The story of the WNBA starts with one player and one player only, Sheryl Swoopes.
Six-time WNBA All-Star, five-time All-WNBA First Team, three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, three-time WNBA MVP, three-time Olympic gold medalist, and four-time WNBA champion, is a glimpse at the career of one of basketball’s greatest players to ever step on the court.
There have been many phenomenal players over the years, but the journey to the WNBA’s 25th anniversary cannot be told without the legendary hooper from Brownfield, Texas – Sheryl Swoopes.
The 1996 Olympics can be said to be the Olympics that elevated women’s sports. Women’s soccer, softball, gymnastics, and, of course, women’s basketball all brought home the gold medal. It was one of the first times women’s basketball was on the global stage. Sheryl Swoopes was on this historical team and it shifted the culture to appreciate women’s basketball as a whole. After the Olympics, the beginnings of the WNBA were starting to take shape, and once again Swoopes was a part of history.
Swoopes was the first woman to be signed by the brand new women’s professional basketball league, the WNBA, in 1997. Swoopes started her WNBA journey talking to Val Ackerman and Commissioner Stern about the league starting up. They were going to make the WNBA happen. She remembered taking several trips to New York and when she signed her contract, the realization of being a role model for young girls hit her. The Houston Comets recruited Swoopes and the rest is history.
Swoopes was propelled into stardom playing for the Houston Comets, leading the team to four championships and was the first player in the WNBA to record a triple-double. It was a wonderful time for Swoopes. A lot of her fondest memories are with her son being around at the time, the incredible talent she played with, and being a part of the Houston Comets organization as a whole.
The Comets created a dynasty and made a huge impact on women’s basketball. It can even be argued that the Comets had a significant impact on the growth of the WNBA as a whole. “To win one championship is difficult, but to win four, and to win all four in a row is unheard of. And you can’t look at it and say, oh well it was because it was women. No it’s because we have the talent. We were just different like our mindset was different and it was always about getting better every single year, getting better, getting better, getting better. We knew teams were coming for what we had. It was special then and I think it’s still special now. Probably the one thing that frustrates me is I don’t think it’s talked about enough,” Swoopes described the mindset of the Comets championship run.
Not only was Sheryl Swoopes the first woman to be signed to the WNBA, she was the very first female athlete to have her own signature shoe. The ‘Air Swoopes’ made a huge impact on sneaker culture in the WNBA and beyond. Nike had Swoopes come to Portland to discuss women’s basketball shoes, which didn’t exist at the time. They asked her what she looked for in a basketball shoe. She found out they wanted to make a women’s basketball shoe but not any shoe, the Nike ‘Air Swoopes.’
Swoopes talked through the exact moment she realized she was getting a signature shoe, “I’m sure you can imagine that I lost it. I was silent for a minute because I wasn’t sure I heard what I thought I heard. And then I screamed and cried and jumped up and down, and then I gathered myself and said this is huge. This is huge, not just for me, but for every female out there who has ever had dreams and aspirations of having their own signature shoe or just having their own shoe. To be able to see that actually can happen to a woman, I was a great example of things like that happening to you.”
There were many versions and colorways of the ‘Air Swoopes’ released after the first version. The shoe was a huge success and the ‘Air Swoopes II’ was even re-released in 2018. Sheryl revealed that her favorite version of her shoe is the Patent Leather ‘Air Swoopes’.
The WNBA has progressed a ton over the 25 years the league has been operating. The WNBA impacted Swoopes in many different ways and she takes great pride in being part of the history of the league. She sees the league growing like never before with social media, sponsorships, and businesses buying into the product of the WNBA. ”I think the game has grown tremendously. I mentioned the talent earlier but when I say it’s growing, I probably am talking about off the court versus on the court because I think the women are always going to compete. I think social media has played a huge part in that which is great, but to have a lot of the league sponsorships that we have today. It has allowed the athlete to go out and bring in more sponsorships but I look at the individual sponsorships that a lot of the players have today. To me, that in itself, shows just how much the league has grown, how invested businesses are and corporations are in, not just the W but in women. I think that has to do with the talent that the women have and the way they perform night in and night out,” Swoopes explained on how the league has grown. Swoopes mentioned the new collective bargaining agreement as it “shows the growth of the league and how these women continue to thrive, to inspire, and to use their voices”, on top of using their talents on the court.
Swoopes has seen the league grow a lot in 25 years but she does see how it can continue to grow in the future. She sees how the league can still grow in two areas: expansion with adding more teams in the league and having more former players getting involved with the league after retirement, whether it be in the front office or coaching. Swoopes described how she sees those two things growing the WNBA, ”First of all if we don’t start adding more teams soon I’m going to lose my mind. There’s just so much talent in this game today and the fact that we don’t have enough teams and enough spots on teams. I feel bad because there is a lot of great players that are not getting that opportunity to play and fans are missing out on an opportunity to see some really great talent. The only other thing I would add to that, I’ve been very vocal about it, I would just honestly love to see more former players involved with the league. Whether that’s in the league office, whether that’s with teams, and it doesn’t have to be coaching, it could be in the front office.” Swoopes gave kudos to Las Vegas Aces’ head coach, Bill Laimbeer, and Minnesota Lynx’s head coach, Cheryl Reeve, for doing a great job of getting former players involved and having former players on their staff. She added former players have the perspective of having played at the highest level and they can really teach players with their experience, not just talking about it. It is her wish to see the WNBA continue to grow in their game and their fan base.
The impact of Sheryl Swoopes and the Houston Comets should never be forgotten as the landmark moment of what propelled the WNBA into what the league is now. It was the catalyst for greatness and making sure the sport of women’s basketball is known. With being the first player signed to the WNBA and the first female with her own signature shoe, Sheryl Swoopes deserves all the flowers.