Cooper, Cynthia 1963–
Cynthia Cooper 1963–
Professional basketball player
After spending many years in the wilderness of women’s basketball, Cynthia Cooper rocketed to fame in the first season of the new Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) that began play in 1997. She lived up to her reputation as a hot scorer, established over a decade of play on the European circuit, by winning the scoring title, while also leading her team, the Houston Comets, to the first WNBA championship title. “She is absolutely one of the best players in the world right now,” fellow Comet player Wanda Guyton told the Houston Chronicle late in the 1997 season. These accolades were echoed by an opponent, New York Liberty guard Vickie Johnson, who in Sports Illustrated called Cooper “the best all-around player I’ve ever faced.”
Running was Cooper’s favorite athletic endeavor as a young teenager growing up in the tough Watts section of Los Angeles, where her mother had to make numerous sacrifices to raise eight children. She starred on her school track team, one season winning the city championship in the 300-meter hurdles. Then, at the age of 16, after witnessing some students playing basketball, she changed her athletic focus. “I just happened to be in the gym at my junior high school one day and saw this older girl come down the court, put the ball behind her back from her left to her right hand and then make a lay-up,” she told Johnette Howard in Sports Illustrated. “Up until then I had run track. But just like that I said, ‘Oooh. Wow. I want to play like that someday.’”
After joining her school team Cooper advanced her talent quickly, and in her senior year was granted a sports scholarship to the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, a basketball powerhouse. While playing well there, she was relegated to a largely supporting role on a team featuring the star players Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, during the school’s successful run to the 1983 and 1984 National College Athletic Association (NCAA) championship titles. By 1986 Cooper had become more prominent on the team, and that season was named to the NCAA Final Four All-Tourney team. But she still didn’t feel that she had tapped her full potential as a player. As she told Howard, “I never felt like I had given all I was capable of giving to one of my teams. I was always the sort of player who was asked to
Career: Won city championship in 300 hurdles in high school; began playing basketball at age 16; won basketball scholarship to USC, Los Angeles; played on Natl. Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA) championship basketball teams, 1983, 1984; became a professional basketball player on Segovia team in Spain, 1986-87; played on Parma team in Italy, 1987-94; played on U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, 1988, 1992; won three-point contest in European League, 1988, 1992; played on Alcamo team in Italy, 1994-96; was leading scorer in European Cup, 1996; joined Houston Comets of new Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA), 1997; set WNBA individual game scoring record twice, 1997; scored 30 points or more in eight games, 1997; finished season in top ten of seven categories (scoring, assists, steals, shooting accuracy, three-point shooting accuracy, free-throw shooting accuracy, and minutes), 1997; played with group of WNBA players in tour of Europe, 1997; signed contract to be a spokeswoman for General Motors, 1997.
Awards and honors: NCAA Final Four All-Tourney Team, 1986; Most Valuable Player, European League All-StarGame, 1987; Player of the Week (twice), WNBA, 1997; All-WNBA First Team, 1997; Most Valuable Player, WNBA, 1997; Most Valuable Player, WNBA Championship Game, 1997.
Addresses: Home –Sugar Land, Texas; Office— Houston Comets, Two Green way Plaza, Ste. 400, Houston, TX 77046.
pass the ball to the marquee players and set picks, run the fast break. My role might be to come into the game to be a defensive stopper, or a spark plug. But all along, I told myself, ‘This is not my game. This is not who I am as a basketball player. And this is not all I can do.’”
After leaving college, Cooper desired to continue playing but had no opportunity to do so in the U.S., where no professional league existed. She took her skills across the Atlantic Ocean to play in the European league, first with the Segovia team in Spain in 1986, and then with the Parma and Alcamo teams in Italy from 1987 through 1996. While playing abroad Cooper changed her game plan. “I wanted to be one of those players who took the clutch shots and carried teams on their shoulders,” she told Sports Illustrated. Her new resolve paid off, as she led the European league in scoring eight times during her first decade overseas and was runner-up the other two seasons. During her career there she built a reputation as a reliable scorer, which reached its peak with an impressive 35.5 points-per-game average for Alcamo during the 1995-96 campaign. Cooper was especially potent in high-pressure games, confirmed by her 37.5 points-per-game barrage in the 1996 European Cup. She also proved herself dangerous from long range, twice winning a three-point shooting contest in the European League.
Cooper’s only visibility to American audiences during her expatriate playing days came when she returned to the states as a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic women’s team in 1988 and bronze-medal winner in 1992. According to a Houston Comets publicity release, one of the highlights of her career was when she presented her Olympic gold medal to her mother, Mary Cobbs, on her mother’s birthday in 1988.
Increasing interest in women’s college basketball in the U.S. during Cooper’s playing years in Europe helped spur the creation of another professional women’s league in 1997 that easily enticed Cooper to return to her native country. Past attempts to create such a league had been unsuccessful because the fan base was too low, but optimism was high this time around. When the Women’s National Basketball Association was launched in 1997, Cooper was drafted by the Houston Comets, bringing with her a reputation as a scorer established in European play.
Her first season in the WNBA started slowly, but soon Cooper’s shooting slump ended thanks to her practice regimen of some 300 to 500 practice shots a day. Her confidence as a player was especially buoyed by the coach, Van Chancellor, who in July told Cooper that he wanted her to be the prime go-to player on the team, according to Sports Illustrated. She responded to this vote of confidence in the next game with a 30-point outburst against the Sacramento Monarchs, followed by 32 points against the Phoenix Mercury and a 44-point league-leading output in a rematch against the Monarchs. She shot a staggering .792 percent beyond the three-point arc during these three games. In the thirteen contests after her discussion with Chancellor, Cooper scored 30 or more points seven times, all of the games victories for the Comets.
During the season Cooper found herself on top on many occasions. In addition to logging up the two highest individual point totals by a player, she was the first player to break the 300-, 400-, and 500-point plateaus. As her hot shooting continued, Cooper finished with the league scoring title in the 28-game season with a 22.2 points per game. Clearly not a one-dimensional player, Cooper finished in the top ten in scoring, assists, steals, shooting accuracy, three-point accuracy, free-throw accuracy, and minutes played. Her statistics earned her a spot on the 1997 All-WNBA First Team and helped her team finish with the best record in the league. Cooper exceeded many expectations by league analysts who before the season had expected Rebecca Lobo of the New York Liberty, Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks, and Ruthie Bolton-Holfield of the Sacramento Monarchs to be the queens of the league. “Cooper has been the type of player to cause WNBA president Val Ackerman to say she has changed the face of women’s pro basketball,” proclaimed W.H. Stickney, Jr., in the Houston Chronicle.
Cooper wore a pink ribbon on her uniform in her professional games to show her support for a group seeking more research dollars for the fight against breast cancer. Her interest in this research was spurred by her mother being diagnosed with the disease that year. Cooper helped her mother through every stage of her cancer treatment during 1997, and having her mother close by to share her glory as a player was very important to her. “I had been tucked away in Europe for 11 years, and my mom hasn’t been able to share any special moments with me,” she told the Houston Chronicle. “So the fact that I won two MVP awards, [was named to] the All-WNBA first team and won the championship in the inaugural season has been a dream come true.”
Saving her best for last and for when it mattered most, Cooper was a dominant force in the WNBA playoff series. She averaged 28.0 points a game in her team’s wins over Charlotte and New York as she carried the Comets to the Championship title. Her performance during these crucial games was even more outstanding considering that she was playing with a deep thigh bruise at the time. Her 25-point performance in the final game, a 65-51 victory over New York, earned her Most Valuable Player honors for that game, while her overall season performance made her a shoo-in for Most Valuable Player for the season. Her achievement was especially impressive considering that, at age 34, she was among the oldest players in the league, with her most athletic years well behind her.
In the fall of 1997, Cooper and other WNBA all-stars participated in an international tour in Germany, Italy, and France. She also cashed in on her new fame by signing a two-year, $200,000 contract as a spokeswoman for General Motors. Part of her role with General Motors was to help raise money for breast cancer research. In the second year of her arrangement with General Motors, Cooper will begin working in an advertising and marketing trainee program to help her prepare for a possible new line of work after retiring from basketball.
At this time Cooper is raising a niece and nephew, and seeking to adopt another nephew. In the off-season she tries to get involved in as many pick-up games with men as she can, while also working at basketball camps and speaking before various groups. After her playing days are over, she hopes to get involved in coaching.
Automotive News, September 15, 1997, p. 2.
Jet, September 15, 1997, p. 56; September 29, 1997, p. 48.
Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1986, Section 3, p. 1.
New York Times, August 31, 1997, Section 8, p. 7.
Sports Illustrated, August 25, 1997, p. 34.
Wall Street Journal, June 13, 1997, p. B6.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from publicity materials of the Houston Comets and the Houston Chronicle Web site on the Internet.
American basketball player
After being a standout player in college and in European basketball leagues, Cynthia Cooper finally achieved her dream of being able to play professional basketball in the United States when the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) debuted in 1997. She was the star of the Houston Comets for the next four years, leading them to four straight WNBA championships and being named the most valuable player of the championship series four times before retiring at the end of the 2000 season.
Cooper didn't learn how to play basketball until the summer before she started high school. That spring she saw a girl in her junior high gym pass the ball around behind her back before making a layup and thought to herself that she'd like to be able to do that. Cooper pleaded with an acquaintance of hers who was also an assistant basketball coach at her future high school to teach her how to play. They met at the high school gym every day that summer, and by the fall Cooper was good enough to make the high school varsity team.
After joining her high school's starting lineup as a sophomore and leading them to the California girls' high school basketball championships in her senior year, in the fall of 1981 Cooper began attending the
University of Southern California (USC) on a basketball scholarship. Cooper, who prior to this had lived in poverty in the infamous Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, recalls in her autobiography that the culture shock she felt at the university was intense. Her success on the court helped her to adjust, but then in the fall of her junior year Cooper suffered a major setback: she was ruled ineligible to play on the team because of poor grades. Cooper brought her grades up, rejoined the team after the fall semester, and helped the Lady Trojans to win their second NCAA championship in two years.
Cooper's academic problems prevented her from playing again during her senior year, and in frustration she quit school early in 1985. Hoping to help her single-parent mother with the family's financial worries, Cooper found a job as a bank teller. Within months, she had been promoted to head teller, but Cooper missed basketball. She reenrolled at USC later in 1985. The team made it to the NCAA championships again that season, but lost the championship game to the University of Texas.
Playing on the World Stage
That summer, Cooper tried out for the U.S. National women's basketball team. Three hundred players came to Colorado Springs at their own expense to compete with thirty invited athletes for twelve spots on the team. Of the three hundred walk-on players, only one made the final cut: Cooper. With the U.S. National team, Cooper made her second trip abroad (she had participated in the Jones Cup in Taiwan in the summer of 1981), competing in the Goodwill Games in Moscow and the World Championships in Vilnius, U.S.S.R. The U.S. team won both events.
Late in 1985, Cooper was offered a job playing in a professional league in Valencia, Spain, which she took eagerly. After playing there for a year, she was offered a spot on a team in the Italian league, which was more competitive and prestigious than the Spanish league. Cooper packed up and moved to Parma, Italy. She now describes the city as her second home, although language problems made playing on the Parma team difficult until she became fluent in Italian. Under Cooper's leadership, the Parma team became one of the dominant ones in the Italian league, and Cooper wound up playing there for the seven seasons. She left Parma to play for a Sicilian team for two seasons after that, but in 1996 she returned to Parma. This would be her final season playing in Europe: in 1997 the WNBA would open, and Cooper would finally get to play professional basketball on her home soil.
Home at Last
Despite having played professionally in Europe for so long, Cooper was not unknown to American fans. She had played for the U.S. National team in the World Championships and the Goodwill Games in 1986 and 1990, and on the gold medal-winning team in the 1988 Olympics and the bronze medal-winning one in 1992. This and her dominance in the Italy—she was that league's leading scorer eight times—guaranteed her a marquee spot in the new WNBA. Cooper was assigned to the Houston Comets, along with 1996 Olympian and former Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes . Swoopes was out on maternity leave the first half of the season, but with Cooper and other excellent players the Comets still managed to make an impact. They eventually caught up to their division's early leaders, the New York Liberty, and on the penultimate day of the season they clinched the Eastern Division title.
The Comets went on to become the first dynasty in the WNBA, winning the WNBA championships that year and for the next three years as well. Cooper was named the most valuable player of the championship series every one of those four years. She became a celebrity, appearing on the Rosie O'Donnell and David Letterman shows after that first championship. Nike even created a shoe, called the C-14, in honor of her. She also became a spokesperson for General Motors' Concept Cure program, a charity focused on preventing and curing breast cancer. This cause is particularly dear to Cooper: her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer early in 1997 and passed away from the disease in 1999.
Cooper retired as a WNBA player at the end of the 1999-2000 season, after the Comets won their fourth straight championship. Midway through the 2001-02 season, Cooper became the head coach of another WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, but she retired from that job only ten games into her second season there in order to spend more time with her growing family: Cooper's twin children were born June 14, 2002.
Shortly after retiring as coach of the Phoenix Mercury in June, 2002, Cooper was tapped by the administration of President George W. Bush to co-chair a fifteen-member panel that studied the impact of Title IX, the federal law which mandated gender equity in federally-funded education activities, including college sports. Cooper and her husband, Brian Dykes (a sports agent), live in Sugar Land, Texas, where they are raising their twins, Brian Jr. and Cyan, as well as Tyquon, Anthony, and Tyrone, the sons of one of Cooper's sisters whom Cooper has adopted.
|HOU: Houston Comets.|
The WNBA and the success of female basketball players such as Cooper have inspired thousands of girls to follow their dreams of making a living as a professional athlete. Even though Cooper is no longer competing, her incredible feats during the four years she played in the WNBA contributed greatly to the success of the fledgling league. By the time Cooper retired as a player, the WNBA had expanded from its original eight teams to sixteen, giving 176 women the opportunity to play professional basketball in the United States and millions more the ability to cheer for these dedicated female athletes.
Address: c/o Author Mail, Warner Books, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
|1963||Born April 14 to Mary Cobbs and Kevin Cooper|
|1964||Moves to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles|
|1981||Begins attending the University of Southern California|
|1986||Begins playing professionally in Valencia, Spain|
|1987||Joins professional team in Parma, Italy|
|1997||Joins the Houston Comets|
|1997||Mother diagnosed with breast cancer|
|1999||Mother passes away February 12|
|2001||Becomes coach of the Phoenix Mercury|
|2002||Her twin children, a boy and a girl, born to a surrogate mother June 14|
|2002||Retires as coach of the Phoenix Mercury June 26|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1981||California state high school championships|
|1981||Named Marine League MVP|
|1981||Named Los Angeles City Player of the Year|
|1985-86||Named to the All-Pac West team|
|1986-87||Named Rookie of the Year in the Italian women's league|
|1986, 1990||World Championships|
|1986, 1990||Goodwill Games|
|1988||Selected for U.S. Olympic team|
|1997-2000||Named Most Valuable Player of the WNBA championship series|
|1998-99||ESPY Award for female basketball player of the year|
|2002||Named one of the ten greatest women athletes of all time by Ebony magazine Cooper was the leading scorer in the Italian women's league eight times.|
SELECTED WRITINGS BY COOPER:
She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey, Warner Books, 1999.
Cooper, Cynthia. She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Anderson, Kelli. "Coop De Grace." Sports Illustrated (September 13, 1999): 56.
Calkins, Laurel Brubaker, and Nick, Charles. "In Good Hands." People (June 22, 1998): 203.
Cooper, Cynthia. "Welcome to Coop's Scoop." Houston Chronicle (July 10, 1997): 3.
Falduto, Brad. "Cooper Stuns Team, Steps Down." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (June 30, 2002): K4084.
"Former WNBA Star to Chair Title IX Review Panel." Black Issues in Higher Education (August 1, 2002): 19.
"Houston Comets Win Fourth Straight WNBA Championship." Jet (September 11, 2000): 54.
Howard, Johnette. "Comet's Tale." Sports Illustrated (August 25, 1997): 34-35.
Karkabi, Barbara. "This Comet's Not Flashy." Houston Chronicle (September 14, 1999): 1.
Liebowitz, Julie. "New Horizons." Sport (November, 1998): 96-97.
Racine, Marty. "Coop in Charge!" Houston Chronicle (September 4, 1997): 4.
"Ten Greatest Women Athletes." Ebony (March, 2002): 74-77.
Terry, Mike. "Cloud Hangs over Cooper's Departure." Los Angeles Times (July 2, 2002): D-7.
"Transition Game." Sports Illustrated for Women (March 1, 2001): 26.
WNBA.com. http://www.wnba.com (November 27, 2002).
Sketch by Julia Bauder
(b. 14 April 1963 in Chicago, Illinois), basketball guard who played on the U.S. Olympic gold-and bronze-medal teams, led the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) Houston Comets to four championship titles, and was the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1997 and 1998.
Cooper was the fifth of eight children. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was barely a year old and lived in Watts, an impoverished neighborhood plagued by drugs, gangs, and violence. Her mother, Mary Cobbs, raised the children by herself after divorcing Kenneth Cooper, a factory worker, when Cooper was about six years old. Cobbs was a custodian for the Los Angeles Rapid Transit Department. After their house burned down, the family went on welfare, and Cobbs had to work several jobs until she was able to buy another house. In her autobiography, She Got Game (1999), Cooper wrote that she was often hungry, living on potatoes and rice and begging for nickels with her younger brother Everett (called Ricky).
Cooper was a track star in junior high, winning the 400-meter race, and was Los Angeles City Champion of the 300-meter low hurdles. In 1978 she watched a female basketball player going in for a layup and knew she had found her niche. Although her junior high had no basketball team, she convinced high school coach Lucias Franklin to help her learn basketball that summer. Cooper excelled on the Locke High School varsity team, the Saints, who won the California 4A championship in 1981, her senior year. Averaging thirty-one points per game, Cooper was Marine League MVP and Los Angeles City Player of the Year. That summer, Cooper went to Taiwan as the youngest member of America's Jones Cup team.
Recruited by coach Linda Sharp, Cooper received a scholarship to attend the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. She made the team, the Women of Troy, in her first year (1981–1982), averaging 14.6 points a game. Cooper wrote that her inner-city high school left her poorly prepared for college, and she became academically ineligible to play in the fall of 1983 and again in the 1984–1985 season.
In 1985, when her brother Ricky was stabbed and killed, Cooper left USC to work as a bank teller. After coach Sharp convinced Cooper that her basketball talent would help her escape a life of poverty, Cooper rejoined the team for the 1985–1986 season, averaging 17.2 points per game and earning the title "Comeback Kid" from the Los Angeles Times. Cooper left USC after the 1985–1986 season without finishing her degree to play basketball in Europe, the only professional option for female players. She tried out for the U.S. Olympic basketball team and was the only one of 300 applicants (those not invited to try out) to make the team. She played for the United States in the Goodwill Games (1986 and 1990), and for the gold-medal team in the Pan American games in 1987. Cooper spent the next several years in Europe, first in Valencia, Spain. She was named MVP of the European All-Star game in 1987.
Cooper was the third highest scorer on the U.S. gold-medal Olympic team in Seoul, Korea, in 1988. Four years later, she played on the bronze-medal team in Barcelona, Spain, and played in Parma, Italy, from 1987 to 1994. Wanting to return to the United States, Cooper became an assistant coach at the University of Houston in 1994. But she missed playing, and an offer from Alcamo in Sicily lured Cooper back to Europe. She played in Alcamo from 1994 to 1996, then in Parma in 1996 and 1997. During her years abroad, Cooper learned Spanish and became fluent in Italian. She brought several of her nieces and nephews to live and travel with her, hoping to give them a better education and more opportunity than she had while growing up in Watts.
In 1996 two women's basketball leagues were forming in the United States. The American Basketball League (ABL) required a $25 application fee, but Cooper believed her experience should speak for itself. She called the WNBA, where she was one of the top sixteen names already selected. All she had to do was sign a contract. After ten years abroad, the opportunity to play professional ball at home was a dream come true. She was assigned to the Houston Comets, who won the first WNBA championship in 1997, having lost only three of thirty games. They won the next three WNBA championships as well, and Cooper was the MVP of the championship series each year. She was on the WNBA All-Star team in each of the four seasons she played (the only unanimous choice in 1997), and led the Comets in points scored, free-throw percentage, assists, minutes played, and scoring average. Cooper retired from playing at the end of the 1999–2000 season, and the Phoenix Mercury hired her as head coach in 2001.
By the time Cooper's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of 1997, Cooper had an endorsement deal with General Motors (GM) and an internship in their marketing department. With GM she developed Concept: Cure, an organization that raises funds for breast cancer research and promotes public awareness of the disease, a cause for which Cooper became a spokesperson. GM agreed to donate 50 cents to breast cancer research for each WNBA ticket sold, and almost $600,000 was donated in 1996, far exceeding expectations. Cooper was honored as Ms. magazine's Woman of the Year in 1998, for her combination of being a great athlete and role model who excelled despite much adversity.
Cooper credits her mother with teaching her to overcome adversity. Playing basketball enabled her to leave a poor and violent neighborhood and gave her the self-confidence she lacked growing up. She often attended her mother's chemotherapy treatments and then left the hospital to play in a game. Her mother died in February 1999, and she also lost her best friend and teammate, Kim Perrot, to cancer on 19 August that year, yet Cooper still led her team to a WNBA championship. The five-foot, ten-inch, 150 pound Cooper won two NCAA championships with USC, led the European League in scoring eight times, and was the three-point champion twice. She was the all-time leading scorer in the WNBA when she retired and the first WNBA player to reach 300, 400, 500, 1,000, 2,000, and 2,500 points. She is in the top ten in most other WNBA statistical categories. In 2000 Cooper received her third ESPY award from ESPN, given to athletes who excel in their sport. Despite playing most of her career in obscurity, she became a marquee star of the WNBA for four years, and was called the league's "Michael Jordan" by New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato.
Cooper takes care of eight nieces and nephews in her home in Houston, Texas, and has adopted her nephew Tyquon. In 2000 she led a goodwill trip to Angola, Africa, delivering books and medical supplies. Cooper married Brian Dyke on 28 April 2001. She continues to be actively involved in community outreach programs, such as the Houston Public Library's interactive program to increase the reading skills of children in the Houston area, and in promoting sports for girls and African-American women.
Cooper's autobiography, She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey (1999), is the most comprehensive source for information. Most interviews, such as the one in People Weekly (22 June 1998), or Working Woman (Sept. 1999), contain much of the same information contained in the book. The 1998 Current Biography Year-book has an entry on Cooper. In 1999 Cooper released the Cynthia Cooper MVP Video Series, three tapes with workout tips, motivational talks, and inspirational messages for girls "to succeed in sports and in life." The series was reviewed by the Library Journal 124, no. 18 (1 Nov. 1999).
Jane Brodsky Fitzpatrick