ended her college career still lingered with Fowles three days later when she was drafted in her home state of Florida.

"My thought process was to make the best of it," Fowles said. "It was a once-in-lifetime opportunity. My family was there, too, so I wanted them to enjoy it. I had to push my feelings to the side that day, and suck it up. But inside, I was very salty that we lost."

The draft memory isn't all that dreamy for Parker either, even though she was coming off winning a title less than 24 hours earlier. Parker had led Tennessee past Stanford for the Lady Vols' second consecutive -- and eighth overall -- NCAA championship.

But she's glad the WNBA dropped the short-lived experiment (2006-2008) of having the draft the day after the Women's Final Four ended in the same city. She said it produced too many conflicting emotions in a whirlwind period.

"You couldn't put your mind around it," Parker said. "The different ups and downs. Because you were leaving something that you'd been in for four years, and it's all changing so fast."

A lot happened for Parker as that year continued: She won Olympic gold (as did Fowles) in Beijing, was named WNBA Rookie of the Year and MVP (the only time that has occurred), and lost a heartbreaker playoff semifinal series to San Antonio. Plus, she became pregnant with daughter Lailaa, who was born in May 2009.

Parker often has spoken of how coming so close to the WNBA Finals her first season made her think then that it wouldn't take long to reach that level and win a title. But the Sparks went through some tough losses and multiple coaching changes over the next seven years, and Parker also dealt with a knee injury that cost her most of the 2010 season and half of 2011.

But things finally all came together last year, with the Sparks' five-game victory over the Lynx. It seemed fitting in some ways that it would come a year after Fowles got her first title.

They've rarely guarded each other over the years, which is part of why neither thinks of this as a personal rivalry. But Fowles also said that, in general, she doesn't like to think about those things with anyone.

"I approach these games like, 'Minnesota against Los Angeles,'" Fowles said. "It's not about personal rivalries. I don't like thinking about self in the process of a team sport."

Parker said it's the same for her, because, "It takes a team to win. You can't do everything by yourself. Both of us figured that out.

"It's great to get individual accolades, but there's nothing like winning. To be on two of the best teams in the WNBA speaks volumes about our journeys."

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