Swoopes, Sheryl Denise

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SWOOPES, Sheryl Denise

(b. 25 March 1971 in Brownfield, Texas), basketball player who became a one-of-a-kind superstar in collegiate, Olympic, and professional women's basketball.

Swoopes was born in a small Texas town about forty miles from Lubbock in West Texas. Her father left shortly after she was born, and Swoopes's mother, Louise, struggled to raise Sheryl and her three brothers on her own. Because Swoopes played basketball with her brothers and participated in neighborhood pickup games with boys, she developed an aggressive, physical playing style that would be her trademark throughout her career. Swoopes led her Brownfield High School team to a state championship and was an All-State and All-America athlete. While still a junior, she was chosen as Texas Player of the Year. Swoopes graduated from high school in 1989.

Having made her mark early, Swoopes was actively pursued by college recruiters. Her decision to accept a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin (UT) proved to be a mistake. Only four days after arriving in September 1989, Swoopes was overwhelmed with homesickness and returned to Brownfield. Austin was 400 miles from her hometown, too far for a girl who had never been away. There were plenty of critics who felt she had thrown away her future, but Swoopes just went about her business. She left UT and enrolled in nearby South Plains Junior College, where she continued to play basketball. At South Plains, Swoopes became a junior college All-American and the 1991 Player of the Year. In her second season she averaged 21.5 points per game, 11.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 4.7 steals.

In 1991 Swoopes transferred to Texas Tech University in Lubbock. A dangerous six-foot-tall shooting guard and forward known for her speed and shooting ability, Swoopes was nicknamed the "Texas Tornado" and compared to Michael Jordan. She led the Lady Red Raiders to a 58–8 record in two seasons, a 1993 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title, and two Southwest Conference titles. She was named 1993 National Player of the Year and earned 1993 NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors when she set an NCAA Championship game record (for both men and women) with 47 points in Texas Tech's 84–82 win over Ohio State. Swoopes had five consecutive thirty-plus games in leading the Lady Raiders to victory. She won the prestigious Naismith Player of the Year Award (1993), along with many other awards. Swoopes was widely considered the best player in college basketball. In recognition of her unmatched achievements, Texas Tech retired her number 22 on 19 February 1994.

Despite Swoopes's incredible college career, the only place for a woman to play professional basketball in 1993 was overseas. She moved to Bari, Italy, and played for their team in the Italian women's league. But Swoopes's European stint lasted only ten games; she left when the team did not meet its contractual obligations. Once she was back in the United States there were few options available. She volunteered as a coach, played pickup basketball at the recreation center, and watched her skills deteriorate. She turned to other things, completing her B.A. in sports science in 1994 and marrying her high school sweetheart Eric Jackson on 17 June 1995.

Although in 1994 Swoopes played on a winning U.S. basketball team that competed against NCAA teams and toured Europe, Asia, and Australia, and earned a gold medal at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was left with few opportunities to play with others at her level until the U.S. Women's National Team formed in 1995. This team remained undefeated as it played fifty-two games around the world in preparation for the Olympics. During this time Swoopes landed endorsement contracts, and Nike introduced the "Air Swoopes," making Swoopes the first woman athlete to have a Nike basketball shoe named after her. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Swoopes helped the U.S. team capture a gold medal.

With the formation of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) in 1997, Swoopes was drafted to play for the Houston Comets. She became one of three WNBA stars to receive personal service contracts, which paid above and beyond the standard team rate of $50,000 in exchange for playing a central role in WNBA promotional campaigns. Swoopes's contract meant she received $150,000 in addition to her $50,000 salary from the Comets. Just as she was to start playing, Swoopes became pregnant and had to sit out most of the season. With all eyes on her as the new WNBA's performance standard-bearer, Swoopes gave birth to a son and amazed everyone by returning to the court within six weeks.

Swoopes and the Houston Comets dominated the WNBA. She was named to the All-WNBA First Team in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Under Swoopes's leadership, the Houston Comets were WNBA champions four years in a row—1997 through 2000. Swoopes was named the 2000 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and voted the 2000 WNBA MVP. She was a fan favorite, charismatic and well spoken off the court. Swoopes and teammate Cynthia Cooper were a dynamic duo, drawing in large Houston crowds and a larger-than-predicted television audience, winning new fans everywhere for women's professional basketball. However, amidst all the successes in her professional life, Swoopes faced a new personal challenge in 2000, when she divorced her husband and became a single parent.

In May 2001 Swoopes tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during a preseason workout and was forced to sit out the season. This came on the heels of 2000, her best professional season yet. In 2000 she led the WNBA with 2.81 steals and scored her playoff high of 31 points in the Comets game that clinched their fourth title. Well aware that her age was becoming a factor, Swoopes was determined to make a slow and thorough recovery so she could come back strong the next year. She took the opportunity to practice her broadcasting skills, doing on-air sports analysis for the WNBA. Without Swoopes or Cooper, the Comets reign as WNBA Champions came to a close in 2001. As Swoopes neared the end of her recovery, she considered playing overseas during the off-season.

Swoopes's career heights remained unmatched at the close of the 2001 season. She had a mental toughness that allowed her to come back again and again, despite the lack of a playing venue, her divorce, the birth of her son, and a serious injury. She had entered a world that disproportionately rewarded male basketball players, but from the time she was young, Swoopes played the game as if this did not matter. In the process, she raised the rewards for women's basketball as well as for herself.

Several books for young readers have been written about Swoopes, including Sheryl Swoopes and Doug Keith, Bounce Back (1996), and Susan Kuklin and Sheryl Swoopes, Hoops With Swoopes (2001), a book full of vivid photos. For biographical essays about Swoopes's life and career, see Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 12. (1996), Great Women in Sport s (1996), and Newsmakers (2000). Joe Drape, "Pro Basketball: Baby on Board; Swoopes Learns to Juggle Bouncing Ball and Bouncing Boy," New York Times (3 Aug. 1997), gives an account of the time Swoopes took off from basketball to have her baby. See also "Houston Comets Blaze with Third Straight WNBA Championship," Jet (27 Sept. 1999), which describes the Houston Comets third championship win; "Houston Comets Win Fourth Straight WNBA Championship," Jet (11 Sept. 2000), which reports on the Comets fourth WNBA championship win; and "Season-Ending Injury," Jet (14 May 2001), which announces Swoopes 2000 season-ending injury.

Janet Ingram