Column: After an emotional playoff loss, the Chicago Sky’s future is uncertain — but hopeful

After the Chicago Sky were eliminated from the WNBA playoffs Thursday night, coach and general manager James Wade held himself accountable and expressed disappointment in the outcome.

His sadness was evident. His eyes were a little puffy, as if he had shed a few tears in the moments he had in the locker room with his team after Game 5 at Wintrust Arena.

“This is tough,” he said. “It’s probably one of the biggest disappointments that I’ve had professionally.

“The players gave everything this year and they did everything. I thought they deserved a little bit more. I’m really disappointed for them, so it’s hard to put into words right now. I just wish we could have continued, but I thought they did as much as they could.”

For just the second time all season, the Sky suffered back-to-back losses. Only this time there was no time to regroup. The clock had run out. Though they continuously had the Connecticut Sun’s number in the past, it was the Sun who moved on to the Finals to face the Las Vegas Aces.

Prior to Game 5, when asked about playing the final game of the series at home, Wade said, “Chicago can’t save us.” But perhaps it wasn’t the city who was to save the team, but the other way around.

Chicago has a way of getting into your system. It has a way of taking hold of the deepest parts of you. And the Sky, through their highs and lows, have represented everything good about this city.

After years of not quite getting there, they broke through last season and won the team’s first WNBA title. They gave Chicago its first championship since the 2016 Cubs. They gave fans of the little team on Cermak Road something to believe in and let us all come along for the ride.

No one saw the Sky coming in 2021. They signed two-time WNBA MVP and hometown kid Candace Parker, but never quite looked like a winner. They started the season with two wins but followed with a seven-game losing streak. After a seven-game win streak that included back-to-back wins over the Sun, the Sky finished an inconsistent regular season with a 16-16 record.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Entering the playoffs as a No. 6 seed, they beat the Dallas Wings in the first round, the Minnesota Lynx in the second and the Sun in the semifinals. The Sky defeated the Phoenix Mercury in four games to win their first championship. They entered the Finals a .500 team, but emerged victorious.

The defending champs played this season with a chip on their shoulders. They added and subtracted players during the offseason, with Wade making moves to put them in position to run it back. The Sky desperately wanted to prove the previous season wasn’t a fluke. A 26-10 regular season and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs more than proved their legitimacy. They wanted to win again. But it ended with a 18-0 run by the Sun in the fourth quarter of an elimination game.

After the Sky lost 72-63 Thursday, 8,014 fans at Wintrust Arena stood and cheered as Parker, Allie Quigley, Courtney Vandersloot, Kahleah Copper, Azurá Stevens and Dana Evans — the remaining players from that title season — walk off the court for what could be the last time together.

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The futures of Parker, Quigley, and Vandersloot are uncertain. Parker may retire, but she won’t say yet. She wants to let her body dictate the decision.

“I’m going to go back and reevaluate whether I’m able to continue to play at the level that I hold myself to,” Parker said. “I don’t ever want to cheat the game. I won’t cheat the game.”

Quigley and Vandersloot — or the Vanderquigs as they’re affectionately known — found each other and fell in love while playing for the Sky. It’s rumored Quigley will retire and “Sloot” will return home to Seattle to sign with the Storm to end her career playing in front of her family, the way Quigley did for 10 years with the Sky.

“I just never imagined that ending up like this or having the career I had, and especially being able to do it in Chicago with my family, met my wife,” Quigley said. “It was unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was just sort of a dream come true.

Before Game 5, Wade said, “These aren’t the games that you win with your IQ, these are games you win with your heart.”

Ultimately games are won by dropping leather through nylon, and in the fourth quarter all the Sky could find was iron.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. It’s also one to take without shame, especially when you take a step back and look at all they accomplished.

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After a season of mediocrity and a dazzling playoff run, the team’s name bore their ambitions. It sets expectations. It creates culture — but that culture will be tested if Parker and Vanderquigs leave. Losing that many important players can — and will — invite questions.

There’s no questioning what the Sky have built in Chicago, going from visible empty seats to packed houses with raucous, invested crowds. The crowd on hand Thursday night walked out disappointed, just like the players. But sunny days are ahead.

The Sky reminded Chicago what success looks like. They showed us what it’s like to have real expectations of the teams we root for, and how pride in falling short can happen when you actually aim high.

Like the Vanderquigs, the team and the city found each other. We couldn’t ask for anything better.

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