Sheryl Swoopes Biography
Hailed from Small Town America, Took Texas Tech to the Top
Her name rhymes with "hoops." Her talent has been compared with that of Michael Jordan. Even more importantly, she has earned the ultimate endorsement contract most athletes only dream about—a line of footwear named in her honor. Sheryl Swoopes has reached the pinnacle of women's professional basketball in the United States. She built her career on record-making play. Swoopes is the only player—male or female—ever to score 47 points in a collegiate national championship game, which she did while leading Texas Tech University to its first national basketball championship in 1993. As a professional player, Swoopes continued her exceptional play, helping to popularize the WNBA. She led the Comets to four consecutive WNBA championships, won three Olympic gold medals, and earned the league's most valuable player award a record three times. Former basketball phenomenon Nancy Lieberman-Cline told the Washington Post of Swoopes: "We're breaking new ground with Sheryl. Women's sports hasn't had a team sport athlete with the star-appeal that Sheryl has. She's young and pretty and articulate … She's the female Jordan."
Being a "female Jordan" is nice, but the title does not bring with it the kind of salary and opportunities Michael Jordan enjoyed as a professional basketball player. Indeed, Swoopes was first described as a "Legend without a League" because at the beginning of her career women's professional basketball had a tentative foothold in the American market. In 1993 the engaging Swoopes completely dominated the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships. Had she been a man, she would have cruised into the National Basketball Association draft and landed on a team with a million-dollar salary. Instead she had to embark for Italy, where she faced homesickness, language barriers, and a meager salary by sports industry standards, just to be able to keep playing.
But by the mid-1990s things began to improve for the emerging star. She became an anchor of the women's national basketball team in 1996 and the first sportswoman ever to get her own signature line of athletic footwear: the Nike "Air Swoopes" basketball shoes. Although her compensation still paled in comparison to Jordan's, she still became a wealthy woman with a bright future and a role model for others to follow.
Hailed from Small Town America
Swoopes was born in 1971 in Brownfield, Texas, a small city in the western region of the state. Her parents were divorced before her first birthday, and she grew up with her mother, Louise, and three brothers. Swoopes credits her siblings with helping to hone her game. "At first, they didn't like playing with me," she admitted in the Los Angeles Times. "Then when they did, they wouldn't play hard. But eventually one brother, James, played ball at Murray State. He's 6-4. He wouldn't play hard until he saw how good I was getting, when I beat him a couple of times." With the help of her two older brothers, Swoopes developed into an All-State and All-American high school player—one who was eager to test her skills against any opponent. "It helps to play with the guys," she explained in the Washington Post. "They're so much more physical than girls are. Once you go out and you play with guys, and you get in a situation with girls, you think, 'Well, if I scored on that guy, I know I can score on her.'"
The six-foot Swoopes was widely recruited by colleges, including the high-profile University of Texas at Austin. "Texas was the only school I really considered out of high school," Swoopes told the Los Angeles Times. "It was a big national basketball power, and I thought they could take my game to another level. But once I got there … well, I just didn't realize how far it was from home." Austin is 400 miles from Brownfield, and the moment Swoopes arrived on her new campus she began to feel the distance acutely. After four days she relinquished her full scholarship and returned to her mother. Ignoring the suggestions that she had ruined her career, she enrolled in South Plains Junior College in Levelland, a school within easy driving distance of Brownfield. That institution was glad to have her, especially when she was named National Junior College Player of the Year after her second season.
In 1991 Swoopes enrolled at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Still close to home, she nevertheless found a coach and a program that could put her amazing skills to use. With Swoopes's help, the Lady Raiders finally moved out of the shadow of the University of Texas Lady Longhorns, winning back-to-back Southwest Conference titles. Swoopes's coach at Texas Tech, Marsha Sharp, told Sports Illustrated: "I can't tell you what Sheryl has meant to this program. She'll be a legend in women's basketball, but not just because of her play. She has a charisma that the crowd loves. You never doubt that she is a team player."
Took Texas Tech to the Top
Swoopes's teammates and coach might have considered her a "team player," but their opponents usually came off the court viewing the Brownfield native as a one-woman wrecking crew. Fourteen times over two seasons at Texas Tech she scored 30 or more points in a game. In her senior season she averaged 27.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game as the Lady Raiders compiled a 31-3 record, including a national championship. Facing the University of Texas at Austin in the Southwest Conference final, she put a phenomenal 53 points on the board. As Swoopes herself observed to the Washington Post during those days, "At times, I get it in my mind that there is no way I can miss."
That feeling of invincibility followed Swoopes to the NCAA tournament in 1993. There, in the semifinal match between Texas Tech and Vanderbilt University, she earned 31 points, 11 rebounds, and three steals as the Lady Raiders cruised to a 60-46 victory. Swarmed by reporters after the game, Swoopes predicted that she would play even better in the final, when Texas Tech would meet Ohio State University.
Her predictions proved true in dramatic fashion. As a nation watched, Swoopes and the Lady Raiders beat favored Ohio State in a close game, 84-82, before a sellout crowd at Atlanta's Omni Arena. People had little to say about the final score, however. All anyone talked about was Swoopes's personal performance—47 points, including 16 of 24 field goals, four three-point shots, and a perfect 11-for-11 from the free throw line. "I thought I should personally take control of the game," she explained in the Washington Post. "I felt like I needed to score whenever I got [the ball]."
What Swoopes did in her evening at the Omni was break the old record for most points scored in an NCAA final game. The former record of 44 points had belonged for 20 years to Bill Walton, who had gone on from college to become a top-ranked NBA player. "I've been watching a lot of basketball over a lot of years, men and women, professional and amateur," wrote Atlanta Journal and Constitution columnist Furman Bisher. "… I've never seen a player take over a game and keep it won for her team like Sheryl Swoopes took over for Texas Tech." Coach Sharp was even more glowing in her appraisal of her star's performance. "There are no words to explain what a great player Sheryl Swoopes is," Sharp exclaimed in the Washington Post. "We are just pleased that she got to show the whole nation." Even the Ohio State coach graciously conceded that Swoopes could not be beaten. "You don't really appreciate Sheryl Swoopes until you try and stop her," Nancy Darsch commented in the Washington Post. "She's an absolutely tremendous player. She showed why she's national player of the year."
Raised Profile of Women's Basketball
In the wake of the NCAA championship, Swoopes was endowed with almost every prestigious collegiate and amateur honor imaginable. She won both the Naismith and the Sullivan Awards, and she was named Sports-woman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation. Sports apparel companies—most especially Nike—called about endorsement contracts. What Swoopes wanted to do most was play more basketball. She faced the grim reality that all American women basketball players must face: she would have to go abroad in order to turn pro. Her salary would probably be about a tenth of what her rookie male counterparts could draw from the NBA—and she would have to acclimate to a new culture, a new language, and a new home in another part of the world.
"People say, if you were a male, you would have gone in the [NBA draft] lottery," Swoopes said in the Washington Post. "It's really frustrating to think about it, to think that men have so many more opportunities than women. Going overseas and staying in the United States, those are just two totally different things. The NBA, you watch it on television all the time, but you don't hear anything about women playing overseas, unless you know their college coaches and ask them how so and so is doing. It's sad and frustrating."
Nevertheless, Swoopes signed a contract to play basketball with Bari of the women's Italian professional league. She appeared in only ten games before returning home to America, citing contract disputes, the language barrier, and culture shock as reasons for her quick exit. She had indeed faced the frustrations firsthand. "There I was, right after the championship game, still wanting to play," she recalled in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "I wanted to play the next day…. On a scale of one to 10, I was at a 10. Then I went overseas, and I was at a one all of a sudden. It was a big drop." She returned to Texas Tech, finished her degree requirements, played in pickup games, and did some volunteer coaching.
Raised Profile of Women's Sports in America
Aware that her skills were eroding, Swoopes was relieved when she was invited to try out for the U.S. women's national basketball team. Membership on the team—consisting of a core of America's best female players—offered Swoopes the opportunity to play highly competitive basketball and to stay in the U.S. Her goal, of course, was to represent the United States at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. "I almost go crazy thinking about going back to Atlanta for the Olympics," she said in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "I can't wait."
Joining seasoned professionals such as Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie, Swoopes embarked on a busy schedule of exhibition games and appearances at such tournaments as the world championships and the Goodwill Games. Her salary as a Team U.S.A. member—estimated at $50,000—was regally supplemented by the introduction of a Nike "Air Swoopes" basketball shoe for women. Swoopes promoted the shoe—the first ever named for a woman athlete—in a high-profile commercial directed by Spike Lee, as well as by personal appearances across the country. Swoopes saw the publicity as a perfect vehicle to broaden the fan base for women's basketball in America. "Our opportunity to change things for women's basketball is now," she claimed in the New York Times.
Swoopes was right on target, as usual. The NBA had endorsed the formation of an American women's professional league, and she was assured a starring position on one of the teams. Her radiant personality and basketball talent brought her the level of fame that attends some of the NBA's male players—if not necessarily the extravagant salary. She signed with the WNBA on January 22, 1997, and was assigned to the Houston Comets. Only the birth of her child could have kept her from appearing in the first-ever WNBA game in 1997, and that is how it happened. After rest and recuperation, Swoopes joined the Comets on the court for the first time on August 7, 1997. She played in nine regular season games during that first season and helped her team to win the first-ever WNBA championship that year. After making 82.6 percent of her regular season free throws in 1998, Swoopes led the league in average points per game and in average steals per game in 1999. In early 2000 she dropped out of the USA National Team in order to spend time with her son after divorcing her husband of four years, Eric Jackson, in 1999. That summer she joined Team USA at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where the team won a second gold medal. Later, as the 2000 WNBA season wound down Swoopes was named both defensive player of the year and most valuable player of the regular season; the Comets won a second WNBA championship. A devastating knee injury kept her on the bench during the 2001 season, and that year she collaborated with Susan Kuklin on Hoops with Swoopes, a basketball book for children. Despite her time off the court due to injury, Swoopes was named Outstanding Women's Pro Basketball Performer of the Year at the 2001 ESPY Awards.
All of the acclaim she received was a sweet surprise for her, a small-town Texas girl who grew up shooting hoops with her brothers. "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have as many opportunities as I do to go out and do something with my life and actually make money so I can help the people who helped me," she concluded in the Washington Post. "Coming from a town of 10,000, it's really unbelievable. It's like I'm in a big old dream." The attention and praise for Swoopes mounted as she returned to the game in explosive form in 2002, helping her team win a third consecutive WNBA championship. The next year Swoopes lead the Comets to a record fourth consecutive WBNA title. She also brought home a third Olympic gold medal that year, having won others in 1996 and 2000. Although in her mid-thirties, Swoopes played as if she was at the height of her career in 2005, and earned the league most valuable player award for the third time, a first for any WNBA player, despite her team not making the championship finals.
Swoopes took a bold step in 2005 when she came out as a lesbian. Unlike other players who made similar announcements after retiring, Swoopes remained a vibrant part of the Houston Comets and an ambassador for the WNBA. She was the first team-sport athlete, male or female, to come out while remaining in the limelight. Her coach, Van Chancellor, supported her and was quoted by MSNBC.com as saying: "To me, she will always be one of the greatest ambassadors for the game of women's basketball. She has long reveled in her position as a role model and hopes that parents won't discourage their children from looking up to her because she is gay. Her wish is that her coming out could help someone dealing with the same issue." Initial reaction to Swoopes' announcement remained positive as she prepared for another season with the Comets and joined the national team on a European tour in 2006.
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