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Candace Parker: WNBA Finals, Pat Summitt — and the Lady Vols

Swish Appeal contributing editor and book author Maria M. Cornelius checks in by phone with Candace Parker while the best player on the planet maneuvers in Los Angeles traffic.

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Los Angeles, CA — Candace Parker and Los Angeles will seek to repeat as WNBA champions starting this Sunday against Minnesota.

The Sparks won an epic Game 5 against the Lynx a year ago in a matchup that wasn’t settled until the final seconds. Minnesota wants revenge and its fourth overall title to go with 2011, 2013 and 2015 trophies. Los Angeles wants to add to the championship hardware earned in 2001, 2002 and 2016.

Game 1 tips off Sunday on ABC at 3:30 p.m. Eastern at Williams Arena on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Game 2, also, in Minneapolis, is Tuesday, Sept. 26. The Sparks will host Game 3 in Los Angeles at the Staples Center on Friday, Sept. 29. The if-necessary Games 4 and 5 are scheduled for Oct. 1 in Los Angeles and Oct. 4 in Minneapolis.

Parker checked in by phone before the WNBA Finals get underway to talk about basketball, 8-year daughter Lailaa, Pat Summitt and the Tennessee Lady Vols logo.

Swish Appeal: A year ago you were dealing with being inexcusably omitted from the 2016 Olympic team and then the crushing death of Pat Summitt from Alzheimer’s disease on June 28, 2016. While losing your college coach and mentor will always ache, it does seem like you’re in a better place emotionally in 2017 and especially having been able to win the WNBA championship a year ago for Pat. Is that an accurate assessment?

Parker: Last year was such a tough year. At the same time, I am so happy to have people around me that made it OK. I think a lot of it had to do with growth as a person through things that happen in your life and trust in the journey and trust in the process. I got a lot of joy from my teammates and our organization. We have become a family, and every piece of the puzzle has become important and necessary.

I am happy, and I am in a fantastic place. My daughter is really excelling and doing well and enjoying being a part of it. This is the first year that she is really into the Sparks and basketball and going to games. She will be making the trip with me to Minnesota. She told me that she has to go, that she is our good luck charm.

Swish Appeal: Obviously basketball is a very physical game, and you look like a human Popsicle going into post-game interviews with ice on your knees and shoulder. No player is 100 percent at this point, the wear and tear of the season affects everyone, but where are you physically going into the Finals?

Parker: I feel pretty good. I actually feel much better than I did last year and the year before. I am OK. The ice is a precaution, but a lot of it is the bumps and bruises of the game and playing a long time. I came straight from Turkey (where Parker played for Fenerbahce in Istanbul last winter). Since March 1, I have been playing continuously, and now it’s almost October, so I have aches and pains, but I am in a pretty good spot, knock on wood.

Swish Appeal: After the WNBA Finals, are you going to take a break from basketball or do you know yet?

Parker: I am taking off – no plans right now to go overseas. I am not saying that’s not going to change, but right now I want to be in the carpool lane and take my daughter to school.

Swish Appeal: Women’s basketball continues to evolve as players become even more skilled and athletic. More players want to be that stretch four that can play in the paint but also handle the ball and hit a three-pointer. But that takes a lot of work and development. Wanting to play like Candace Parker and actually playing like Candace Parker – such as handling the ball at the top of the key and driving left-handed for the game-winning layup to get to the Finals – means a tremendous commitment to get in the gym at an early age. It also means developing post and guard skills. What would you say to a young player who is slotted as a power forward at the four spot but wants to be a small forward at the three spot who can hit shots and set up plays?

Parker: I remember being told so many times that it is so much easier to go from a three to a four than it is from a four to a three because of the skill set and the ability to put the ball on the floor and to make plays. I remember my dad putting the ball in my hands and not allowing me to just stand under the basket. So, from a very young age, I was put in different basketball situations.

I was allowed to bring the ball up the court. I was allowed to dribble, handle and shoot. Now, we are seeing more players who are able and capable, and coaches are willing to allow them to do it. After me, Elena Delle Donne was next, and then it was Breanna Stewart. And then Jonquel Jones. I was happy to set the tone – to be 6-4 and also be able to handle the ball.

But I think it’s also about not just creating plays for yourself, but also being able to make plays for your teammates. It’s really fun, and it makes you more dangerous. When you’re versatile, it’s harder for the defense to stop. It’s a lot more time in the gym, but in the game, it’s a lot better. You have moves, counter-moves.

Swish Appeal: How much do you still hear Pat’s voice and what reminders do you experience on the court?

Parker: I listen to her speeches a lot before games, especially big games. If I am not really feeling up, like three games in five nights or something crazy, or my body is tired, I will listen to her. She is a huge influence on what I am, who I am, how I work, the way that I look at life now and how I parent my daughter. I have said this so many times, but it’s the truth. I am so much of a better person because of her and her lessons. I am so much more patient now. And I really and truly believe that she would be so proud of me to see how much I’ve grown as an individual.

She is present all the time. She is constantly present on my arm because I tattooed her quote on my arm, so that is not going anywhere. (Left foot, right foot, breathe)

Swish Appeal: Does Lailaa want to get tatted one day? Has that conversation come up yet?

Parker: I am of the mindset that when you can take care of yourself, you can do what you want. Now, I will give my daughter my thought process and advice, but I tell her, ‘When you’re 18, you’re going to kind of do what you want anyway. And you’re going to figure it out the hard way or the easy way.’ It’s funny because if you ask her, ‘When can you do this?’, she knows she can’t. She will be like, ‘When I pay my own bills, and I’m 18.’ She knows when she can do it.

Swish Appeal: Tennessee has restored the visibility of the Lady Vols logo in all sports, not just basketball. What does the logo mean to women athletes at Tennessee?

Parker: It speaks volumes as to what that means and what the logo represents. It doesn’t just represent the team you’re playing for. It represents so much more. I am so happy that it’s back. Basketball never lost it. If you knew how much that represents, why would you take it away from every other sport? But, now it’s back the way it is supposed to be and going forward it’s a weight to carry on your shoulders – to be a Lady Vol and what that represents. It is a huge privilege.

Swish Appeal: One argument for its removal was that it was demeaning to women, that it somehow diminished them as athletes. What is your response to that?

Parker: My response is simple. There is a lot of weight that goes along with Lady Vols. It’s not just a logo or something to call somebody. Tennessee was at the forefront for women’s athletics for an extremely long time – and I hope going forward now. I think that is a symbol of what it represents. We were one of three schools that had a separate athletic department for women. (Tennessee merged the departments in 2012. Texas remains the lone school with men’s and women’s athletics directors.)

We had one of the best, if not the absolute best, basketball coaches. Not women’s basketball coach. Basketball coach. Ever. We were at the forefront of women athletics. Lady Vols – that is what all of that is. It needs to be recognized and in what way better than to be called Lady Vols.

Maria M. Cornelius is the author of the award-winning book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt.”