Stars are formed in clouds of gas and dust called nebulae.The nebulae are dusty, nebulous nurseries that use gravity to mix and crush all of the wayward atoms and molecules crowding a region. 

The stars we’re referring to in this story aren’t light years away — they’ve been molded in the nebula of Chicago and that nebula can take on many unique shapes.

Sometimes the nebula is the closure of public schools, or career ending injuries. Sometimes, it’s bullets barreling out of guns held by folks contending with their environments. 

But these nebulae birthed some of Chicago’s biggest stars, including former WNBA guard Cappie Pondexter, former Chicago Bulls hero Derrick Rose and professional tennis player Taylor Townsend. 

And now WNBA Chicago Sky forward Candace Parker is the latest star to become a city sports legend, birthed out of the nebulae of injuries, gritty mid-western competition and misconceptions about her determination. This could have dwarfed her light, but instead, it fueled her to guide a constellation of smaller, although equally hungry and energetic stars to a 2021 WNBA Championship ring.

That aforementioned WNBA championship ring means infinitely more here than it would have in California. A Naperville native, Parker exited the Los Angeles Sparks during a career lull to return home and join the Chicago Sky, a team and city characterized more aptly by hard work than winning.

Bernadette Agnew-Murden was decked out in her Sky-Rider gear at the Chicago Sky Celebration Parade & Rally on Oct. 19. Video by Tyger Ligon // The TRiiBE

The fact that the Sky have that championship ring is a triumph for fans in particular and Chicagoans in general. A losing team defeating the number one Connecticut Sun team and finally a star-studded Phoenix Mercury team to win the championship is a story that could only take place in Chicago. 

The Sky Parade & Rally on Oct. 19 that followed was a Chicago stamp of approval. As I waited outside of Wintrust Arena on Indiana Avenue, I noticed that the street was not particularly busy, but there were quite a few workers pausing briefly before their shifts. I saw a Black father and his young daughter and groups of tall, athletic girls staring at their phones. 

A middle aged black woman in a Sky-inspired tutu cheered beside me, saying “Phoenix was acting like they didn’t know who we were!” The regular folks ambling around, waiting for a glance at the stars, understand exactly who the Sky are and I think that’s why they fought so hard to win for us.

Brianna Sharee highlights growing up in Naperville, and watching Candace Parker play ball at her rival high school. Video by Tyger Ligon // The TRiiBE

In 2005, an expansion draft was held to stock the brand new Chicago Sky team. Principal owner Michael Altar believed the city needed a women’s team, even if it had no NBA counterpart to support it. 

A year later, I attended my first Chicago Sky game. At 13 years old, I was sore from Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball practice and brimming with pre-teen skepticism about a professional women’s team playing at the UIC Pavilion, where I attended summer camp. 

Clad in their jerseys, rolled shorts, durags and pre-wrap, my first Sky game felt more like a high school basketball homecoming than anything else.The Sky were hungry, like myself and the other basketball players sitting in the audience, but there weren’t many folks in attendance. It didn’t feel like the WNBA games of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Back then, people came to see L.A. Sparks star Lisa Leslie throw down a dunk. The crowd exploded when Houston Comets player Sheryl Swoopes — the first woman signed to the WNBA in 1997 —netted a three pointer from way behind the line. That year in 2006, with about 3,000 people in attendance at each Sky game, the crowd consisted mostly of young girls like me, aspiring to play professional ball, as we watched the Sky lose during their first season.

I wouldn’t go to my next Sky game until 2008; not because I lacked interest, but because it was tricky keeping up with the regular season due to most games not being televised.

This time around, the game wasn’t at the UIC Pavilion. In 2010, the Sky had moved their homebase to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, where more than 4,000 fans came out on average to cheer them on. But the remaining 10,000 empty seats generated an embarrassing echo in the arena. I can’t remember which team they played or even if they won or lost. The outcome didn’t seem to matter much to the fans and I couldn’t stop staring at all of the empty seats.

Meanwhile, 300 miles away in Cleveland, a University of Tennessee forward, center and guard by the name of Candace Parker crystalized her star power. In the 2007 NCAA women’s semi-finals against North Carolina, Parker willed the ball into the rim with 34 seconds left solidifying the Lady Vols’ lead. In 2008, Parker led her team to their second straight NCAA title. 

Watching Parker brought back my enchantment for the game of basketball. The stakes, which had always felt incredibly high for me while I was on the hardwood, felt real watching Parker. The world was watching and it mattered who won and who lost.

The North Star, though not the brightest in the sky, is the only star in the North Pole that is almost completely still. As other stars travel long distances across its directional axis, the North Star dazzles observers with tiny, ordered circles. 

In 2020, both Parker and the Sky were experiencing their own star birthing nebulae. Parker was injured again. The Sky were winning more games, but were unable to advance to the finals. 

The Chicago Sky had excellent players. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot, shooting guard Allie Quigley, guard-forward Kahleah Copper and center Azurá Stevens were already playing with the urgency we’d grown acquainted with in the 2021 finals. But the Sky still lacked something. They need a little push, a gravitational pull towards victory. They needed another star born out of the dusty, gritty nebulae Chicago seems to generate. They needed fans in the stands wiling them to a win.

Fast forward to Oct. 15, 2021: the Chicago Sky was tied 1-1 going into Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the Phoenix Mercury in a sold-out Wintrust Arena, which seats 10,000. I’m in there, wandering the dense arena alone, waiting for my friend Cai to arrive. 

Yet, I couldn’t move an inch without brushing the shoulder of a fan in marigold, dandelion, or sky blue. Protracted, overwhelmed lines of eager fans snaked around each floor for the few open concession stands to purchase hot dogs and pretzels. The energy was voltaic, different from any WNBA game I’d ever attended before. It felt like watching Parker in the NCAA finals years ago. She had to win. Thousands of people were counting on it.

Every shriek, every referee whistle, and every shot attempt felt like it might blow the fuse on the whole place. Parker was indubitably the conduit. Many of the fans in this crowd had watched 6’6 center Sylvia Fowles block thousands of lay-ups and forward Candace Dupree euro-step through the lane, but it never felt like this. Even flashy point guard Cappie Pondexter barreling through the lane hadn’t felt like this. 

Then it was time for Game 4. The Wintrust Arena is sold out again. I had planned to attend the game but resellers were selling nosebleed seats for $300. I decided to watch the game in my living room on the West Side with my friend Cai on Facetime. The weight and hope of more than 10,000 fans in the stadium, and thousands more watching from their living rooms and bars, reverberated through the city. 

There is just under 5 minutes left in the game and the Sky trail, but Parker ambles down the court with poise.  She knows something the rest of us don’t. Her conviction is so obvious it feels as if she’s not moving at all. The rest of the team is following the rotational motion of her gravity. 

Parker completes a no-look pass to Copper that breaks the space time continuum and disappears briefly until it materializes in Copper’s grasp. She nails the three and turns toward the crowd as if she is giving fans permission to erupt. It’s clear that the team no longer needs to exchange words, only Parker’s Keplerian motion as she holds her hand high above her head signaling the play.

What does the Chicago Sky’s first franchise championship win mean for a city of underdogs? What does this win mean for the young Black girl on the bus stop with a basketball in her hand, a girl like Kierra Moore, a stand-out teen basketball star at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School who was shot and killed on Chicago’s West Side?

When stars collide slowly they become an even larger, effervescent mass. Parker bringing her light (and a ring) to a city with homegrown players like Copper and Quigley will not only strengthen the legacy of women’s basketball in Chicago, but the legacy of the women who played the game here when no one was watching. 

Candace Parker with her orange basketball in hand deserves all of our reverence. Because anyone, even young girls in Chicago, can look up to the night sky, spot the north star and find their way.

is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She recently covered housing as a 2020 City Bureau fellow.