For nearly all of the greatest moments in Candace Parker’s storied basketball career, her daughter, Lailaa, has been there.
During Parker’s first year in the WNBA, when she collected the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards — a feat that hasn’t been matched since — Lailaa was there (albeit in utero but still, that counts!). When Parker returned to the court, just 53 days after giving birth, Lailaa was there. And when opportunities arose for Candace Parker to play abroad… either in Yekaterinburg, Russia or Dongguan, China or Istanbul, Turkey… Lailaa was there. She got to witness it all: the championships, the individual accolades, the Olympic gold medals. She had a front row seat to watching her mother become one of the greatest to ever play the game. And when her mother stepped into the fullness of her love for Anya Petrakova by proposing in 2019, Lailaa was there, holding the cake that said, “will you marry us?“
But Lailaa’s brother, Airr, won’t get to experience any of that. He won’t get to witness the dizzing heights to which his mother has risen. With his mother’s pledge that she won’t return to basketball unless she’s healthy, it’s possible that Airr will grow up without any tangible, first-hand memories of his mother in her element. He won’t get to see her play alongside a new generation of players who were all molded in her image.
With that in mind, it’s helpful to think about Unapologetic, the new ESPN documentary about Candace Parker from Joie Jacoby, as less of your average sports documentary and more of a gift from a mother to her son. It is a tangible way for Airr to learn about his legacy. It is an opportunity for him to one day see the moments and people that shaped his mother into the person that she is. He’d get to see, as Lailaa had, how his family came to be. That the audience gets to witness the usually guarded and stoic Candace Parker be open and vulnerable, isn’t for our benefit, it’s for his.
“For me, I didn’t share for a long time and it wasn’t because I was ashamed. It was because I wanted to keep that personal to me,” Parker admitted during a recent interview. “But it was just a moment where, when [Petrakova] was pregnant with our son, it was like, I don’t want our son to ever think that I don’t love our family and that I’m not proud of our family.”
But while Unapologetic may ultimately be a testament to a mother’s love for her son, the journey it takes the audience on is one worth relishing.
It’s easy to take it for granted today, in this new world of young athletes, their NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) deals, and women’s college basketball exceeded the reach of the men’s game — but when Candace Parker came onto the scene, the world had never seen anything like her. A female player from Naperville, Illinois, who could dunk a basketball when she was only a sophomore in high school? The broader sports world clamoring to find out where a female recruit would go to college? It was unprecedented.
Unapologetic follows Parker’s journey from Naperville to Knoxville where she played for the legendary Pat Summitt. Parker’s always been candid about the special relationship she had with Pat. Anytime she talks about her, the admiration and love is evident. The documentary is at its most affecting when Parker is able to lean into the emotion of the story and, with Summitt, the emotions are summoned so easily. There’s a mix of pride and profound sadness that flashes across Parker’s face when she recalls that, even while in the throes of early onset dementia, Pat never forgot her name.
— NBA (@NBA) October 21, 2016
The documentary’s high point, undoubtedly, is the story of Parker finding love with her former UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate, Anya Petrakova. We finally get some insight into the build-up towards her infamous 2021 Instagram post revealing that she was married and expecting a child.
Parker’s journey to making that post wasn’t an easy one. In college, she had a high profile relationship with then-Duke star Shelden Williams and the pair would marry in 2008. They’d divorce eight years later but the expectations of Parker — of who she was, of who she should love — persisted, making it difficult to fully embrace her truth. In Unapologetic, Parker talks about the difficulty of coming out to her family and recalls talking to her brother about Anya without using any identifying pronouns.
I’ve known of Candace Parker since she dunked that basketball in 2001. She’s always seemed otherworldly to me… like, with her talent, she just exists on a different plane than the rest of us. But to hear her talk about her queerness in Unapologetic, to hear her unabashedly fawn over her wife? Candace Parker has never felt more real.
We also get to see the toll that Parker’s on the court greatness has taken on her body. Women’s basketball fans have always been privy to conversations about the price that athletes pay for year-round play — playing in the WNBA from April to October and then spending the rest of the year playing overseas — but rarely have the consequences been shown in such stark terms. Parker recounts eight knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery. One doctor reports that Parker has a tear or fissure in the covering of one of the discs in her back, and another doctor shares that there’s no cartilage left in her knee. I couldn’t help but to recall her pledge to return to basketball only if she could play without pain and wonder, particularly with the foot surgery she had last season, if that’s even possible for her.
But where Unapologetic falters is that it never seems to want to go deep enough. There’s a passing mention of Parker’s divorce from Shelden Williams, but the documentary offers explanation for how the relationship fell apart or what their relationship is like as co-parents. While Parker acknowledges the difficulty of coming out, her parents who, had until that point been fixtures in the documentary, disappear and little is said about them or their reaction. When Parker talks about being left off the Olympic roster in 2016, why does Parker avoid calling out then-coach Geno Auriemma? It’s not like she hasn’t done it before. I can appreciate that Parker didn’t want to “badmouth people,” but those notable omissions make it hard to appreciate the full scope of the trials she’s had to face.
Even within the confines of the narrative Unapologetic creates, there were plenty of opportunities to offer more perspectives, and it never does. How much more enriching would Parker’s stories about Tennessee have been if the documentary had featured Pat Summit’s longtime assistants, Holly Warlick or Mickie DeMoss? Who could’ve spoken with more perspective about Parker’s relationship with Pat than Pat’s son, Tyler?
Where are Parker’s would-be teammates from that 2016 Olympic team to speak out her omission? Where are her teammates (besides Chelsea Gray) from her championship runs with the Los Angeles Sparks and the Chicago Sky? Particularly if the documentary was going to include the outcome of The Athletic‘s 2019 anonymous player poll where Parker was voted “most overrated,” why not bring on the players that know Parker best to counteract that narrative? And, no shade to Ramona Shelbourne or Jemele Hill, but why feature them instead of reporters who have covered women’s college basketball and the WNBA over Parker’s storied career?
I understand that this is Candace Parker: Unapologetic and, at the end of the day, it’s her perspective that’s going to be valued the most. But I think adding more voices and providing more context would’ve enriched the story immensely. It just felt like a missed opportunity.
There’s a moment, late in the documentary, that’s stuck with me: Candace Parker is at an event, celebrating the release of her new shoe for Adidas.
As Parker is autographing her shoe, the fan notices the “For Pat” text on it and inquires who Pat is. After I got over my shock, I was reminded that in order for legacies to persist, people need to share their stories… and Unapologetic is Candace Parker’s story. Maybe it doesn’t document her story as fully as I’d like to see it, but if it creates a space for future players — or even just Airr — to learn about Candace Parker and expand on her legacy? It’ll have been a worthwhile creation.
Candace Parker: Unapologetic is now streaming on ESPN+ and wherever you watch ESPN.