Sheryl Swoopes is one of the greatest male or female basketball players of all-time in 1995, she was the first female to be award a signature shoe from Nike and second only to Chicago Bulls‘ legend Michael Jordan, and it would be named the ‘Nike Air Swoopes.’
“I look at where the game is today, and how far we as female athletes, as women, have come — I feel like now is such an important time for women and female athletes everywhere,” said Swoops.
A year later, in 1996, when the WNBA was formed, the Houston Comets made her the first pick for their inaugural season. During her first four seasons in the WNBA, Swoops proved why she deserved to be awarded a shoe deal from Nike, as she went on to be the first-ever player to record a triple-double in the regular season as well as, the playoffs.
During her 14 year career in the WNBA, she helped lead the Houston Comets to four straight WNBA Championships from 1996-2000. She racked up three MVP Awards, six all-star appearances, three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and three gold medals, to name a few of her accolades. She was also inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.
I recently spoke with Swoops about her foundation, the Sheryl Swoopes Foundation for Youth project Back to Our Roots, which is her non-profit organization that focuses on empowering and educate today’s youth through sport, setting goals and to explore different cultures particular in Africa.
Landon Buford: March is an International Women’s month can you share with us how you want to use some of your achievements, such as being the first player drafted in the WNBA or the first female basketball player to sign a shoe deal to help motivate young girls growing up?
Sheryl Swoopes: I think for me, anytime you are the first at anything, there is always a lot of people watching you see how you handle that. I like to think that I will be the first to achieve and accomplished a lot of things, not just in the WNBA, and as being a trailblazer. I always say someone must be the first to be able to lay a foundation for so many young people coming behind us coming to achieve what we did but to surpass us. That has always been my mission, focus, and passion for reaching out to not just young women, men as well, but especially young women. To show them that it is possible because I come from a very small town.
My background growing up, I didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t have a lot of those things. So, I want to show these young girls out there it is very possible to able to achieve anything you want to achieve. I look at that opportunity with hopefully these little girls look at me and see if she did it, I can do it as well. That the message I would like to leave doesn’t try to be the next Sheryl Swoops. Just focus on being the best person you can be. That is the way I look at the position that I’m in.
Landon Buford: Chris Tellison and yourself created the none-profit ‘Back to Our Roots’ last October to empower and educate today’s youth. Can you share why your foundation is so close to your heart?
Sheryl Swoopes: Oh, wow, there are a lot of reasons, and it’s crazy because every time I talk about it, I get emotional. Only because I am passionate about it, and I feel there is a significant need for it. I am the type of person that has had a foundation for over 20 years, but as long I was playing, I don’t do much with it because I am more of a hands-on type of person. Now that I am retired, I have that ability to do so, but my foundation is the Sherly Swoops Foundation for Youth, which helps all our youth. And underneath it, I have programs, and the great program that I am working on and focused on right now is called Back to our Roots.
It is to educate and empower our African American youth to understand their ancestral heritage through traveling to Africa, through mentorship, and basketball camps. The reason why it is near and dear to my heart, and I’m passionate about it because I feel in today’s society all of our youth. Still, especially African Americans, are struggling with identity. Also, where do we fit in this world, and I want to be able to educate and empower them and show them where we come from and who we are? I can’t think of a better way to do that than to take them back to Africa and educating them on their ancestral heritage.
So we will do their DNA testing before we travel to Africa. That way, they will have an understanding of where their ancestors come from, and we will tour places such as W. D. Boyd Museum, Salve Dungeon, and also talk to them about sustainable living.
Landon Buford: What are some of the events that the organization has planned heading into the ladder part of 2020?
Sheryl Swoopes: The biggest thing that I am working on right now is a fundraiser, and that fundraiser will be in Houston, Texas, within the next three months.
He is currently in the early stages of planning it because I want to make sure it is done the right way. We are also going to be putting on basketball camps I do them here in the states, but I will also be conducting them overseas in Africa with the kids that are going with me and by myself. I am also working with a young man in Ghana to build a computer learning center. We are in the process of helping them with drilling Warhols so they will have water.
So, it not just focusing on doing things here in the states with our African American youth; it is also assisting and helping working organizations that are already established in Africa.
Landon Buford: In 1995, you became the first female basketball player to have your own signature athletic shoe’ The Nike Air Swoopes.’ Can you take us through the process of how the deal presented itself?
Sheryl Swoopes: It was a process but not a long one, though. In 1993, when I graduated from Texas Tech, I went overseas and played ball for a little bit, and then I came back home in 1995 is when the USA put the national team together. I was a part of the 95-96 national team, which eventually became the 1996 Olympic team for Team USA. During the process, I signed an endorsement deal with Nike and went to Portland, Oregon, one weekend to have a meeting a discussion about women’s basketball shoes. Never did I think it would turn into a conversation about my footwear. The conversation was simply giving my input on what was essential to be about a basketball shoe. I couldn’t say women’s basketball because it didn’t exist at the time. I always played in men’s basketball shoes because there were not any women’s basketball shoes on the market that you could go buy.
So, I gave them my input on the look, feel, and what was important to me because I always had weak ankles when I played, so it had to have excellent ankle support. So, we discussed that, and then they asked what did I think they should name the shoe. I had no idea that they were looking to give me my own shoe and call it’ The Nike Air Swoopes.’
Growing up a didn’t wear Nikes because I could afford them and honestly didn’t think I would be a buy a pair so, to be in the presence of someone that could make that decision, I couldn’t say it was a dream come dream because it wasn’t a dream growing up. I did, however, look at as a moment that was bigger than just me because it hadn’t been done before and would allow me to open up doors for individuals behind me.
Landon Buford: A’Ja Wilson, like yourself with Nike back in 1995, recently became the first female basketball player to sign an endorsement deal with Mountain Dew. What type of pressure came with that honor for you back in the mid-90s if there was any?
Sheryl Swoopes: First of all, I am a huge A’Ja Wilson Fan. I love her game, and I love her as a person. I think she represents herself well and the WNBA well, and represents the brand well. Again I thought there is always going to be pressure if you allow it to be pressure. Because there are always going to be people looking at you watching and seeing how you handle yourself. Even during the time when it is nobody’s business, but in the profession that we are in or the profession that she is in, there will always be someone watching you.
I also think it is an opportunity to open people’s eyes to the great things that are coming verse it being pressure. For me, with a company like Nike, which is one of the biggest sneaker companies out there. So, everyone understands what Nike is, and in A’Ja’s situation with Mountian Dew being the first female basketball to sign with the company is enormous.
Not just for her, but it shows Mountian Dew’s commitment to wanting to support women and help elevate them to the next level, and I think A’ja Wilson is a great ambassador, athlete, and person to help get that message out there.
Landon Buford: Yourself and Julius’ Dr. J’ Erving recently visited the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to strike the first of commemorative coins honoring the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Can you share with us what that opportunity meant to you is that you are a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame?
Sheryl Swoopes: Oh, wow, that was huge. I remember back in the Spring of 2019 when I traveled to Springfield, Mass, it was just a discussion. They were talking about it, and it was going to happen, but for me to actually be a part it and strike the first strike not just myself, but to be in the presence of like a Dr.J, who I think is one of the best to play the game. I think it was a tremendous honor to represent the Hall of fame and be in the presence of many incredible people, and what I appreciate was the coin itself.
I got the opportunity to meet the designer, but look at the coin itself it tries represents male basketball players, female basketball players, but also there is a wheelchair basketball as well. Everyone is represented, and for me to be one of the individuals there, it was a tremendous honor to represent women and the Hall of Fame.
If the Houston Comets ever rejoined, the WNBA would be interested in investing in the ball club?
I would be interested in investing, running the team, and I would be interested in being a part of the Comets. I would so be interested in being involved with any WNBA team.
Landon Buford: You have won on every level that the game of basketball has to offer and know what it takes to reach that pinnacle. Why do you feel it’s been difficult for many players of your stature to relate and bring the best out of your players when accepting coaching jobs after their playing careers?
Sheryl Swoopes: I don’t for me, it wasn’t difficult. I will say this generation of kids are different, and I think everyone always says that. But what I think is missing that some coaches are stuck in who they are, and I have learned you have to meet players where they are. Things are consistently changing, and the world is changing everything is changes, but as a coach, you also have to be willing to make these changes.
I will tell you one person that is doing a phenomenal just in doing those things, and that is Dawn Staley with South Carolina. I’m a massive fan of hers. You have to be able to relate to the players, and I think the older you are as it pertains to some of these coaches, it harder because they are who they are.
They are stuck in there way, and things won’t change. However, when start looking at players who recently retired and if they want to get into coaching, I think it easier for those players to connect with the players on that level. I believe Dawn Staley does a phenomenal job doing that.
Landon Buford: When your peers are asked to talk about your game, they always zero in on your ability to create and your pump fake. Who is the person you model your passing ability after and that deadly pump fake?
Sheryl Swoopes: I don’t think I model my game after anyone growing up. There were individual players that I watched like Michael Jordan. I loved his game, loved Scottie Pippens game, so there would be things that I would see them do, and when I went to practice or working out on my own that I would try, but I really didn’t pattern my game after anyone. I just tried to take bit and piece from different players an incorporate that into my game.
As for the pump fake, I feel it is a fundamental those are things I’m missing from the game today are the fundamentals that players seem to get away from. I think I focused so much on using my pump fake; it was just a part of my game. It was a fundamental skill I think more people should use because it allows you to create space and to be able to get your shot off. Also, get around fierce defenders better.
Landon Buford: You had the opportunity to win four WNBA Championships with one of the best point guards in history in Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and played with the best point guard in today’s game in Sue Bird. Can you share the qualities that made both players so tactical on the court?
Sheryl Swoopes: First of all, they are both totally different players when I think about Sue, I played with a year in the Olympics and a year in Seattle. Sue is a true point guard; she sees the floor very well; she understands the game and knows how to be a leader. She also knows how to set her teammates up, and that was Sue Birds’ ability from a point guard’s standpoint was to just lead her team.
And the understanding she always had of the game. I have always respected her for that, and when I look at Coop, Coop is just a flat out scorer she could just score. She handles the ball a lot, she created a lot for her teammates like myself, Tina Tina, Janeth Arcain, and everybody. When I think about her game, she was just a scorer. Some people can shoot, and some people can score. There is a difference she was a scorer, which meant she fill it up in many different ways and was unstoppable.
As her teammate, there were moments when she do something I would sit there or when I was on the court where it was male or female, players weren’t supposed to do some of the things she was doing. I absolutely enjoyed my time playing with Cynthia Cooper.
Landon Buford: The Phoenix Mercury just added Skylar Diggins-Smith and is already drawing comparisons to the Houston Comets Big 3 of Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, and yourself. It is way too early to tell, but do you think that’s a fair comparison two either group of players currently?
Sheryl Swoopes: I really don’t get too caught up in that because I think there are some tremendous talents in the WNBA, and I have a lot of respect for Skylar and what she did in college and in the WNBA. I think she is a great talent, and besides that, I know the difficulties of being a professional athlete and trying to be a mom at the same time.
So, I have mad respect for her and what she has done. Diana Taurasi, no doubt about it, is one of the best to ever play the game, and Brittney Griner, I think, can be a very great basketball player. I leave that to other people to decide, but I will say if you talk about the big three people call myself, Tina Thompson, and Cynthia Cooper, the original big three or whatever you want to put it. In our prime, I would take that big 3 against any big 3 today.
That’s just the confidence that I have in who we are and what we brought to the floor every night, but not to say the players that are playing today are not that good because they are capable of being in that conversation. I’m a fan of the game, and I don’t get caught up in this big 3 against that big 3.
Landon Buford: What is the significant difference in the women’s game now compared to when you were playing at Texas Tech?
Sheryl Swoopes: I think the most significant difference is from when I played in college, or even when I played in the pros, it has gone to more of a positionless game. Meaning I can play the one, two, three, four, and five. When I played, you had a true center, who would play with their back to the basket, and they wouldn’t bring the ball up the floor and shooting three, and there is nothing wrong with that. I just think the game has changed from your traditional position such as point guards, shooting guards, forwards, power forwards, and centers.
To positionless basketball where you have a Liz Cambage with the Las Vegas Aces bring the ball up the floor, that is what I think is the most significant difference. Also, from a skills standpoint, you probably have more women with the ability to dunk the basketball, which I don’t get caught up in that either, but some people do. However, more women are able to do it, not say we didn’t have anybody when I played with Texas Tech or with the Comets, but I think as far as the game goes, that is the most significant difference.
Landon Buford: What are thoughts about retired NBA players investing in the WNBA?
Sheryl Swoopes: I think it is excellent and I think its an excellent opportunity and great entertainment. I do know you are getting an excellent product for not too much money, and when I say that, not too much money for NBA players to invest in a team. It also shows the support that a lot of the NBA players have the WNBA players.
I think its a significant investment, but I wouldn’t just cut it off to former NBA players there are current NBA players that I know who get into the games, promote that the game. So, I think for anyone out there that is interested in investing or buying a team. I think it would be a great idea because I think we need more teams in the WNBA. So, there be more jobs for a lot of this talent that is coming out of the collegiate game. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teams, which means there aren’t enough spots and enough jobs for this great talent, and they are being passed on because there is not enough space for them.
I would also wish more WNBA teams would give former WNBA players more opportunities to a part of their organizations. That doesn’t necessarily mean on the coaching staff it can be in the front office and player development. I think some our former players and coaches have gotten the amazing opportunity in the NBA, and don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with that, but I hate losing all this talent to the NBA and just hold on to this great talent into the WNBA. In order to help grow the game and teach the young players the game and what it is like to be a professional athlete.