Before there was Candace Parker, the super-combination of mother, wife and best women's basketball player on the planet, there was Sheryl Swoopes doing the same thing.
And before there was Brittney Griner, comfortable in her skin as an openly gay woman, there was Sheryl Swoopes coming out of the closet in her 30s—only to find love with a man years later.
Every story contains multitudes. But perhaps there is none greater, none more worthy of being told than that of Swoopes, who is the latest subject in ESPN's "Nine for IX" series.
The series has been billed as the female answer to the network's "30 for 30" series. Female directors telling stories about inspirational figures in their lives. While "30 for 30" hasn't eschewed stories about women entirely, "Nine for IX" has been about the stories that might not otherwise get a chance to see the light of day.
Swoopes' film, aptly titled Swoopes, will tell that full-ranging story on the former Houston Comets star and airs Tuesday. Director Hannah Storm, of ESPN fame, will look to cover all of these subjects with the participation of Swoopes, a key facet because no one could quite tell this story like the woman who lived it.
If the two collaborators glowing story of Swoopes' basketball career needed drama, she wouldn't have had trouble finding content.
Originally expected to attend the University of Texas, Swoopes bolted to the small South Plains Junior College in the rural town of Levelland (Texas). As high-profile athletes are wont to do, Swoopes excelled against her lesser competition. She exhausted her first two years of collegiate eligibility at South Plains, playing at gyms big enough to house a basketball game—and that's it. After winning the 1991 Junior College Player of the Year award, Swoopes had to move on.
Luckily, Texas Tech was there waiting with open arms. A relatively mediocre program before Swoopes came to Lubbock, the Lady Raiders became a national power from the moment No. 22 arrived. Swoopes led Texas Tech to its first Sweet 16 in 1991-92 and a national championship a year later, the only such triumph in school history.
Along the way, Swoopes' individual excellence kept her name in the papers—yes, those still existed. I imagine they still called movies "moving pictures" back then too—on almost a nightly basis. She bested the school she once scorned to the tune of 53 points in 1993, won the Naismith College Player of the Year that same season and set just about every record possible at Texas Tech.
Having exhausted her collegiate eligibility, the Cheryl Swoopes of 2013 would have had an easy life ahead. She would have been the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, played a bit overseas during her time off and lived the life of a Parker, of a Griner.
Twenty years ago there were no such options. There was no women's professional basketball league in the United States for players like Swoopes in 1993. Like many of her counterparts, Swoopes was forced overseas after her career in Lubbock ended. She bounced around from country to country, getting the rockstar treatment while playing before people who often didn't speak the same language.
Already in her mid-20s, Swoopes spent four full years without an American audience for her game. Sure, she won a gold medal in Atlanta for the United States, but there was nowhere for her to rest her head, no franchise to call her own. During that time—perhaps in part because of her hectic schedule—Swoopes got married to her high school sweetheart, a man named Eric Jackson.
Swoopes' WNBA career is the stuff we already know, the stuff of legend. She was assigned to the Houston Comets during the league's inaugural season, a 1997 campaign filled with triumph personally and professionally. It was during that time she gave birth to her son, Jordan, and won her first WNBA championship.
Swoopes would go on to win three more titles in as many seasons, leading a dynasty in a league still in its infancy. She was thrice the WNBA's MVP, thrice the WNBA's Defensive Player of the Year. Though Swoopes would win no more titles after the first four, she became known as the female Michael Jordan. Nike named a shoe after her, the Air Swoopes, a first in women's basketball history.
But as her career moved on, her 20s moving into her 30s and buckets coming at a slightly lessened rate, the WNBA's MVP suddenly became more interesting for her off-the-court life than what was happening on.
Swindled by shady handlers and her own malfeasant financial management, Swoopes filed for bankruptcy in 2004. Her financial plight became so great that when the Seattle Storm released her in 2009, she couldn't afford rent payments on her apartment.
According to ESPN's LZ Granderson, it was during that time her relationship started to crumble—with Alisa Scott, a woman. While Swoopes and her former husband amicably divorced before the turn of the century, her romantic life after that was shrouded in mystery until 2005. It was then, about a year after her bankruptcy, that Swoopes announced her lesbian relationship with Scott, who was a Comets assistant coach during their time.
In the years following her announcement, Swoopes became something of a beacon of light in the LGBT community. She spoke at events, became an endorser of Olivia Cruises and was one of the first "out" female athletes in history. It's likely that Swoopes' courage and comfort with her relationship at that point has been an inspiration to as many (if not more) as her skills on the court.
But as her financial strain kept increasing, Swoopes and Scott's relationship went downhill. As told to Granderson, the reasoning was pretty standard:
I told God I needed help, that I didn't know what to do. And in that moment, I just felt as if bricks had to be removed from my shoulders. I felt trapped in my relationship. Gender doesn't matter, man or a woman, if you feel trapped, the relationship is not good for you. The next morning I told Alisa, "I'm not in love with you anymore and I can't do this anymore."
With that, Swoopes was gone, off to Greece to resume her playing career. She would eventually return to the WNBA for one more season, in 2011 with the Tulsa Shock. Think of it as Jordan with the Wizards. Swoopes shot below 40 percent from the field and scored just 8.2 points per game. At 40 years old, Swoopes was playing like a 40-year-old basketball player.
Again without a job on the court, it would have been easy for Swoopes to go down another rabbit hole. But around her 40th birthday, Swoopes found happiness in her personal life again—this time with a man, Chris Unclesho. They've since married. Her reversal of sexual course has taken some criticism in the LGBT community, but Swoopes is as steadfast about her love of Unclesho as she once was about Scott.
"I'm not confused," Swoopes told Granderson. "I'm in love with who I am supposed to be in love with."
That's where the film will find Swoopes. Happy. And with a new job, coaching Loyola University Chicago's women's basketball team. As a head coach. Without one lick of head coaching experience prior. So to say there's mineable intrigue here is putting it mildly.
Every story contains multitudes. It just so happens Sheryl Swoopes' are worth your time.
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