Springfield, MA — The WNBA has been around now for 20 years. There have been hundreds of players come into the league and hundreds still to come. However, there can only be one person to get the honor of being the first player to sign a contract with the WNBA.
That player would be Sheryl Swoopes.
As a pioneer of the league, Swoopes was inducted into the Class of 2016 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Friday evening. It was a few months ago when she received the news she would be inducted. The news came at a very hard time, yet still brought happiness.
“I thank God every day for allowing me to share such a monumental moment with my mom. I will never forget the day I got the call on March 30th around 1 pm. I was sitting at [cancer center] with my mom waiting to see her doctor for the first time since she has been diagnosed with colon cancer…It was at that moment I received the called from John [Deliva] that I would be going into the hall of fame with an incredible class.
“Tears immediately started to flow down my face, and I wasn’t sure if it was because I had just become a Hall of Famer or the unknown, of whether my mom would be here to celebrate this special moment with me.”
After fighting back the tears, Swoopes looked at her mother in the audience and said, “Mom we made it.”
Years before Swoopes began her career in the WNBA; she was a force to be reckoned with at the college level for Texas Tech where she felt she “blossomed.” In her two years with the team, after transferring from South Plains College, she made her name well-known nationwide as an explosive do-it-all guard.
Swoopes led the Lady Raiders to two Southwest Conference titles and the NCAA Tournament twice. Texas Tech has one NCAA National Championship under its belt thanks to the play of Swoopes. Her performance in the championship game against Ohio State was electrifying, as she erupted for 47 points in the Title game.
She reflected on the moment during her speech, saying:
“When we played in the final four in 1993 and the championship game against Ohio state. The thrill, joy and excitement to get that opportunity to play at that magnitude, win a championship and represent so many people was a dream come true.”
At the conclusion of her senior year in 1993, Swoopes was named the Naismith College Player of the Year, as well as the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association player of the year.
She would carry her electrifying play to the next level – and she didn’t disappoint upon arrival.
During her time in the WNBA, Swoopes has often been referred to as the “female Michael Jordan.” When Swoopes first hit the professional scene in the WNBA’s inaugural season, her style of play caught fans attention immediately.
She went on to became the first female to have a shoe contract with Nike, with a shoe called, “Air Swoopes.” During her speech at the Hall of Fame Celebration, she thanked one of the best women’s basketball players in history, Nancy Lieberman, for helping her get that established.
“A lot of people don’t know, but Nancy and I go way back. If I’m correct, Nancy was the first person responsible for my Nike contract. It was a big one too at the time,” Swoopes expressed as a huge smile covered her face. Later in her speech, she told Phil Knight he was “the best.”
In her first year in the WNBA, Swoopes was limited to only nine games after giving birth to her son – her “most wonderful gift.” When she returned to Houston, her play was vital in initiating a championship run that has never been matched before in the WNBA.
With Swoopes’ leadership, competitive spirit and fiery play on the hardwood, she helped the Comets win four consecutive championships – the only team to win that many titles in a row. In her speech, she referenced the Comets as “the first dynasty in the WNBA.”
The accolades for Swoopes do not stop there, as she was the first WNBA player to win MVP honors and Defensive Player of the Year, three times. She was an all-around player on the court who could score whenever, yet also a defensive stopper for Houston.
Swoopes appeared in six All-Star games for the Comets. Her smooth pull-up jump shot, and her explosive, other wordly speed, helped her be the league’s scoring champion in 2000 and 2005.
Team USA won three gold medals with Swoopes on the team in 1996, 2000 and 2004. It was after that 1996 Atlanta Olympic games that the WNBA was introduced to the world. The league has come a long way, and Swoopes shared her thoughts on the growth of then and now.
“We got next. It wasn’t just the WNBA slogan, but it was our mission. I am proud to say that I am the first player to sign a WNBA contract and be among the WNBA pioneers with Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo as the first players to sign with the league.”
She continued, “Now 20 years later, the league has never been better from a competition standpoint, and continues to be a model for women’s professional sports. I applaud the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver and the league's President Lisa Borders, for ensuring the league will flourish for 20 more years.
Swoopes was a player for the Houston Comets for the first 10 years of her career. After the Houston franchise folded, she found herself in Washington playing for the Seattle Storm. She played in 29 games for Seattle during her year there.
Following her time in Seattle, Swoopes went overseas to play and reported she was retired from playing in the WNBA. A few years later in 2011, Swoopes came out of retirement to play for the now defunct Tulsa Shock at the age of 40. After a season with the Shock, Swoopes officially retired from the game of basketball as a player.
Like plenty of players have done in their lives, Swoopes became a coach. She had a small stint as a coach at the high school level before moving to the collegiate level as a head coach at Loyola Chicago University from 2013-2016.
Her career speaks for itself, and it is easily seen she deserves the recognition to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Before Swoopes exited the stage, she had one last remark for the younger generation of basketball players.
“To every little boy and girl out there who may be watching, it doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you work hard, believe, and never give up, dreams do come true. Thank you and God bless.”