“We’ve Got Next!” The Hall of Fame Career of Sheryl Swoopes

September 15, 2016|Erica Ayala Published by MyWSports

MyWSports caught up with the newly enshrined Hall of Famer during her appearances at the Haggar Enshrinement Press Conference last Thursday, and a Community Event at Commerce High School last Friday.  At Commerce High School, Sheryl shared a bit about her humble roots.  The former high school state champion went from wearing her older brother’s hand-me-down shoes, to having a Nike contract. “Never did I think I would have my own signature shoe,” said Swoopes, who became the first woman to have a signature shoe line with Nike.

Luckily, between the 1996 Summer Olympics and a new NBA project, Swoopes would have to opportunity to play professionally in Houston, Texas.  After America’s Dream Team proved that women’s basketball could draw support, Sheryl Swoopes was the first player to sign a contract for the newly formed Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).  With a slogan, “We Got Next”, the newly formed league, supported by the NBA, selected three poster players to promote the WNBA: Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks), Rebecca Lobo (New York Liberty) and Swoopes (Houston Comets).  “I remember the excitement we all had,” said Swoopes on Thursday as she reflected on the start of the WNBA, “I was the first player to start in the WNBA and now we’re celebrating twenty years when there were so many people who didn’t think we’d last five years.”

Swoopes has a special connection to the early years for multiple reasons. Not only was she the first player to sign a WNBA contract, not only is she a member of the first four WNBA Championship teams (all with Houston), but she gave birth to her son the same year the WNBA launched. “I looked at the WNBA as my baby.  I was pregnant with Jordan, the WNBA started, so, of course, I felt some kind of way about the hands you’re leaving this game in.  It feels good to know that twenty years later, I feel like the league is in a very good place.”

And 20 years later, Swoopes has been named one of the Top 20 players in the history of the league she once christened.  The list names pioneer players and current stars who represent the best of the league’s 20-season history.  Swoopes is one of three players named with four WNBA titles (all from the Houston Comets), one of seven to have an NCAA Title, Olympic gold medal and WNBA championship, and one of four to win MVP and Defensive Player honors in the same season (she did so in 2000, 2002 and 2005).  Only Lisa Leslie and Lauren Jackson have won as many MVP titles as Swoopes.

Sheryl noted there is still more to do, and that current and former players must share the responsibility for growing the game, “All the former players, not matter what we’re doing (must) continue to talk about the game, promote the WNBA and continue to market it.”  While this marks the end of one chapter in Sheryl’s career, she is not ready to close to book on basketball altogether, “To me, this signifies the end of my playing career. Not my basketball career, but my playing career. To me, there’s no better way to end that, than here at the Basketball Hall of Fame.”

Sheryl has done a few things within basketball since her retirement.  She coached at Mercer Island High School in Washington in 2010 while playing with the Seattle Storm.  During the 2012-13 season, she returned to texas Tech as a Women’s basketball color commentator.  In 2013, Head Coach at Loyola University Chicago.  However, in July, it was announced that she was removed after an investigation into claims of player mistreatment. Swoopes talked briefly about her time in Chicago during the weekend celebration, stating she’s not bothered by the investigation, or her termination, “The reason why it doesn’t bother me is because, I saw the investigation, I know what it says; I’m good.  I’m where I’m supposed to be and I’m going to enjoy this weekend.”

However, Swoopes emphasized that everything happens for a reason.  With her coaching career indefinite, Swoopes has returned to Houston, something she is grateful for.  Swoopes was visiting with specialist at MD Anderson Hospital when she got the call with the good news about the Basketball Hall of Fame.  She had just received confirmation that her mother, Louise Swoopes was diagnosed with colon cancer, “I didn’t know if I was speechless because of the (Hall of Fame) call or the news I had just gotten about my mom.” Swoopes told reporters Thursday.   It was a whirlwind of emotions like no other, “You’re talking about two things I love most … my mom and basketball.”  Despite the mix of deep feelings of sadness and fear on one hand, and shock and delight on the other, Swoopes recalls the mother-daughter moment fondly, “it was a great moment for us to be able to share together.”

 Throughout the weekend, Swoopes noted that she has overcome many obstacles in her life and throughout her career.  One of which was an important lesson on managing money, as well as friendships.  Swoopes offered her personal challenges as advice to high school students last Friday, “I had more money than I ever dreamed of, but because I didn’t listen to the right people, because I wanted to do what I wanted to do … I lost everything.”

In her documentary, “Swoopes”, directed by Hannah Storm for the special “Nine for IX” ESPN film series, Sheryl tells the story of being so broke, she could not afford to pay the monthly fee for a storage unit that held her basketball momentos.  In a heartbreaking moment in the film, men are seen pulling Texas Tech championship paraphernalia, several models of the Nike Air Swoopes, and other honors from boxes.  Her belongings were auctioned off to pay the outstanding account balance.

While returning home, given the circumstances of her departure from Chicago is humbling, Swoopes is thankful to be near her mother as she faces her own battle.  In her enshrinement speech, Swoopes opened up about her fear that her mother would not be around to see her daughter inducted into the Basketball hall of Fame.  However, Louise did travel to Springfield.  To that, and fighting through tears, Swoopes simply said, “Well mom, we made it!”

With the seal permanently placed on her playing career, Swoopes is open to returning to basketball down the line.  When asked if she wanted to coach again, she stated, “Yes. No. Maybe … and I say that because I think it’s probably too early.  I want a break … and (to be) able to enjoy my son and watching him play and spending time with my mom and planning a wedding that I haven’t been able to plan.”  Jordan Jackson is a sophomore transfer at Midland College in Texas.  He played his freshman year at his mother’s alma mater, Texas Tech, where he also wore number twenty-two.  Sheryl has been engaged to Chris Unclesho since 2011. Swoopes did mention that she has a few projects in the works, but wasn’t ready to discuss them publicly. “I’ve moved back to Houston to be closer to my mom and help her with the battle she’s fighting,” said Swoopes on Thursday, “that’s my top priority, so I’m just going to take some time off.”

Throughout Sheryl’s life, big life events always seem to be marked parallel to big basketball events.  After her visit with Commerce High School, just hours before her enshrinement ceremony, Swoopes told MyWSports what experiences she will reflect on most on the just before she touched the stage, “not being afraid to be myself is what I bring,” said Swoopes.  “I got knocked on my butt so many times; but I got up.  I found a way to get up, and keep getting up.  To have an opportunity to go through all that and be back here tonight, being enshrined, is no doubt a dream come true.”

Twenty years ago, my mother took me to games at Madison Square Garden to watch a new professional league, the WNBA.  Today, I share the stories of  current WNBA players with the hope that the next generation of NCAA champions, Team USA stars, coaches and sports reporters will never doubt “who’s got next.”  Sheryl is right, dreams really do come true.

For more coverage from the Basketball Hall of Fame, check out these videos edited by our partner, The Female Coaching Network.

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