"This opportunity presented itself and I just said you know my prayers have been answered."
Sheryl Swoopes, one of the most decorated athletes in the history of women's basketball, once again has a home on the hardwood.
Her basketball journey began with the Little Dribblers in Brownville, Texas as a child. She then attended college in the West Texas town of Lubbock where she won a national title and player of the year accolades at Texas Tech. In 1997, she crossed the state of Texas to the metropolis of Houston as the 5th ever pick in the WNBA draft. With the Comets for 10 years, Swoopes began bagging individual awards (3-time defensive player of the year, 3-time mvp) and team titles (4-time WNBA champion).
After ending her time with the Comets, she played with the Seattle Storm for one season. And was dumped - cut before the contract guarantee went into effect to save some room. Basketball is, after all, a business as so many realize.
But for Swoopes, basketball is still a love. And that love has carried her back into the league she helped inaugurate as a member of the Tulsa Shock. Swoopes' excitement is nearly palpable as she talks about why she is so glad to be back.
"One, to be back in the league playing again and just doing something that I love definitely makes me excited," Swoopes said in her introductory phone press conference. "And two, because I know there are a lot of people out there who are questioning this and who have their doubts and that also motivates me and excites me.
"So I don't really care about what people think or how they feel about that because I know who I am and I know what I've been able to do and with the support of my teammates and the organization and fans and family, I know what I can do."
So how did this journey back begin? With a phone call from fellow Olympian Teresa Edwards, now a member of the Shock coaching staff. Edwards and Swoopes, both highly decorated Olympic athletes, shared the court en route to gold medals in 1996 and 2000.
"Actually, the call kind of happened out of the blue," Swoopes said. "Coach Edwards, Teresa Edwards, called my cell phone one day ... She just said Sheryl, hey it's T - and we kind of go back a little bit from the Olympic days and things like that so I feel like we have that type of relationship where we could just talk to each other - and she just said what are you doing? Are you interested in playing? Are you done? Have you retired? Do you want to play?"
From there, Swoopes came to work out for head coach Nolan Richardson in Tulsa, a time for both of them to evaluate the potential return.
"In all fairness to him, to the organization - I'm sure a lot of people are probably wondering what in the world are you doing or why would you do this she's 40 years old," Swoopes said. "I've heard all of it - the good and the bad - and I wouldn't expect anything differently. So rightfully so, I think he needed to take a look at me and wanted to take a look at me. Again, I hadn't played in the WNBA since '08; played overseas and if you don't really follow overseas then you don't get a chance to see who is playing or watch games or anything like that.
"Thankfully, everything worked out. I think he saw in me exactly what he wanted to, what he needs, what the organization needs and I have so much respect for him. I think a lot of people would consider this a risk, taking a chance, and I have a lot of respect for him to just kind of go out and say you know what, this is what I'm going to do. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised."
Perhaps just as surprised as when she left the league. This 40-year old version of Swoopes is ready to show she still has "it" on the court. Ready to prove she still belongs in the league.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I can compete and I can play on this level. Let me say again that if there was an ounce of doubt in my mind that I couldn't still play with those young ones out there I definitely wouldn't be doing it," Swoopes said. "The only reason why I'm doing it is because I still love the game.
"And to be given the opportunity to come back and kind of leave on the right note, or just to be a part of it again is something that I'm excited about. You know, at this point in my career for me honestly it's not about the individual accomplishments, the individual awards, it's about what I've got to do, how I can contribute to the team ... It's definitely something that I'm looking forward to."
Some are already curious as to what her role with the Shock will be and Swoopes herself is no exception.
"I think my role is going to be very different than it's probably been in my entire career, but at the same time I'm looking forward to that," Swoopes said. "That's another challenge in itself to me. And all my life, all my career I've had challenges and things I've had to deal with and overcome. That's kind of how I'm approaching this."
Her approach began as soon as she landed in Tulsa to work out.
"We had a conversation before I went there and then when I went to Tulsa we sat down and talked and I kind of said well what will my role be, how do you see my role on this team," Swoopes said. "Not just a leader on the court and in game situations, in practice situations, but a leader off the court, a leader in the locker room.
"They're a very young team and I think a lot of those players, because they're younger players and they came from other teams, weren't necessarily in a leadership role. I definitely see myself as being that type of a leader. Not just talking about it in the locker room saying this is how you should do that or do this, but I have to lead by example. At this point in my career, whatever that role - if I'm playing 10 minutes, I'm going to play 10 minutes hard. If I'm playing 30 minutes, I'm going to play 30 minutes hard."
And Swoopes knows playing hard is not only expected of her in the Richardson system, but required of her - and every athlete that laces them up for the Shock. She is ready to accept that daunting challenge and work within the parameters of the "hellish" system.
"I think Coach Richardson has this reputation of being a very tough coach, but what I saw when I watched them play and just in talking to him - I think he's a very intense coach," Swoopes said of the Shock head man. "I think he really understands the game exceptionally well and his whole thing of 40 minutes of hell - I think that's what people call it, but what it is is we're going to play hard for 40 minutes and I think that's all you can ask from any coach and from any player.
"To be able to go and play in a system of his, I think there's quite a bit of freedom because if you're pressing teams and you're playing tough defense and you're playing hard-nosed defense, you're going to be able to go out and you're going to get a lot of easy buckets. I'm excited about it.
"I can honestly say I don't think I've ever played for a coach like Coach Richardson. So that in itself is going to be something that's going to be different to me. But again, that's the way I like to play. I physically feel very good and I know in order to play in his system, his style of play I've got to be in great shape, so that's what I'm working on now and I definitely know I'll be ready come May 15th."
Not only will Swoopes be ready, she is glad that her fan base is ready to see her in action again.
"I'm very very humbled and honored that Nolan - Coach Richardson - is giving me another opportunity to be a part of the Shock. It feels good. I've gotten a lot of messages ... from a lot of fans around the world that are really thrilled and happy and excited for me. It really touches my heart. It means a lot to me that there are still fans out there that support me and want to see me come back."
She knows this chance is something to be grateful for, especially after being away from the WNBA for two seasons.
"I just think sometimes when we are in a situation or when things are kind of given to us, we might not appreciate them as much," Swoopes said. "But then when things are kind of taken away from you regardless of how it was taken away - whether it was your fault, someone else's fault, whether you could control it or not - and to be given a second opportunity or another chance, I just think you kind of appreciate that a little bit more."
Swoopes is ready to Shock.