When the WNBA played its inaugural game at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on June 21, 1997, excitement was high and people around the league were anxious.
“I remember I threw up the first ball. It was the first game, so everyone was very nervous,” said Val Ackerman, the WNBA’s founding president and now commissioner of the Big East Conference. “It wasn’t a particularly well-played game. It was low-scoring. The players were jittery. The teams were playing together for the first time, so there was no real chemistry in any one team because they were all newly united as teammates.
“It was a crowning moment for the league because we got it done. We had this year of preparation. It was kind of exhausting getting to that point.”
The Liberty won that game 67-57. The WNBA had arrived. And with it, the league introduced Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Teresa Weatherspoon.
Twenty-six years after stepping on the court in LA for the Liberty, Weatherspoon found herself experiencing another first day. She had just been officially introduced as the seventh head coach of the Chicago Sky, and we were sitting in the Champions Lounge at Wintrust Arena.
Despite a busy morning, she radiated an energy that can command any room. Even when quiet, she exhibited the confidence and passion that were attached to her playing career.
Weatherspoon’s journey to Chicago was a long one, but she feels it made her who she is today. From humble beginnings in Pineland, Texas, to sitting across from me on a warm, sunny October day.
“And I want everybody to know (that) in that journey, there were life lessons,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. I found a way and then I found myself. Self-discovery.”
Her tone was soft but serious, as if it held the weight of the moment. Becoming a head coach in the league in which she was a pioneer was a weight in itself. There’s a responsibility to it, to take those things she found — her way, herself — and pass them down to others.
‘She was up for any challenge’
A star player at Louisiana Tech and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Weatherspoon, along with Lobo, was selected to join the Liberty through the WNBA’s initial player allocation on Jan. 22, 1997. Cooper and Swoopes were assigned to the Houston Comets, with Thompson joining them through the draft that April.
“The teams at that point didn’t have a lot of expertise around women’s basketball or the players,” Ackerman explained. “So to get everybody going, the league office was very deeply involved in roster development in the first year.”
The league initially consisted of eight teams, each associated with the NBA team in that city: the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs and Utah Starzz.
The initial assignment was two players per team in no particular order. Renee Brown, a member of Ackerman’s staff who had been an assistant coach on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, was very familiar with the national team players as well as the top players overseas.
It was Brown’s job, according to Ackerman, to recruit and sign players in the early years. Ackerman had other advisers and consultants to assist with the task, as overseas players often became “invisible” at that time due to the lack of coverage once they left the U.S.
“We didn’t realize how good Coop was,” Ackerman recalled. “She was playing in Italy and kind of had fallen off the radar screen. So we assigned Sheryl and Cynthia to Houston and then they wound up with the first pick of the draft.
“It was just a random draw and they picked Tina Thompson. She was one of the top players coming out of college, so that’s how they ended up with the ‘Big Three.’ We didn’t want one team to stockpile all the good players, (but) we kind of unwittingly did that with Houston because we didn’t realize how good Cynthia Cooper was going to be.”
The three would become the core of a league dynasty — winning the first four championships — and Weatherspoon became their nemesis on the court and close friend off it. Their basketball journeys merged in the WNBA. As pioneers, few people can share their experience.
“Spoon and I go back to the World Championship days in ‘86,” Cooper said. “She’s always been a fierce competitor and she’s always been able to separate the level of intensity she has as a player on the floor from her life off the court and how personable she is.”
Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson would face off against Weatherspoon and the Liberty in three of those first four WNBA Finals.
“I loved playing against Spoon and I hated playing against Spoon,” Swoopes said with a laugh. “I loved playing against her because I knew she was going to bring out the best in me. Spoon and I played different positions, but she guarded me a lot because of the tenacity she played with. It didn’t matter if I was taller, quicker or whatever. She was up for any challenge.
“I hated playing against her because I knew the type of competitor she was and what she was going to bring defensively. I knew that I had to be prepared because she was going to talk s--- .”
In Game 2 of the 1999 WNBA Finals, the Comets were set to win their third straight title. Ackerman and members of her staff were standing at the baseline, ready to present the Comets with the trophy.
“It was insane,” Ackerman said. “The Liberty had the ball out of bounds. Tina Thompson made a shot to put Houston ahead by two. I was standing behind the basket (the Comets) just scored at with a few women on my staff. We were getting ready to hustle out onto the court after the game.
“There were only a couple of seconds left in the game. (Kym Hampton) took the ball out of bounds. She throws it to Spoon. Spoon takes a few dribbles and then she heaves this shot from beyond half court.”
“The Shot” would become one of the most memorable of her career. Weatherspoon stunned the crowd of 16,285 at Houston’s Compaq Center when the ball banked in.
“The building was just shocked,” Ackerman said. “I’ve watched that over and over again on television because it’s one of the most iconic moments in WNBA history. When you talk about Teresa Weatherspoon, you think about The Shot.”
The Comets went on to win the decisive Game 3, but Cooper remembers the shot a little differently.
“I’m still kind of mad at her for hitting that last-second shot,” she said. “It was unnecessary. I like to say unnecessary roughness. That’s 15 yards, automatic first down. I was devastated.
“But that just shows her never-give-up attitude. There’s just a few seconds on the clock. You have to go full-court distance to possibly get a chance at a good look and she shoots it from half court and brings it in. This is who she is as a player. It ain’t over until it’s over. I know she’ll bring that same mentality and work ethic to the Chicago Sky.”
‘Fire becomes contagious’
The women have remained close through the ups and downs and ins and outs of their basketball careers. Wherever the sport has carried one, it has carried them all. They’ve transitioned from players to coaches to icons of the game.
When Weatherspoon’s tenure as an assistant coach with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans ended, Swoopes called to let her know she was there for whatever she needed.
“She’s been through a lot, good and bad,” Swoopes said. “I feel like that’s where the disconnect is with coaches and players in our league — someone who’s been through the fire. (Someone) players can really relate to. We need that.
“I don’t think her impact is going to only be on the court in making these women better basketball players because she absolutely will do that. I think it’s going to be a bigger impact in preparing them for life after the WNBA, life after they retire and just teaching them how to be great, amazing, beautiful, incredible women. That’s the part that excites me.”
As I shared with her the comments from Cooper and Swoopes, Weatherspoon’s eyes sparkled as she smiled and she seemed to sit straighter in her seat. She told me stories of how they helped make her the player she was, and I asked what impact their relationship would have on her as a coach.
Weatherspoon went back to her Naismith Hall of Fame induction in 2019. The “Big Three” were her presenters. When Weatherspoon’s name was called, they all stood and embraced before walking to the stage together.
Weatherspoon chose them, she said, because they had “gone through battles” and she wanted people to see their connection — that their sisterhood is “very, very hard to explain.” Their shared goal is to remain connected to young women growing in the game. As cornerstones of the league, that’s the impact the “Big Three” had on Weatherspoon’s choice to return to the WNBA.
During the 2023 WNBA Finals, Weatherspoon was seen supporting her former team, the Liberty, as it took on the Las Vegas Aces. Though it had been only a few months since her departure from the Pelicans, ESPN basketball analyst Monica McNutt, like others around the sport, wanted to know what Weatherspoon’s next opportunity would be.
“She said wanted to make sure her next move was her best move,” McNutt said.
According to Weatherspoon, coming to Chicago was her best move. Coaching the Sky gives her an opportunity to provide the best resources and implement things for her players to flourish. She plans to share her strong defensive background and her intensity.
“Fire becomes contagious,” Weatherspoon said. “Just being energetic becomes truly contagious, and it’ll jump from one person to the next. I promise you if you stay close, it’s going to jump in you.”
Another important intangible Weatherspoon wants to share is the ability to get through and bounce back from disappointment. She plans to show the Sky players that “sometimes we find failure in the familiar.”
As Weatherspoon builds her coaching staff, she said she has some people in mind but wasn’t ready to share who they are. She is taking her time to choose assistants who will be assets to her players, prioritizing team culture as a way to execute the X’s and O’s properly.
“The most important thing is to have a relationship,” she said. “Find out what makes them go … what they do as humans. When you gain that relationship with them, your deepest, hardest conversations are easy because they’re going to know that you are for them in the right way.
“I’ve learned that along the way, whether it was playing, whether it was at my collegiate coaching at Louisiana Tech and coaching in the NBA and now back in the ‘W’ where I belong. It’s only the relationships that truly matter to get to the X’s and O’s.”
“The connection is sincere and basketball just happens to be the vehicle,” she said. “Basketball happens to be a Ferrari in her case. The X’s and O’s are there. The growth is going to show in the win column.
“I think about someone like (Sky guards) Courtney Williams and Kahleah Copper, who in many ways, whether they would say it or not, probably don’t play with the swag with which they play if not for T-Spoon beginning to normalize that for women in the way that we compete. Spoon is a leader with the heart in mind. She’s someone you want to play for.”
‘We were all together’
As Weatherspoon joins the ranks of former WNBA players to become head coaches, McNutt believes that group is important to the future growth of the league. But she also believes Weatherspoon comes from an era of great significance.
“When I think of Black women that were the faces of the WNBA as it was beginning, you have to throw Spoon into that category,” she said. “In terms of women you saw that you remembered, she’s definitely in that category.”
Cooper and Swoopes also emphasized the significance of Weatherspoon’s history with the WNBA. The bond these women shared runs deep. Laying the foundation for the league is their crowning achievement.
“It’s important to know we were all together at the beginning of the WNBA,” Cooper said. “The number one goal was to make sure that we solidify the WNBA in America for the future generation. I think we were able to do that. And that’s why you see the ‘W’ where it is today.”
Weatherspoon assumes leadership of the Sky at a critical time for the franchise. Though not the first former player to do it, she is the first in a way that is unique to her. When she stands along the sideline for her first WNBA game as a head coach, she not only will represent the future but also will be a tangible marker of the passion and panache shared by the league’s foundational players.
“I’m in it to win it,” she said confidently. “For not only me, not only this organization, but for players like them.”