Sheryl Swoopes: Basketball
Swoopes was the first athlete to sign with the WNBA and is a 3-time Olympic gold medalist.
In high school, she led Brownfield High to its first Texas State Championship for girls basketball in 1988. In college, she led the Texas Tech Lady Raiders to its first National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championship in 1993. In the pros, she led the Houston Comets of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) to an unprecedented “four-peat,” winning the first four championships in the league’s existence from 1997 to 2000. In the Olympic Games, she led Team USA to three straight gold medals in 1996, 2000, and 2004. It is no wonder Sheryl Swoopes is frequently referred to as the “female Michael Jordan.” Perhaps some would suggest calling Michael Jordan the “male Sheryl Swoopes.” Like Mike, she even has her own shoe, “Air Swoopes;” the first basketball shoe endorsed by a woman. Being the first three-time WNBA MVP, first three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, and still holding numerous scoring records from every level of play, including the most points ever scored, by a male or a female, in a college championship game (47), she is clearly one of, if not the, best women’s basketball players of all time. It’s hard to believe all of this was accomplished by a woman who grew up wanting to be a cheerleader.1
Swoopes was raised in a single-parent household having never known her father. In order to support her and her three brothers, Swoopes’s mother worked three jobs and sometimes had to seek public assistance in order to feed the family. Even though, as a young child, Swoopes would enjoy getting dressed up with her cousin and “cheering” for her two older brothers, she never tried out for the cheerleading squad because she knew her mother could not afford the uniform, pom-poms, and shoes she would need to participate. Instead, she began playing basketball with her brothers, sometimes only being able to do so on a homemade hoop consisting of a bicycle wheel and a plywood backboard. Her brothers resisted her company on the court at first, telling her, “Basketball is for boys. You can’t play.”2 They would eventually allow her to play, but would be rough with her in an effort to deter her from wanting to participate. She was often brought to tears from the scrapes and bruises she had to endure, and her mother would recommend staying inside to “play with her dolls.” These comments would only serve to motivate her to wipe away the tears and continue to play.
The early merciless competition would begin to shape Swoopes into the basketball player she became. She was already a team leader by the time she started playing organized basketball with other girls her age. In her third year with the Little Dribblers, her team traveled to Beaumont, Texas, to play in the National Championship. After losing by just a couple of points, Swoopes was depressed because she felt she had let the team down, but she did not let this setback deter her from playing basketball. In junior high, she set her sights on becoming a varsity player once she reached high school. In order to achieve this goal, she started playing against all boys during open gym time at the local high school three nights a week. She was rarely picked for a team and when she did get to play, she was often taunted and mocked. Again, this experience toughened her up and her play steadily improved. When she reached high school, she was moved to the varsity team after just one game on the junior varsity team. She would lead her high school to a state title her junior year, scoring 26 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in the championship game. Efforts like this in the biggest games would soon become a pattern in her playing career.
Upon graduating from high school, Swoopes signed with the University of Texas to play for the Lady Longhorns, the best women’s basketball program in the state. However, after visiting the campus the week before classes and practices started, she realized she had made the wrong choice after being so far from home for just one day. She backed out of her commitment, forgoing her eligibility to play for any Division I program for at least one year. Still wanting to play basketball, she enrolled at South Plains Junior College, just 30 miles from her home, where she played for two years.
She eventually moved back to a major basketball program when she transferred to Texas Tech University, 38 miles from home, her junior year. With her talents finally on a big stage, she brought a great deal of attention to women’s basketball. One highlight of her illustrious collegiate career was scoring a career high 53 points against Texas, the program many called her crazy for leaving. She would finish her time at Texas Tech by bringing them its first national championship, while scoring a championship record-high 47 points in her final game.
After graduating in 1993, as arguably the best-known female player, Swoopes was forced to continue her playing career overseas in Italy because the United States did not have any professional basketball leagues for women. After just 10 games, she again was feeling homesick, and returned to Texas, putting her professional basketball career temporarily on hold. Finally, in 1997, due in large part to Swoopes helping increase the popularity of women’s basketball, the WNBA was formed, and she was quickly signed by the Houston Comets.
She missed a lot of her first season in the WNBA because she was pregnant with her son, Jordan, named after Michael.3 After astonishingly returning to play just six weeks after giving birth, she instantly became one of the best players in the league and would lead her team to the first four WNBA championships. She would encounter another setback in 2001, when she experienced a potentially career-ending knee injury. After pondering retirement, she returned to the league and promptly won yet another MVP award in 2002. She credits her son, whom she calls her world, for motivating her to make it back to the game. “Mommy, you’re still good,” he said, “If you retire, who am I gonna watch?”4
In October 2005, Swoopes courageously came out of the closet, announcing she was a lesbian on Good Morning America, making her the first high-profile athlete of the three major sports (basketball, football, baseball) to announce their homosexuality while still playing. In an interview, Swoopes explained, “I don’t want to say I’ve been living a lie, but for the past seven, eight years I haven’t been able to be comfortable in my own skin, around my own friends and family.”5 She was nervous that this announcement could potentially cost her thousands of dollars in endorsement deals, but wanted to be a leader for the lesbian community, showing it is okay to be yourself and that being homosexual does not make you any less of a great person. Not only did Swoopes’s endorsers not back out of her deals, she actually signed a new six-figure deal with Olivia Cruises and Resorts, a lesbian-based business. Swoopes does not think she was born homosexual, and believes that people cannot help with whom they fall in love.
“My biggest concern is that people are going to look at my homosexuality and say to little girls, whether they’re white, black, Hispanic, that I can’t be their role model anymore.”6 Influencing young girls in a positive way is so meaningful to Sheryl that she cried the first time she saw a little girl wearing her jersey. “I’ve worked hard all my life to be the person I am, and to think that my saying who I really am might cause me not to be a role model is a huge concern.”7 Swoopes says she wants people to say, “You see what this woman is doing? She’s strong, she’s powerful, and she is who she is. And you can be okay with that.”8
Sheryl Swoopes is strong, powerful, and is who she is. And she is still a role model and is even more of a leader.
1. Sheryl Swoopes, Bounce Back, (Dallas: Taylor, 1996), 4.
2. Christina Lessa, Stories of Triumph:Women Who Win in Sport and in Life (New York: Universe, 1998), 115.
3. Amelie Welden, Girls Who Rocked the World: Heroines from Sacagawea to Sheryl Swoopes (Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1999), 100.
4. Anne Stockwell, “She Is Our Champion,” The Advocate, November 22, 2005.
6. Michael Hirsley, “Swoopes Concerned Her Sexuality Will Affect Her Role-Model Status,” Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2005.
7. Stockwell, “She Is Our Champion.”
The previous excerpt was written by Ryan Sleeper