Celebrating Sheryl Swoopes, a pioneer in every sense
Yahoo Sports is digging into the archives, taking a look back at the athletes and moments that shaped sports.
It took some years before the lasting mark on history was made, but March 25, 1971 changed the trajectory of women’s basketball forever.
It was on this day 49 years ago that Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Sheryl Swoopes was born in Brownfield, Texas. Occasionally called the female Michael Jordan, she has a lifetime of firsts to her name, along with being a national champion, four-time WNBA champion and three-time Olympic gold medalist, making her one of 10 players to win at least one of all three.
Swoopes, inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, soared (in “SS” soled shoes) as the league’s first signee and helped launched a solid foundation for the WNBA to build upon, even if it unfortunately no longer includes her Comets franchise. Her lists of firsts are celebrated as moments that broke the glass ceiling for women’s basketball players. Sneaker heads were able to don her shoe and she set a pathway for players in the LGBTQ community in the early 2000s.
Swoopes dominated NCAA hoops
Initially, the recruit went to the University of Texas but didn’t like how far it was from home. She then enrolled at South Plains Junior College, where she was named the National Junior College Player of the Year her sophomore campaign.
The 6-foot forward was a two-time All-American at Texas Tech, where she led the Raiders to the 1993 national championship, scoring a record 47 points in the title game, while earning Naismith Player of the Year and the finals MVP. It was that year she set the school’s single-season points record with 955.
After she finished her eligibility in 1993, there was no where for to play professionally at home. She chose to play in Italy before returning home and finishing her degree in 1994.
"People say, if you were a male, you would have gone in the [NBA draft] lottery," Swoopes said then, via the Washington Post. "It's really frustrating to think about it. ... 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."
Olympics spur Swoopes’ career
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were a huge push for women’s basketball. The team was on a gold medal drought and knew success was the key way to launch their professional careers in basketball with the WNBA and American Basketball League (ABL) on the horizon.
Swoopes was a key member of that gold medal winning team, which trained together for 18 months in the lead-up. It created chemistry over 52 games, all victories, and is the foundation current superstars Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi used this past year in forming the college barnstorming tour for Team USA.
She and team USA added more gold in 2000 and 2004.
OG of women’s signature basketball shoes
Swoopes was the first woman to have a signature shoe, and she is one of the few over the years to have one despite a deep sneaker culture in the game.
In the lead-up to the 1996 Olympics, Marni Gerber, a senior design director at Nike, partnered with the star to release the “Air Swoopes” in 1995. There was an “S” on the bottom of each sole so when she is in the air, it reads “SS.”
Nike released a second version prior to the Olympics and a Swoopes Zoom in 1997. Shoes for Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley followed but in the decades since, there haven’t been any more.
Nike released the “Air Swoopes II” in August 2018 to celebrate the era of basketball culture.
First player signed to WNBA contract
Swoopes became the first player signed to play in the WNBA on Oct. 23, 1996, and it arguably changed the trajectory of the league as well as professional women’s basketball.
Heading into the WNBA’s inaugural season in 1997, the group of 16 Olympic and collegiate stars who signed on to play were assigned to eight teams. The Texas native went to the Houston Comets, who added to their roster by selecting Tina Thompson with the No. 1 pick in the draft.
Cynthia Cooper of the University of Southern California was also allocated to Houston and it resulted in the first big three dynasty of the league. But first, Swoopes began her family, an early indication the league would need to adapt to its players and not follow blindly in the path of men’s leagues.
Pregnancy, motherhood set early precedent for players
The WNBA set out to market the league with the trio of Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo. Shortly into the 1997 calendar year, Val Ackerman, the league’s first president, received a call that Swoopes, then 25, was pregnant and would miss much, if not all, of the 10-week season.
She was still a part of the promotional campaign with “her pregnancy camouflaged,” per the New York Times, and returned six weeks after giving birth. In nine games she averaged 7.1 points in 14.3 minutes per game that campaign, but went on to average 18.2 points per game over the next three title seasons. In 1999, she led the league in points (585) and steals (76).
In an article announcing Swoopes’ WNBA absence, the AP wrote she would “miss most of its inaugural season for a reason that never plagued the men’s league: She is pregnant.” The conversation around pregnancy in sports — such as the WNBA listing pregnant players as “suspended without pay” — is still ongoing, though players have had an early example to look to in Swoopes.
"This is an issue that I've been very sensitive about. It's not something that men have to worry about,” Swoopes said in a WNBA feature on motherhood. “And I'm not sure it's fair to a woman that she has to have to face the pressure of interrupting a career in order to start a family. I'm a woman. Parenthood is part of being a woman."
Her son, Jordan, went on to play for Texas Tech and Swoopes referenced the support she received form the league during motherhood in her Hall of Fame Induction speech. Pregnancy protection has improved with each collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and WNBPA. The one passed this year guarantees, among other parenthood benefits, paid maternity leave for the first time.
Swoopes-led Comets: the first dynasty
The Houston Comets became the first WNBA dynasty right out of the gate. They won the first four championships from 1997 to 2000, accruing a 98-24 (.803) regular season record and a 16-2 (.889) record in the postseason. It came as the WNBA expanded from eight to 12 and then to 16.
In 2000, the Comets began the first WNBA team to visit the White House on an invite from former President Bill Clinton. In December 2008, the team folded and because of that, Swoopes’ legacy isn’t celebrated as others are with a retired jersey in the rafters as the franchise continues its story beneath.
Most high-profile player to come out
In 2005, Swoopes became the first high-profile athlete to publicly say she was gay.
"I feel like I've been living a lie," the 34-year-old said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm at a place in my life right now where I'm very happy, very content. I'm finally OK with the idea of who I love, who I want to be with."
She and her husband divorced in 1999. Swoopes told reporters she started dating Comets coach Alisa Scott and they been together for seven years. The star said if she could help children by coming out, it was all worth it. Two WNBA players had already publicly said they were gay before Swoopes, who later married Chris Unclesho in 2017 after a long engagement.
A career full of ‘firsts’
When Swoopes was announced as the league’s Most Valuable Player in September 2005, she became the first player with to win it three times (2000, ’02).
In 2006, she was named to the WNBA’s All-Decade team, a group of 10 players that included her former big three teammates. And the next year, she was one of only six WNBA players to be featured in the NBA STREET Homecourt video game by EA. Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi joined her as the first female basketball players to go head-to-head with male players in a game.
And in 2011, she was named of the league’s 15 best players of all time.
Swoopes joined the Seattle Storm in 2008, then stepped away for two seasons before one last go-around with the Tulsa Shock in 2011 at the age of 40. She officially retired with 4,875 points, currently 23rd all-time, 1,595 rebounds and 1,037 assists (29th). Her 657 steals still rank fourth.
Those who have come after her note they looked up to the star when they were young girls finally able to watch professional women’s hoops on TV. You can’t be what you can’t see, but Swoopes changed that for so many generations.