Sheryl Swoopes has been given a lot of labels: diva, pioneer, lesbian—even the female Michael Jordan.
It's safe to say Swoopes is a polarizing figure in women’s basketball. She’s been criticized for her high-profile Nike endorsements, her relationship with a female assistant coach, and her brazen personality, which have all contributed to a tumultuous career. But as seen in the new ESPN Nine for IX documentary Swoopes, there’s no denying that she’s one of the greatest basketball players—male or female—that the game has ever seen.
Born into a poor family in Brownfield, Texas, Swoopes says her only outlet was playing basketball. She was recruited to play for the University of Texas, but left before the season even started because she was homesick. She enrolled at Texas Tech, where she led the school to its first-ever NCAA title in 1993. In the championship game, she scored 47 points, which is still a record for both women’s and men’s teams, according to Swoopes. Her status was elevated further when she played for the gold medal-winning 1996 Olympic women’s basketball team. When the WNBA launched in 1997, Swoopes was first in line, signing with the Houston Comets. By 2000, the Comets were a dynasty, according to the film, joining the Boston Celtics as the only pro basketball teams ever to win four titles in a row.
Her smooth skills and seemingly effortless abilities were unprecedented for women’s basketball. “She played with a transformative style that I think many women had yet to show,” says Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle. “She plays like a guy.”
The film is directed by Hannah Storm, a SportsCenter anchor and the WNBA’s first-ever play-by-play announcer. The film attempts to navigate the background of Swoopes’s life through interviews with her family, former teammates, coaches and even Swoopes herself. But, for a good chunk of the film, Swoopes comes off as rather cocky.
A few things she mentions in the film might raise eyebrows. After nabbing a Nike endorsement deal to create her own shoe brand, Air Swoopes, she says in the film, “I think it’s probably the best idea Nike’s ever had.” And when she was the first player to be signed into the WNBA, Swoopes says she thought, “This is my league. I’m going to be the face of this league.”
After all, as Robertson says, “You can’t underestimate the diva quotient in Sheryl Swoopes.”
At the same time, Swoopes needed to exude that swagger to survive. In the film, she says that no one thought that she’d amount to anything, so she was constantly proving herself to others.
This is seen during the part of the film that addresses her pregnancy. At the time, it was a surprise to her, and she coincidentally gave birth to her son Jordan (named after Michael Jordan, of course) on the same day that the WNBA played its first game. Swoopes said she was excited to be a new mom, but had a nagging feeling that she was letting everyone down in the brand-new league. After only six weeks, she returned to basketball. Even though she was a long way from her pre-pregnancy body, she brought her son to the games and fed him at halftime.
With her trademark determination, Swoopes set a precedent for athlete mothers. “I don’t know if anyone thought that that was possible until she did it, and once she did it, it became pretty normal,” says Comets teammate Tina Thompson.
There is no denying that Swoopes was a great player. It's impossible to not be completely impressed by her—simply because she always stayed true to herself, particularly during the next phase of her life, when she became one of the most high-profile lesbian athletes.
After divorcing her husband, Swoopes found comfort with the Comets’ assistant coach, Alisa Scott. She questioned herself at first, but she said once she came to peace with it, she didn’t really care if anyone else was OK with it or not. She came out publicly in 2005—without telling the WNBA first.
“Imagine what it’s like to have someone with then notoriety of Sheryl Swoopes, someone who had all these little girls and families looking up to her, and wondering what they would think of her when she made this decision,” says ESPN the Magazine writer LZ Granderson. “It was incredibly brave, it was incredibly selfless, it was incredibly needed, because it forced the WNBA to have adult conversations about who’s our fan base, who’s our players? In the largest sense of the conversation, she moved the needle forward.”
She also alienated some members of the gay community in the process, for saying that she was not born gay. “She wasn’t going to be a spokesperson or a hero in the way that they wanted her to be—she was going to be herself, and for a lot of people, they didn’t want that,” Granderson says.
After her relationship ended, she suffered some major setbacks, including bankruptcy and a career-ending back injury. She was forced to auction off much of the memorabilia she collected through the years—including signed hats, jerseys, trophies and awards—when she couldn’t pay $300 a month to keep them in a storage facility. But she ultimately rebounded. She found new love (with her fiancé, Chris Tellison) and became the new head coach for Loyola Chicago’s women’s basketball team this year. She says she is focusing on being a good mom and a mentor to her players.
During her coming-out process in the film, she says, “I feel like I was invincible. And I felt strong, I felt powerful, and I don’t really care what anybody thinks.” But that sentence doesn’t just apply to that time in her life—that, in a nutshell, is the essence of Sheryl Swoopes.