May 28, 2024

Candace Parker has done just about everything there is to do in basketball. She’s won three WNBA titles, two most valuable player awards, made seven All-Star appearances and was the league’s rookie of the year. She also has two Olympic gold medals and in college she was a two-time national champion.

So with few peaks left to climb in the sport, she’s no longer trying to be like Mike, or even LeBron. Now she wants to emulate Jay-Z, the rapper, record producer and agent whose entrepreneurial empire spans everything from clothing lines and beverages to real estate and technology.

“He has been my North Star for sure,” Parker said during a break in last month’s espnW summit at the Ojai Valley Inn, where she was a featured speaker. “I admire his forethought in knocking down the misconceptions about what you have to be to be something. It’s similar to what women’s basketball players are thought of. I don’t think that there’s any one lane that I have to fit in.”

Parker’s latest lane change comes Sunday when “Candace Parker: Unapologetic” debuts on ESPN, then begins streaming on ESPN+. Though Parker spends all her time in the 77-minute documentary in front of the camera, the filmmaking experience has given her new ideas for expanding her own entrepreneurial empire, one that already includes broadcasting, an ownership stake in women’s soccer club Angel City FC, a production company and a shoe and clothing partnership with Adidas.

“It’s been unbelievable to kind of go down that lane and learn, obviously, producing and content,” said Parker, an academic All-American who majored in sports management at Tennessee. “I’m a big history buff so I would like to do something in that space. It’s important for a variety of people to tell history, different sides of history.”

Imagine Ken Burns if he was 6 feet 4, had been a single mother and could dunk.

“I could see that,” said Joie Jacoby, the award-winning filmmaker who directed the documentary. “I think that will be one of the several things that she will do. She has so many things that she’s up to, like speaking, connecting to people. That is one of her superpowers.”

Which is why Jacoby sees a different role model for Parker, who had the grade-school nickname Can Do, as in Can Do Anything.

“I would say Magic Johnson,” Jacoby said, referencing the Lakers Hall of Famer who has become a billionaire businessman in retirement. “That sort of career trajectory for her as an all-media entrepreneur, I see that for her.”

The documentary traces the trajectory of Parker’s basketball career, from her first dribbles with her brothers on a concrete court in a park in Naperville, Ill. — a court that now bears Parker’s name — though high school, where she dunked as a 15-year-old. From an award-winning college career under Pat Summit at Tennessee through16 WNBA seasons with the Sparks, Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces, winning a title with each. Through injuries, pregnancy and a marriage, divorce and second marriage to Anna Petrakova, a teammate for three years in Russia.

Shot over 14 months beginning in the fall of 2021, the film follows Parker through the 2022 WNBA season in Chicago and pulls back the curtain on a career that had almost as many setbacks as successes. And though it gets personal, even painful at times, it is the kind of carefully curated work we’ve come to expect from athletes telling their own story.

“We had creative control over a lot of stuff,” Parker said of the documentary, executive produced by ESPN Films and produced by L.A.-based Film 45, and credited ESPN for “not wanting something in there that I wouldn’t want.”

Still, there probably is enough bite to make the title, “Unapologetic,” work.

“She was like ‘I’m going to be who I am. And everybody else can kick rocks’,” Jacoby said. “She spent a lot of her life trying to live up to a lot of expectations. And she always met them. But there’s a lot that comes with that, where you’re expected to be someone, a specific person, for someone else.

“That’s where we are in this film. This moment, this time capsule, where she’s unapologetic. She does not care. She knows who she is.”

The fact that she reached that crossroads in both her life and career made Parker, 37, the perfect subject for the story Jacoby wanted to tell.

“There’s so many different factors that are all sort of at play for her,” the filmmaker said. “She’s getting older, she’s thinking about what she wants her life to be, her kid is getting older. And then at the same time, she is at this place personally where she’s never been before, where she’s totally at peace and open with who she is.

“She is one of the greatest of all time. Her game has changed the way bigs play in the league forever. It is her time.”

From left, Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones pose with their gold medals during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

From left, Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones pose with their gold medals during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Parker also won gold in the 2012 Olympics in London.

(Dusan Vranic / Associated Press)

Parker hopes viewers see her as more than a basketball player.

“The goal is to reach those that are kind of at a place in their life where they’re not sure where they need to be or where they need to go,” she said. “My goal is to really talk about authenticity and how important it is to be that. It’s also talking about you’re an entire person, you’re not just an athlete. I’m so much more than that.”

In the film, Parker openly addresses her relationship with Summit, who came to be a confidant; the turbulent end of her 13-season stint with the Sparks; and the difficulties both families had in accepting her same-sex relationship with Petrakova, whom she quietly married in 2019 and lives with in Southern California.

Some of the best moments are home movies her mother shot of Parker as a young girl and teenager and the footage Parker made of her daughter Lailaa, whom she raised while playing in the U.S., Russia, China and Turkey.

“Her crawling at an away game in EuroLeague. Her trying potatoes for the first time in Spain,” she says of Lailaa, now a freshman volleyball player at Campbell Hall in Studio City. “Her playground was literally the world.”

Unaddressed in the film, because it remains unknown, is Parker’s future. She signed a one-year $100,000 contract with Las Vegas for a 2023 season that ended after 18 games because of a foot fracture, making her a free agent this winter. And while her 23.6 minutes, nine points and 5.4 rebounds a game were career lows, she told the crowd at the espnW event that she’d like to match Rebekkah Brunson’s record of five WNBA titles, meaning she’d have to come back for at least two more seasons.

Parker has five months to make that decision, one that will hinge on a lot of other decisions, because when her basketball career ends, she’ll have a lot of other things to keep her busy. Running an empire, after all, is a full-time job.

“It’s more just like what do I want to do? What are my desires?” she said, sitting at the end of a heavy wooden table in the rustic farmhouse library at the sprawling Ojai Valley Inn. “What are my dreams, what are my passions?

“And once I chase people and passions, I don’t fail. I think that’s what’s allowed me to do all of these things.”

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