By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In her home in a quiet gated community on the west side of town, Sheryl Swoopes is being pulled in all directions. Just minutes back from a long day of errands, a week back from playing pro ball in Russia, and hours away from a trip to play a short season in Lubbock, she hugs her seven-year-old son, Jordan, who has a ball player's swagger, like his namesake, and is eager to get to the family's reservation at Red Lobster.
There's luggage everywhere. But Swoopes, in her brown blouse and tight jeans, with her braids swept behind her shoulders, is barely frazzled. For a small-town girl, she handles her hectic lifestyle with considerable calm.
Swoopes grew up in Brownfield, a farming town in West Texas. Her father left the family just months after she was born, so her mother, who worked several jobs and sometimes relied on welfare, kept her four children close.
Swoopes developed her game playing with her two older brothers, and never let her talent take her far from home. She gave up a scholarship to the University of Texas after four days of school because she missed her mother. She eventually played for Texas Tech because it was in Lubbock, a short drive from home.
"I'm a homebody," Swoopes says. "There's no place like home."
Even when she came to play for the Comets' inaugural season in 1997, the pull of West Texas was strong. "The first two years, I would just come in the summertime and I'd go back to Lubbock, because I was more comfortable being in a small town," she says.
But she's comfortable here now -- comfortable leading the Comets back from their first season ever missing the playoffs, comfortable raising her son as a divorcée, and almost comfortable sitting in traffic on the Katy Freeway.
"When I first came to Houston I was very naive. Being here over the last seven or eight years has made me grow up a lot faster than I wanted to...It's opened my eyes to a lot of things you deal with when you live in a big city."
When David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, announced the formation of a women's league in 1997, he sought the support of NBA owners across the country. "Les Alexander, the most supportive and open-minded owner that I know of, jumped right in and wanted a team," says Comets coach Van Chancellor.
Swoopes was the first player to sign on. She had led Texas Tech to an NCAA championship in 1993, scoring more points in the final game than anyone -- male or female -- in the tournament's history. In '96 she won an Olympic gold medal with the women's national team. She was the first woman ever to have an athletic shoe named after her, Nike's Air Swoopes.
"When I first found out about the WNBA, obviously I wanted to play," Swoopes says. "Being a Texas girl and not wanting to leave the state, I was excited about the opportunity."
She adds, "Houston has so many different things to offer. I felt like bringing a women's professional team here would add to that excitement."
Swoopes's Houston debut was postponed when pregnancy sidelined her for most of the season, but the Comets finished that season with the WNBA's first championship and took the title for the next three years.
Swoopes twice won honors as MVP and defensive player of the year. She staggered opponents with her signature move: "Dribble drive left, go to the basket, pull up at about 15 feet and just drill it," as Chancellor describes it.
The Comets' dynasty, coupled with the 1994-95 Rockets' NBA title, solidified Houston's position as a basketball powerhouse. Some say it helped change the sports landscape of the city.
"I believe that the true legacy of the Comets is going to be helping the Rockets improve their standing among a much different fan base than what the Rockets had historically been going after," says Oliver Luck. He is CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which managed the construction of the Toyota Center, Reliant Stadium and Minute Maid Park. "It had a profound effect on the willingness of Harris County voters to support public money going into a basketball arena."
"That was a great thing to be a part of," Swoopes says. But she adds, "We won those first four championships, and the whole city of Houston got spoiled." She's interested to see the level of fan attendance at the start of next year's season.
The Comets have had a tough time packing the new Toyota Center. Average attendance last season was about 8,000, down from more than 12,000 when they were winning championships.
"It wasn't a good season for us. It was our first time not making the playoffs," she says. "It definitely wasn't the way we wanted to start off playing in the new arena."
Fan support is perhaps more crucial to the success of the Comets franchise than to the Rockets -- or any other men's team, for that matter. Women's professional leagues constantly teeter on the brink of extinction. The original Women's Basketball League went bankrupt in 1981, but not before the Houston Angels won the league's first championship. Five women's basketball leagues have gone under, including, most recently, the American Basketball League in 1998.