August 8, 2022 5:23 PM EDT

Candace Parker was already enjoying a monumental run in her life last year. One of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time had just won her second WNBA championship, capping a storybook return home: the Naperville, Ill.-raised athlete had signed with the Chicago Sky before last season and delivered the franchise its first-ever WNBA title. Parker served as the face of an emergent WNBA. Parker’s media work, providing commentary on TNT’s highly popular and influential NBA program, was receiving rave reviews. Parker was a basketball force.

Then, late last year, her journey took another significant turn. On Instagram, she revealed publicly, for the first time, that she had been married for two years to Anna Petrakova, a former Olympic basketball player from Russia who played with Parker on a pro team there. Parker, who was previously married to former NBA player Shelden Williams, shared pictures from the couple’s Dec. 14, 2019 wedding—which 50 guests, plus workers, were required to keep secret. Parker also announced that the couple was expecting a child. Their son, Airr Larry Petrakov Parker, was born in February.

During an interview in suburban Chicago on an off-day for the Sky, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference heading into the WNBA playoffs starting Aug. 17, Parker, 36, reflected on her decision to take her relationship public. One reason she and Petrakova kept their marriage under wraps Russia’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies: Petrakova was concerned she’d be subject to discrimination. But with a baby now on the way, Parker and Petrakova felt the timing was right. Plus, she wanted to send a strong message to her daughter Lailaa, now 13. “I always tell my daughter to be herself,” says Parker. “I always tell my daughter to be proud of who she is. And I always tell my daughter to speak for herself and speak up for those that she loves. And I can’t say that to her if I’m not doing it myself. I don’t want her to ever think that I’m ashamed or not proud of our family. That was a step that we had to take. But we had to take it on our own terms.”

Parker’s announcement resonated with both her family and the LGBTQ+ community. Her message, plus her continued accomplishments on the floor—in May, at 36, she became the oldest WNBA player to record a triple-double before she got another one in June—her strong performances on TV, and her ability to manage the demands of motherhood and a full-time sports career, have set her up to become one of the key figures in American sports and culture, for years to come.

Hoops savant

Parker grew up breathing basketball. She attended her first basketball game—a middle school contest featuring older brother Anthony, who would later play nine years in the NBA—when she was less than two weeks old. At age 5, at a Chicago Bulls game, she told everyone in earshot that Michael Jordan’s team had no shot at winning unless they rebounded better. A college recruiter once visited the Parker home, trying to woo Anthony; Candace, who was 6 or 7, told the coach about his team’s defensive shortcomings.

She was the Gatorade Girl’s High School Player of the Year in 2003-2004; she is still the only girl’s basketball player to receive this accolade in back-to-back years. She became the first female to win the dunk contest at the McDonald’s High School All-American Game, beating out future NBA players like J.R. Smith and Rudy Gay. Parker was one of the most highly recruited players in girls basketball history: she chose Tennessee, coached at the time by the late Hall of Famer Pat Summitt. As a sophomore, Parker became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA tournament game. Tennessee won back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008.

As a first-year pro in 2008, Parker won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, and was named league WNBA MVP and Rookie of the Year playing for the Los Angeles Sparks. She was unknowingly in the early stages of pregnancy with Lailaa. “My daughter was along for the journey,” Parker says. “She got an Olympic gold medal, won the MVP and rookie of the year before she was even born. That’s so special for me because it encompasses what women are capable of.”

Parker spent her WNBA off-seasons playing professionally in Russia, China, and Turney where salaries are more lucrative for female players. (Even after a 2020 collective bargaining agreement made notable improvements in WNBA pay, the maximum salary for this season is $228,094; Russell Westbrook of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $47 million next season). During the WNBA season, she continued to thrive, winning a second league MVP in 2013 and a title with the Sparks in 2016.

But during her final years in Los Angeles, Parker and then-coach Derek Fisher had a rocky relationship: Fisher benched Parker down the stretch of a 2019 playoff game, which the Sparks lost, ending their season. So before the 2021 campaign, Parker decided to return home to Chicago, signing with the Sky as a free agent. The 2021 season started out rough: Chicago was 2-7 at one point. The Sky finished .500, good enough for a sixth seed, but rolled to the WNBA Finals. Sky guard Kahleah Cooper recalls a particularly tense huddle in Game 4 of the Finals, when Chicago was trailing to the Phoenix Mercury. Parker’s calm and experience made all the difference. “We were all a little disheveled,” says Cooper. “And Candace is like, ‘hey, hey, like, snap out of it. We’re fine. We’re a really good team .’ She just gave us these reminders and the reassurance that everything was going to be OK. These things happen during big games. It’s normal to feel how we felt. And in that moment, Candace literally flipped the switch for us.”

Dunking on Shaq

Parker, who has had eight knee surgeries, is still unsure if this will be her final season. “I live in the moment,” she says. But whenever retirement from basketball arrives, Parker has a luxury unavailable to most athletes: a thriving second career awaiting her. She first signed on with Turner Sports to analyze men’s college basketball games in 2018: her strong showing earned her a contract that added NBA responsibilities too, making her the first woman featured on TNT’s NBA studio programming. “The biggest thing for me when I came in is that I said that I’m not trying to be one of the guys,” says Parker. “I’m trying to be one of the players. That line is what I established. I’m Candace. I’m not going to change who I am.”

Her exchanges with Shaquille O’Neal have stood out. In March of 2021, for example, Parker patiently explained to Shaq that since, in the modern NBA, very often all five NBA players on the court can shoot three-point shots, defensive players must switch assignments when they are screened. If you’re not always near someone, an open shooter will do damage. When O’Neal argued that he and Dwyane Wade, who was also in the studio, won a title using different defensive tactics, Parker looked around quizzically, as if to say dude, it’s not 2006 anymore. “It’s a confidence that she walks with,” says Wade. “She knows she’s an expert. So it’s so dope to sit next to her and hear her perspective on the game, because it always gives me a different way to think of it.”

Parker’s success is also helping attract a new audience to the WNBA. “It’s not only important and inspiring for young girls and women to see that, but I think it also makes men look at women’s sports and female athletes a little differently,” says basketball Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, who analyzes WNBA games for ESPN. “Like, ‘oh man, you know, Candace Parker would be fun to have a beer with to break down the NBA.’ You wonder, do people tune in and be like, ‘oh man, Candace Parker makes me laugh on TNT. Let me check out her game.’”

“Those of us who cover the W, and have for like a long time, have been talking about how, in the last couple of years, it feels like the WNBA is becoming more mainstream,” says Lobo. “It feels like it’s at that tipping point. It feels like it’s going to break through culturally. And I think, you know, the coolness factor of Candace on Turner, that can only help.”

From Russia with love

In Russia, Parker played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the top women’s team in the country, from 2010 through 2015. Brittney Griner was playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg at the time of her arrest in February. On Aug. 4, a Russian judge sentenced Griner, whom the U.S. government has designated “wrongfully detained,” to nine years in prison for carrying cannabis oil in her luggage.

“Everybody is just ready for this unjust detainment and now sentence to be over and for her to be back,” says Parker. “You talk about something that’s valuable, which is your freedom. And you talk about what’s valuable, is your time. We can help fight for her freedom, but she won’t get the time back. Let’s not have her lose any more of either.”

Russia is where Parker first met Petrakova, about a dozen years ago. Petrakova joined UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2012, which was when her friendship with Parker blossomed. Parker and Petrakova would stay up late and talk. “There were some drunken nights,” Petrakova says, laughing. “And it would just go further than we would think.” During one of these evenings, they kissed for the first time. “We’re scared, and we’re like, ‘what the hell was that?’” Petrakova says. “You are kind of scared to look each other in the eye and then you’re like, ‘OK, well, what are we? We’re lying to ourselves here.’”

Neither Parker nor Petrakova had ever imagined themselves married to a woman. “We literally denied it to ourselves for three years I think,” says Petrakova. “Then we just finally accepted it. That was a long, hard process.”

In 2019, Petrakova planned a birthday trip for Parker in Mexico. On a boat, surrounded by about 15 friends and family, Lailaa held a cake. Parker got on one knee and told Petrakova to look at the cake. “It literally took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on,” says Petrakova. Written in icing was a question. “Will you marry us?”

“She knows that Lailaa is the center of my entire universe,” says Parker. “So we come in a package deal. It was important for the dynamic duo to be upgraded to the Big Three.”

The crew is now a quartet, with the arrival of Airr Larry Petrakov Parker in February. His first name is pronounced “Air,” as in Air Jordan: given the name, Parker knows her son has no choice but to take up basketball. “So here’s the thing,” says Parker. “With my daughter, I’ve taken the sort of backseat approach. If you want to play basketball, if it’s your passion, I want you to find your passion. With my son, we’re just out of the gates, your name is Airr. There’s going to be pressure with that. If you shoot an Air Ball, it’s going to be a problem.” While Parker did her son no favors by giving him an ideal name for basketball heckling, Airr’s genes could more than make up for it. “A drop step dunk is definitely in his future,” says Parker. “His hands are huge.”

Parker and Petrakova had long feared that the social media blowback to their relationship would be hurtful to them and most importantly, to Lailaa. But they’ve both been pleasantly surprised. Aside from an occasional ignorant comment, they received mostly positive feedback. “I was always against ‘coming out’ because I felt like in this society, in this day and age, you shouldn’t have to do that,” says Parker. “Society had a way of putting this pressure on people to come out. And I don’t think it should be that way. I think there were a number of media members who knew about my family. And they supported it. They didn’t out me. Or they didn’t put pressure on me to expose my living situation. We live in an oversharing world. You should be able to choose the parts of your life that you share and the parts you keep private. And I hope I was able to open up the door of conversations. And open up the door of how valuable it is to have support.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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