It’s fitting that this year Candace Parker played in a new WNBA jersey designed with shattered lines and a cool blue hue. It was a reminder to all to shatter ceilings, and that nothing can stop a team born from the heart of the Windy City. In November, Candace Parker gave her first TED Talk, encouraging us all to break barriers, to find inspiration all around us, and to embrace our individuality.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time WNBA MVP, and two-time WNBA Champion, had decided her list of accolades was not complete. That certainly adds up, for someone who was bestowed with the childhood nickname “Can do” by her brothers, because of her confidence and competitive fire.
Candace said recapping the experience, “I still can’t believe it! I did a TED Talk! This morning my wife finally made me watch it (lacked courage yesterday). To be honest, it’s one of the most challenging and scary things I have ever done. I was more nervous than Game 4. Dreams do come true!” And while Candace was nervous, only her wisdom shown through during her talk — earning lots of applause from the audience. So today, we’ll share her brilliant TED talk and some takeaways.
In her 12-minute TED Talk, Candace shares personal memories from growing up and her adult life to illustrate how important it is to embrace what makes you different and to identify your own preconceived notions. She does so mostly through the lens of what her daughter Lailaa, now 10 years old, has taught her.
Candace gave birth to Lailaa following her first season in the WNBA, after being named Rookie of the Year and MVP – to this day, still the only player in league history to do so. Candace came back to the league nine-weeks post delivery, and played in a game.
As the two traveled the world together for basketball, Lailaa helped Candace to see with fresh eyes, by finding commonality with a Russian family during a play date. Years later, during the swearing in of Kamala Harris to the Vice Presidency, Lailaa again helped Candace realize she’d constructed her own box, placing limitations on herself based on what she felt society had told her.
Candace also reveals the impact that the start of the WNBA had on her as a child at the age of 11. She reveled, “I no longer had to go out in the driveway, and try to dunk like Michael Jordan. I could go out and get buckets like Cynthia Cooper.” No doubt, representation is part of barrier breaking, and Candace is setting a great example, in theory with her talk, and in practice with the way she lives her life.
Ultimately, Candace realized there is no reason to be afraid of saying she is a basketball player when people ask her, because it doesn’t mean she’s just a basketball player.
This year alone, Candace became the first WNBA player to be on the cover of NBA2K, was named AP Player of the Year for the second time, and launched her signature collection “Ace” with Adidas. She also announced she has a son on the way with wife Anna Petrakova. And according to Forbes, she was one of the highest paid women athletes in 2021 making $5.7 million, with half coming in from off-the-court earnings.
She is an NBA analyst for Turner Sports, an investor in NWSL team Angel City FC, and has a podcast all about motherhood. Her year ahead looks to be just as full and fulfilling: She’s producing a Title IX documentary examining 50 years of progress since the historic civil rights law went into effect and led to a revolution in women’s sports.
Catch the whole talk below to learn from Candace’s experiences and optimism.
“You know, everywhere in the world, the question inevitably comes up: ‘Do you play basketball?’ From the neighbor across the street – ‘Hey, do you hoop?”’ to the five-foot-seven guy at TSA PreCheck that swore that he could beat me one-on-one. I despise fitting into the lane or the mold that this question insinuates. But I reluctantly say, ‘Yes, I am a two-time NCAA champion, a two-time gold medalist, and a two-time WNBA Champion.’ But inside I scream, “I am so much more.”
“You see, barrier breaking is about not staying in your lane, and not being something that the world expects you to be. It’s about not accepting limitations.”
“It starts with inspiration, and it’s a foundation built upon picking apart what everybody thinks is the right way to do things. There are so many barrier breakers in here that are fighting so hard to unlock doors that they may never walk through. But they do it anyway. Because we’re standing on the shoulders of those that did it for us. It’s an uphill battle and it doesn’t guarantee big wins, or lots of success.”
“And throughout that uphill battle I think all of us look for hope. We all look for optimism. And mine is my daughter and this next generation. You see, I get to be the mom to an amazing 12-year-old daughter. Yes I know I’m partial. But she’s pretty dope. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world with her. While she allows her mom to fight for her dreams. We’ve played in Russia. And I say “we” because she really does think she’s part of the team. We’ve played in Russia, Turkey, and China. And throughout that journey I thought I would be the one teaching her, challenging her, being the example for her. But I realize it’s a two-way street.”
“At 3 years old I decided to enroll her in school in Russia. I was like I want her to have a normal life. I want her to be able to meet kids her age. So at 3, she befriended this little girl, her name was Masha. Masha didn’t speak any English. Lailaa barely spoke Russian. But her parents invited us over to their house…We went for this play date. So we knock on the door and Masha’s parents open the door so graciously, and welcome us into their home. And we stepped forward and I realized there’s no floor. It’s a modest home with one room with a couch on the side that pulls out into the bed that they sleep on. There’s a wood fire oven in the middle that heats the room warm, and that they cook with, and at 3 years old I was concerned.”
“So I go to grab Lailaa. But I was too late. She looked in the corner and she said, “A dollhouse!” and Masha and Lailaa ran to the corner to play with the doll house. I’m so proud that that’s my kid. And I can’t say that I had much to do with that. She has a way of like uniting people, of finding commonality, of rolling with the punches, of making the best of situations.”
“I’ve always wanted to uplift her. Because the messaging that I received from home was never shrink yourself to fit into this world. That you’re enough, everyone is enough. That you need to be individually you – all the time. I was fortunate to grow up in an environment with my parents and my two brothers who empowered me every single day. They told me I can do anything I set my mind to. So much so that my nickname was ‘Can do.’ It was later extended by my brothers to ‘Can do anything and get away with it.’”
“I was the baby of the family…and I didn’t lack confidence. If I wasn’t kicking the ball out of the recess school parking lot, in a dress to my mom’s despise – or high, high in the trees. I loved to compete – at everything, not just in sports either. This one time my teacher in elementary school he said, “I want to know who can learn the helping verb song the fastest.” [She sang the song!] I love to compete! I was that kid.”
“But what I loved so much was that I was allowed to be me. I was allowed to compete. I was allowed to speak my mind. My parents encouraged that. Just because you’re a girl you don’t have to stay in a certain lane. And then something happened in 1997. The women’s professional basketball league started.”
“The WNBA had its inaugural season when I was 11 years old. And I saw people that looked like me playing the game that I love so much. I no longer had to go out in the driveway, and try to dunk like Michael Jordan. I could go out and get buckets like Cynthia Cooper.”
“You see my parents encouraged sports. Because sports in their eyes were a microcosm of life. You learn to win; you learn to lose; you learn to work through obstacles; you learn to get up when you don’t want to; you learn to value differences because those are important. But as I ventured out into the world I realized the world wasn’t so uplifting towards differences. The world had a way of putting differences in a box.”
“For instance I received my girls’ basketball uniform in middle school: it was old and smelly and tight. The boys got brand new ones. My brother worked his butt off to get into one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country. My family was so proud. We heard the whispers. They said, “Quotas.” The world had a way of just putting differences in a box. And then getting mad when we had the audacity to not fit. Just as an individual, you get mad at me for not fitting in the box that you made.”
“There was a time that went by where I didn’t want to say yes for the basketball question. because if I checked that box then I checked all of their other assumptions. So competitive juices kicked in. I’ll show you, I’ll show you. I’m going to be the best girl. ‘You can’t dunk in a game?’ I’ll do it twice. ‘You can’t hold up an MVP trophy pregnant?’ OK I’ll show you. You can’t have a family, a career, and nurse your daughter. I came back nine-weeks post delivery, and I played in a game, and I nursed my daughter for 13 months. You can’t be on the cover of a video game. You can’t do a TED talk as an athlete.”
“The entire time, my idea of breaking barriers was being something so that the world could see that it was possible. But breaking down barriers doesn’t always mean records. In 2020 – like most of you – I sat around the television because I knew this was a moment. I sat my daughter front-and-center. I said watch this: the first African-American, Asian Vice President was being sworn in.”
“This is a moment that you might not appreciate now but in time you will. And as Kamala Harris was being sworn in, I said Lailaa, ‘Now look at her. Now you can do that too.’ And Lailaa looked at me. She looked through my eyes, and she said, ‘Why couldn’t I before?’ Suddenly I felt this big. [holds fingers close together] Because I had become what I despised the most in this world. I had put her in a box. Because the story that the world told me was women aren’t Vice Presidents. And I had assumed that that’s what they had told my daughter.”
“I’m telling you, Generation Z, my daughter’s generation, they’re changing the world. They’re changing the world through conversation, through unity, and through living as though boxes and barriers don’t exist. It’s no longer enough to just put your head down, get the job, accomplish the feat. We have to unite to come together to figure out why barriers are there in the first place. And Generation Z is doing that. They’re listening, they’re seeing both sides, and they’re uniting for causes that don’t directly impact them. We have entire sports leagues that are standing up for what they believe in. It’s no longer just one athlete. We have men that are fighting for women to receive equal pay. We have white allies that are protesting racial inequalities. We are talking about mental health.”
“And you know what’s so special? My daughter, a couple weeks ago, came up and handed me a list of stores that we’re not allowed to shop at anymore. I’m like, ‘Lailaa, another lesson, already?’ She’s like, ‘Mom, we’re not allowed to shop at these stores because they’re not body positive and body conscious towards all shapes and sizes.’ And you know what, I’m listening. I’ll be honest, and I’m learning, and you should, too.”
“Because my optimism lies in the next. They will take our obstacles, our struggles, our insecurities, our challenges, and not see them as obstacles, but as opportunities. Or they may not even acknowledge them at all. I’m proud because Generation Z are proud, bold, and they’re themselves. Because those that were told that they can’t their entire life are having kids that are making us believe that we can. So go ahead, ask me if I play basketball, and I’ll proudly say, ‘Yes.’ Because I realize I was the one putting basketball in a box all along.”
Up next, learn more about another remarkable WNBA athlete, Kelsey Plum in the Drip for the Soul Series.