By Debbie Emery
There are many words you can use to describe the Chicago Sky’s 2021 season. Breakthrough. Miraculous. Inspirational. Unstoppable. Irrepressible … but “underdog” is not one of them.
The Chicago Sky may have entered the 2021 WNBA playoffs as a Number 6 seed — forcing them to win two single-elimination games just to stay in the conversation — but they were never underdogs, even when the odds were against them. When you have a roster stacked with superstars like Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and reigning Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, there’s always a chance!
The prior year was rough for everyone, especially members of the WNBA, as the league attempted to pull off a shortened 2020 season while playing in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Adding to the Sky’s challenges were a string of injuries to key players, which meant they were eliminated in the first round of the 2020 playoffs.
Fortunately, the early part of 2021 gave the Sky a chance to recover, regroup, and reenergize. A key factor in their new, fresh focus was the signing of Chicago-area native and two-time WNBA MVP and WNBA Finals MVP Candace Parker, who chose to leave the Los Angeles Sparks after 13 years and ink a two-year deal with the Sky.
“I’m so excited to be here, and I say that from the bottom of my heart,” Parker said when the team officially introduced her in February 2021. “I didn’t realize how amazing the Chicagoland area was with basketball in general until I went out into the world and I saw how truly special and how they really embrace their homegrown talent.”
“When this opportunity came about to be able to come home and to play in front of my family and friends and to play for a fantastic organization like the Chicago Sky, it was a difficult decision, but ultimately, I’m very excited and proud to be able to come home,” she continued.
While the Sky called it the “the biggest free-agent signing in WNBA history,” 35-year-old Parker, who grew up in west suburban Naperville, simply said: “I followed my heart.”
Heading into the Sky’s 16th WNBA season, and their third under head coach James Wade, hopes were high following a two-game win streak (against the Indiana Fever and Washington Mystics) …but then a seven-game losing streak brought them crashing back down to earth. Thankfully, they flipped the switch back in the right direction with seven more back-to-back wins, including over the top-seeded Connecticut Sun.
The annual mid-summer All-Star break, when the best players in the league convene in Las Vegas to face off against each other, also coincided with a season hiatus to allow Olympic team members to finally head to Tokyo for the delayed 2020 Summer Games. While the WNBA celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021, it was only the 17th All-Star Game because of prior clashes with the Olympics. This time around, they combined both themes and had the WNBA All-Stars versus the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, with Parker competing in her sixth All-Star.
“When you’re fortunate enough to go to multiple All-Star games,” Parker told Sky Sports NBA at the time, “and you realized my teammate, Kahleah Copper, it’s her first time here, you realize again how special it is to be a top player in the best league in the entire world.” Parker, Copper and the rest of Team WNBA ended up winning the exhibition game, with a final score of 93-85.
The second half of the 2021 season turned out to be just as back-and-forth as the first half for the Sky, with a handful of wins balancing out a handful of losses. They ultimately closed out the regular season with an even split, and an overall record of 16-16.
Heading into the postseason as the sixth seed in the playoffs is far from ideal. In fact, it usually means that you are bounced quickly and start your offseason vacation sooner than you’d like. But not the 2021 Chicago Sky — they were determined to keep on playing for as long as possible. The first stepping stone was a single-elimination game against the Dallas Wings, which they easily won 81-64. Then it got a little trickier, because as the lowest seed in the second round, the Sky had to face the Minnesota Lynx in a challenging road game in Minneapolis. Once past that hurdle came the real challenges: first facing the Connecticut Sun in a nail-biting overtime game that the Sky clinched 101-95. While they would drop the next game at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, the Sky held out to take the series 3-1. This meant, as unlikely as it seemed back in September at the onset of the playoffs, the Sky were heading to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
That’s where the Cinderella story always ends, right? Wrong. The Sky came out hot against the Phoenix Mercury in the Game One, before dropping Game Two in yet another thrilling overtime finish. That would be the last game Chicago would lose, however, and they, yet again, took the series three games to one. In fact, in Game Three, the Sky dominated the Mercury by 36 points, making it the largest margin of victory in WNBA Finals history. After being down by seven points in the fourth quarter of Game Four, the Sky fought back gallantly — partly in thanks to Allie Quigley, who scored 26 points herself — to win the franchise’s first-ever championship.
Quigley marveled afterward at how the team had channeled a new winning attitude once they entered the playoffs, having struggled so many times during the regular season. “A seven-game win streak, a seven-game losing streak,” she said during the post-championship press conference. “We just didn’t know who we were. I feel like we were frustrated with ourselves, with each other, and it was because we didn’t know who we were.”
The Chicago Sky certainly know who they are now: They are champions!