No Candace Parker — yet — but Chicago Sky fans are excited to return to Wintrust Arena: ‘It’s a different energy in the building’

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Shortly after news broke that Candace Parker would sign as a free agent with the Chicago Sky, Jaron Smith called his mother.

They had been season ticket holders — but not since the days of Elena Delle Donne when the team played in Rosemont — and Jaron was calling to tell his mother, Joann, it was time to renew.

“I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Candace Parker is coming.’ I said, ‘Oh, hell, yeah,’ ” Joann recalled Sunday from her seat at Wintrust Arena. “So I went right online and bought them. Then I called the (ticket) sales rep and quickly made ourselves acquainted.”

The Sky’s home opener ended up being a letdown for the returning crowd, a sellout of the 1,257 fans allowed inside Wintrust Arena in keeping with the city’s and WNBA’s social distancing guidelines. Not only were the Sky handed their first loss of the season, falling 93-85 to the New York Liberty, but Parker was ruled out shortly before tipoff, missing her second straight game with a left ankle sprain.

The Sky play their next four games at home, so maybe the fans won’t have to wait long to see the team’s newest star in action.

Even with Parker sidelined, there was a palpable excitement about the team inside the arena Sunday, the first time the Sky hosted fans since the first round of the 2019 playoffs.

Joann and Jaron Smith brought their friend Linda Poole to her first Sky game in one of their first major outings since getting vaccinated.

“It’s pretty cool,” Jaron said with a pause. “It’s pretty cool.”

Joann added: “But pretty weird.”

“I’m enjoying myself so far,” Jaron said.

“Oh, it feels good to get out,” Joann said.

“It feels great to watch some basketball,” Poole said as she yelled and cheered a made basket.

Chicago Bulls rookie Patrick Williams, who has been a vocal supporter of the WNBA, was in attendance. He has been sticking around the city for a few days before his offseason officially begins, and he made sure to catch a game to support his friends on the Sky and Liberty.

Alaric Greenlee and his son, Quentin, also bought season tickets after Parker signed. They traveled from Milwaukee for the game.

Natalie Hudson and Mackenzie Lathrop, teammates on an eighth-grade girls travel basketball team for All In Athletics in Deerfield, wore custom Sky jerseys. They had been coming to watch Parker for years when the Los Angeles Sparks came to town.

“It’s really special,” Lathrop said about being back in the arena. “It’s been a tough year for a lot of people. It’s a sense of community being around people who have the same interest as you.”

Priscilla Irizarry sat with her daughter, Zaniyah, for her first live sporting event since the DePaul women’s basketball team won the Big East Tournament in 2019. Irizarry said she has been following Parker’s career since she played at Naperville Central and thought her addition to the Sky was a perfect fit.

“She’s home,” Irizarry said. “I know she’s going to bring the same thing she brought to the Sparks to the home team. ... We really needed a big here. I thought she was going to end her career with the Sparks. I really didn’t think there was ever going to be a chance that she would come here. For her to be like, yeah, I’m ready to go home, it’s a different energy in the building really.”

Jeanna Montgomery got caught up in that energy as well. She has followed Parker’s career since she won the dunk contest at the 2004 McDonald’s High School All-American Games. When Montgomery secured a ticket for Sunday’s game, she made a large sign that read, “Welcome Home Parker.”

Security wouldn’t let her take it in, however, because it would have blocked people’s view around her.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that part,” she said with a laugh.

“I was so excited. It was like a fan’s dream come true. To see (Parker) follow her career from the days of Naperville to Tennessee, LA and back home — it’s really amazing.”