By Tamara Shiloh
In April 1996, women’s basketball announced, “We Got Next.”
The WNBA was approved by the NBA Board of Governors and games would begin the following year. The inaugural season proved successful as over 50 million viewers watched the games.
Six months after the announcement, the league signed its first player, Sheryl Denise Swoopes (b. 1971–). In 1997, she was recruited for the Houston Comets. The signing of the contract was long overdue, a far cry from the days when a girl turning pro seemed like an impossible dream.
Raised by her mother in Brownsville, Texas, young Sheryl played basketball with her three older brothers. At age seven, she participated in a local children’s league, the Little Dribblers. It was her siblings, she says, who helped her perfect her game.
“At first they didn’t like playing with me,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “Then when they did, they wouldn’t play hardball. But eventually, a brother, James, played ball at Murray State. It’s 6-4. He wouldn’t play hard until he saw how good I was getting, when I beat him a few times.
Over time, competition with her brothers increased her self-confidence, making her eager to test her skills on the tarmac. Swoopes was on the Brownfield High School basketball team, where she became an All-State and All-American high school player.
“It helps to play with the guys,” she told The Washington Post. “They are so much more physical than the girls. Once you go out and play with guys, and you find yourself in a situation with girls, you think, “Well, if I score on this guy, I know I can score on her.”
Six feet tall after graduating from high school, Swoops was among the most popular college recruits. His choice: the University of Texas at Austin. It was the only school she seriously considered, but she had never given much thought to the 400 mile distance.
“They were a great national powerhouse in basketball and I thought they could take my game to another level. But once there… well, I just didn’t realize how big it was. was far from home,” she said. Homesick, after four days she returned home, giving up her entire scholarship.
Determined to take her game to another level, Swoops shrugged off naysayers predicting her career was already over. She enrolled at South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas. There, after her second season, she was named National Junior Player of the Year. Basketball, going forward, was a tough climb.
In 1993, Swoopes won the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship with the Texas Tech Lady Raiders. She won three Olympic gold medals, an NCAA championship and a WNBA title. She was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. In 2017, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Share Swoopes’ story about the game with your young daughter. Read “Breaking Glass: The Remarkable Story of Women’s Basketball” by Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford.