Finals MVP Candace Parker finally captures elusive WNBA title

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS -- Candace Parker was about to pour some champagne over Nneka Ogwumike's head in a beyond-jubilant Sparks locker room.

"Candace ... please, no!" Ogwumike said, grinning, to which Parker acquiesced, "OK, I won't because I love you."

Ogwumike, the league MVP, was thrilled to celebrate the first WNBA championship for herself, Parker and the rest the Sparks. But Ogwumike just got her hair done a couple of days ago. She protected it with a shower cap and a plea to her teammates for no direct hit from the bubbly.

And just as she did so much else well in this amazing Game 5, Parker made the right move again. It was that kind of night for the Sparks, who are champions again after back-to-back titles in 2001-02.

Ogwumike made the winning basket -- a putback with 3.1 seconds left -- as the Sparks stunned the defending champion Lynx and their 19,423 fans at Target Center with a 77-76 victory for the WNBA title Thursday.

In a series that went back and forth -- punch, counter-punch -- the Sparks got the biggest rebound and the biggest shot when it counted most. And if you know anything about the personal histories of the Sparks' players, you knew that their explosion of emotion at game's end was built on many years of craving a moment like this.

Parker, who was named the WNBA Finals MVP with 28 points and 12 rebounds, kept the Sparks afloat during stretches of the game when Ogwumike was in foul trouble.

Parker didn't talk a great deal about all the things that fueled her this season -- not being selected to the U.S. Olympic team;losing her college coach, Pat Summitt;not making the all-WNBA first or second teams -- but they definitely kept her fire stoked throughout.

Parker, the No. 1 draft pick in 2008, won two NCAA titles with Summitt at Tennessee. On June 24, Parker left immediately after the Sparks' victory in Minnesota during the regular season and flew to Knoxville to say goodbye to Summitt, who died four days later from the effects of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

Parker, who turned 30 in April, had only one thing left to add to her vast résumé: a WNBA title. She would have loved to do it with Summitt at courtside, cheering her on. Still, Summitt was the first person on Parker's mind when the horn sounded and Los Angeles began to celebrate.

Sparks coach Brian Agler played "Rocky Top" on his cellphone to open the postgame news conference. And Parker talked about how the things Agler implored her to do this season -- especially in the WNBA Finals -- sounded like a cherished voice from the past.

"This series really was about defense and finishing plays [by] rebounding, and I heard that for four years at Tennessee," Parker said. "I think in years past, maybe I was doing a lot and maybe I could have used a little help. But this year, it was on me. My teammates were doing their part, I had to step up and do mine."

Actually, Parker had a very good series overall, as she also led the way in the Sparks' Game 3 victory. But she's a perfectionist who wasn't happy with how she played in Game 4, when the Lynx prevented the Sparks from celebrating a title on their home floor at Staples Center. Parker came out Thursday determined to return the favor.

"I think she's one of the most misunderstood players out there," Ogwumike said of Parker. "She has a huge heart, and she always wants to do her best. But she needs the right people there to be with her. You know, it wasn't always peachy from the beginning -- but we've grown to develop a relationship and understand each other."

Ogwumike was also a No. 1 pick, in 2012, but unlike Parker, she didn't win an NCAA championship. She came agonizingly close, going to the Final Four with Stanford four times. What raced through Ogwumike's mind at the end of Thursday's game was the 2011 national semifinals, when she made a late shot, but eventual champ Texas A&M followed with a basket to win 63-62.

This time, though, Ogwumike had the last score for a perfect ending to her MVP season.

"You always have to keep looking on the bright side, and that's something I'm really good at doing," said Ogwumike, who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. "People think I'm a little too optimistic, but I don't care. This is why you do it. You have to visualize things before they happen."

How many times did this scenario run through Alana Beard's head in her 13 years in the WNBA? Beard also did not win a college championship while she was Duke but went to the Final Four twice. Her college career ended, in fact when the Minnesota Gophers -- led then by current Lynx players Lindsay Whalen and Janel McCarville -- upset the Blue Devils in the 2004 regional final.

The Sparks' Essence Carson also came close to a college title, making the NCAA final with Rutgers in 2007. She lost to Parker's Lady Vols.

"You carry those things in your heart," Beard said of tough losses that she and her teammates have dealt with. "But at the same time, it teaches you how to handle those situations in the future. If I didn't learn from my past experiences, I don't think I'd be satisfied with who I am now."

Beard missed two WNBA seasons dealing with foot and ankle injuries, and then signed with the Sparks in 2012 hoping to get the title that she never had a chance to win while with the Washington Mystics.

"This feels exactly like I thought it would," said Beard, who hit the winning shot at the buzzer in Game 1 and had eight points and six assists Thursday. "This is something I've dreamt about for years. Since we started this series, I couldn't sleep. I was waking up at like 4 o'clock in the morning with tears in my eyes, like I was starving for something like this."

Beard also gave kudos to Parker for what she did this season in empowering the rest of the team.

"I've played with Candace for five years, and this was the most growth that I've ever seen from her," Beard said. "She consistently worked on it. And openly worked on it -- she was vulnerable in situations, and that's when you grow. She proved she can be a team player, and she did it this entire season."

Sparks guard Kristi Toliver won a college title, hitting a key 3-pointer for Maryland in the 2006 championship game. She made similar huge shots all season for the Sparks. And as pleased as Toliver was to get her first WNBA title, she also was particularly happy for Parker.

"Now she's won on every level," Toliver said. "When I dove on her at the end of the game, I said, 'You did what you needed to do to get us here.' She delivered today.

"This year, more than any year, I've seen a change in her with her selflessness, knowing that she can't do it on her own. Understanding that it takes 12. Not all great players will do that. She did, and reaped the benefits."

Afterward, everyone with the Sparks -- players and coaches -- wanted a photo with Parker, and she obliged with a huge smile. She had said going into Game 5 that the Sparks always seem to do things the hard way, but it was all worthwhile as she held the championship trophy.

"Everybody on this team has a story, and this last year has been really tough for me personally," Parker said. "My teammates and my coaches were always there for me.

"I think I'm excited because we won a championship, but the journey to get here ... I wouldn't have wanted to do it with anybody else."

Related Video