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An Unlikely WNBA Champ

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Basically no one picked the Chicago Sky to win the WNBA title when the playoffs started last month. The Sky barely broke even in the regular season, so they were a long shot, to say the least. But last night on ESPN, the Chicago Sky wrapped up a month of proving just about everyone wrong.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: That's it. For the first time in franchise history, the Chicago Sky are WNBA champions.

MCCAMMON: The Sky's 80-74 win over the Phoenix Mercury last night earned the team its first title. And in its 25th season, the WNBA crowned one of its most unlikely champions. Here to talk about it is Chantel Jennings, senior writer at The Athletic.

Welcome.

CHANTEL JENNINGS: Thanks for having me, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Did the Chicago Sky show any signs that they could be this good during the regular season?

JENNINGS: Well, it's funny because I actually picked the Sky as my preseason champion pick. And then basically, through the whole season, they made me look very, very silly because they seesawed between looking excellent and incompetent at times. And they had a seven-game winning streak. They had a seven-game losing streak. And so they just went through this season that ultimately ended up in them being .500 and sort of sneaking into the playoffs with the sixth seed.

MCCAMMON: So you were vindicated.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: How'd they pull this off? What happened here?

JENNINGS: Well, so I think one of the things people need to know about the WNBA season is it's not very long. It's only 32 games. So when we say .500, that means 16-16. We're not talking about a Major League Baseball team that plays 162 regular season games or even an NBA team that might play 82. It was only 16 losses, and seven of those actually came when Candace Parker, the star who returned home for this team during free agency last year, was out with an ankle sprain. So the Sky weren't too far from being 20-12. But ultimately, I think it's a story of a team that found chemistry and momentum at the right time. And they actually credited some of those early season struggles to why they were able to weather storms in the postseason this year.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned Candace Parker. She grabbed the final rebound of the game as time ran out. She's been one of the league's brightest stars since she joined in 2008, really a star since she was in high school. Now she's a seasoned veteran for her hometown team. With all of that success, does it kind of feel like today is Candace Parker appreciation day?

JENNINGS: Well, there's already an official Candace Parker Day in Chicago, but I feel like probably there's a lot of people in Chicago right now - Chicago loves a winner. They haven't had a basketball championship since the late '90s. I'm sure there's a lot of people in Chicagoland that are checking out Portillo's because it's her favorite restaurant today in her honor.

MCCAMMON: And like we said at the top, this was the 25th WNBA season. Regular season ratings were up almost 50% over last year. Game two of the finals drew the largest TV audience for a WNBA game in four years. How is the WNBA surging like this when so many other sports have struggled to keep their audiences?

JENNINGS: Well, I think women's sports in general are sort of proving this season the old mantra - if you air it, people will watch. And that's especially true with women's sports. Like you said, viewership was up 50%. The finals games were sold out - almost 11,000 people in the stands, with celebrities on the sideline. Chance the Rapper, who's a Grammy winner, announced that if the Sky won the Championship, he would get a tattoo of the team's choosing. And so he said he's going to make good on that promise. And so this is a league that's really at an important point in its history. I think we're going to continue to see it grow. I think we're going to see expansion in the coming years.

MCCAMMON: OK.

JENNINGS: And it's really built.

MCCAMMON: All right. That's Chantel Jennings, senior writer at The Athletic.

Thank you so much.

JENNINGS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOTH BABE SONG, "SUNNNN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.