Los Angeles – Normally, a victory would be enough to carry the night. But Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker had two reasons to celebrate Thursday.
She helped lead her team to an 84-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury – their fourth straight – with a 12 point, 11 rebound double-double. And her long-held vision of honoring her former collegiate coach, Tennessee legend Pat Summitt, came to successful fruition.
The Sparks’ “Pat Summitt Leadership Night” featured a video tribute to the coach, who died in 2016 after a battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Parker hosted a post-game fan event where she discussed Summitt’s legacy. And she did it all in shoes that she custom-designed with her daughter Lailaa.
“I think a lot of people came out here and understood Pat Summit for the wins and her legacy at Tennessee as being the winningest coach and (for her) national championships, but I wanted people to understand the who,” Parker said.
“The who is one of the hardest workers I have ever met in my entire life. I remember she was on me about not working hard, and I wanted to beat her to the gym and I got there at 4:30 a.m., and she was already in her office.”
Parker and daughter began drawing up the special shoe, which they named “Fierce,” with crayon and paper. They chose a color scheme symbolic to Summitt.
“A lot of people understand how piercing her blue eyes were, so we put blue into the shoe,” Parker said. “Purple for Alzheimer’s, and her foundation, and we got the orange, of course, for Tennessee, and we made sure the Summitt was with the orange. ‘Fierce courage’ is something I wear on (a) bracelet all the time; that’s what coach was, and what she represented that all the time.”
“Everything here is what she accomplished: a 100 percent graduation rate, which she was extremely proud of, 1,098 wins, eight national championships. And ‘the definite dozen’ is something we practiced while I was at Tennessee, so we definitely had to put that on the shoe.”
Parker said designing the shoe, which may be released, with her daughter was special for both of them because Lailaa remembers Summitt fondly. She was born in 2009, the year after Parker graduated, and as soon as that WNBA season was over, both were in Knoxville to visit.
“She still calls her ‘Toach,’ because that’s all she could say when she was little,” Parker said. “Pat absolutely loved Lailaa, and I remember going to her house a number of times and Pat having her the entire time, holding her on her lap.”
“There were so many videos at practice with Pat forgetting coaching and going up in the stands and playing drums with Lailaa. Lailaa will always remember her.”
Of all the lessons Summitt imparted, Parker said her integrity leaves the strongest impression.
“I didn’t truly understand how important it is not just to talk about it but to be about it, and that’s what she was all about,” Parker said. “When someone’s as successful as she is, with banners……when things don’t go well in life, how do you act? And she was the exact same person. That’s what I take with me more than anything – it wasn’t what she said, but what she did.”
On the game side, Los Angeles held Phoenix to 35 percent shooting and withstood a 10-0 fourth quarter Mercury run to pull out the win. Nneka Ogwumike led four in double figures for the Sparks, with 24 points.
“I think overall we played a good defensive game,” Parker said. “We know what we can do when we get out in transition, and that’s what we want to do. We want to rebound and defend and run and we did that in spurts. I’d like to see us do that more consistently overall throughout the game, but we’ve got to continue to improve.”
Phoenix has five players out with injury, and coach Sandy Brondello said her team didn’t step up in their absence.
“I didn’t think we brought the energy,” she said. “We looked like a tired team, and we knew we were playing a really good team, but we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We had to make little adjustments on the fly.”