Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
Guru's note: This is the Guru's bio piece on Sheryl Swoopes appearing in Friday night's Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony printed program.
By Mel Greenberg
When Sheryl Swoopes put her John Hancock on her WNBA contract two decades ago, the native of Brownfield, Texas, literally became the equivalent of the American founding father who was the first signee of the Declaration of Independence.
Just like Hancock’s easy to distinguish signature, Swoopes was already larger than life out of Texas Tech as the first women’s basketball sensation to join the brand new women’s professional basketball league birthed by the NBA.
Ironically, the future member of the WNBA Houston Comets was herself a shooting star out of nowhere in terms of national attention when she torched the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 1993, setting records with 177 points for the five games she appeared, and in the championship game against Ohio State, when she lit the nets for 47 points and connected for 16 field goals.
Her two-game Women’s Final Four record of 78 points is also a record still standing following last season’s tournament.
“My experience in the '93 championship game is one I will never forget!,” Swoopes recalls. “The thrill, joy and excitement of getting an opportunity to play in the Final Four and represent so many people was like a dream come true.
“I was nervous, anxious, and excited about just being in that moment. One that not many people are fortunate enough to be a part of,” she continued. “A small town girl from Brownfield, Texas was playing on the big stage in front of thousands of people getting a chance to show them what West Texas ball was all about!”
The Associated Press made Swoopes the female athlete of the year in 2003 and she also won several Division I women’s basketball individual honors that season.
“I think we had a good nucleus and a good foundation of kids that we were going to be a good basketball team but obviously she took them to a whole different level,” said former Texas Tech coach Marsha Sharp, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
“As they normally say when something like that happens, the rest is history and that was certainly true for us and the things she did here were unequalled.
“People still to this day talk about that season and what it did for Texas Tech and still the only national team championship this university has – she’s a folk hero here and she was just an amazing addition to what we wanted to be about and took us where we wanted to be.”
Former Stanford star Jennifer Azzi, who now coaches San Francisco in Division I NCAA, was a teammate of Swoopes on the 1996 USA Olympic team that barnstormed the country unbeaten for a year before sweeping its way to a gold medal at the Atlanta games, finishing the entire slate at 60-0.
“When I first saw her play in the tournament, I was like, `Who is this person, she is good’,” Azzi recalls of the women’s member of this weekend’s 2016 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee class here in Springfield, Mass.
“She is one of the most talented players I played with. What I liked about playing with her is how well she knows the game. She knows when to shoot, when to pass, what to do, she just has a feel for the game, and their run in Houston was pretty unbelievable in the WNBA and she is just a tremendous teammate, too.”
Swoopes, who became the first women’s player to have a shoe, Air Swoopes, designed in her name by Nike, was part of Houston’s early domination, grabbing the first four WNBA titles.
“Once you’ve been blessed by Michael Jordan, you’re like The Chosen One,” quipped Carla McGhee, a former Tennessee star who also was part of the ’96 Olympians.
“In all truthfulness, Sheryl is a true competitor, she played at one speed – hard. She was fierce.
She was a force to be reckoned with and as a teammate I knew I could always count on her to bring her ‘A’ game.
“It was exciting to watch how kids and adults flocked to her and how she was gracious with them, signing autographs, taking pictures, and rightfully so it’s her time to be enshrined into what is the epitome of the best of the best.
“We’ve had great moments, and also playing against each other in the WNBA and overseas, and the one thing that was consistent is that every time she stepped on the court you knew if you were her opponent, you had to have your ‘A’ game, because she was bringing her ‘A plus.’”
Known as the Big Three, the WNBA force in Texas included Naismith Hall of Fame inductee Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Tina Thompson, who was a rookie out of Southern Cal at the outset of the league, and Swoopes.
However, Swoopes missed the front part of the inaugural season, having become pregnant with her future son Jordan Eric Jackson.
But she returned in time to still be a viable contributor to Houston’s first title in 1997 and the next three on the way to a stay extending through 2007 before playing one season in Seattle with the Storm.
“My years with the Comets were very special,” Swoopes remembers. “Being able to win four championships in a row and to be considered a part of the first WNBA dynasty still reigns at the top of my list as far as accomplishments.
“We had a very special team that competed everyday and anything less than a championship was considered a failure. What made the first championship special to me was the fact that I gave birth to my son and was able to come back and be a part of the team and share in the first ever WNBA title.”
Her Houston years saw her collect career marks of over 2,000 points ,500 rebounds, 300 assists, and 200 steals. A two-way threat, Swoopes earned accolades as the first three-time MVP in the league in 2000, 2002, and 2005, and she also gained a first trifecta with defensive player of the year honors in 200, 2002, and 2003.
She was twice the league’s scoring champion while she and Naismith Hall of Fame Lisa Leslie have been both All-Star and regular-season MVPs in the same summers they earned their dual honors.
“Until she played at the Olympic and WNBA level,” Texas Tech’s Sharp observed, “It was sort of her signature to really just pass everyone on the floor with her speed going the other direction.”
Following Swoopes’ one year in Seattle, she went unsigned the next two seasons until 2011 when she signed with the former Tulsa Shock for a season at the age of 40. In August of that summer she hit a buzzer-beater that ended the team’s WNBA-record league losing streak of 20 games.
Swoopes has been voted to both the all-time top 15 and top 20 players in the WNBA and was a six-time All-Star.
“She’s one of the most amazing athletic specimens I’ve ever been around,” recalls Boston U. Coach Katy Steding, another former Stanford star who was part of the ’96 Gold Medalists.
“ She can do everything. Just when you think you had her figured out, she’s pulled another trick out of her bags,” Steding said. “Having to defend her every day was a real chore but it was something I’ll remember.
“ She was always there for you, she always had a smile on her face, she was always excited about the opportunity to compete again so she was a great teammate.”
Former WNBA New York Liberty star Teresa Weatherspoon out of Louisiana Tech, who is now a member of the coaching staff, says of Swoopes: “She was an amazing player, quite fast, played at a high level, in college when she was on the floor, she was just unconscious.
“On the floor, she could do what she wanted, almost like a Steph Curry these days, she just took over the game. She made me better because I had to defend her in practice. She made me a better defender.”
Being raised by her mother, Louise, she learned to play hoops with her three older brothers and when she reached seven years old, she played for the Little Dribblers, a children’s league in Brownfield before moving on to that town’s high school team when she became of age.
“I really enjoyed the excitement of doing something that I only saw the majority of boys doing and the competitiveness that came with trying to be better than most of the guys I played with,” Swoopes said of her formative years. “My biggest memory is being much quicker and/or faster than most of the girls I played with and not being able to get enough of playing basketball.”
Texas might have continued its run as a top team out of the 1980s had Swoopes not enrolled in Austin but left without ever putting on a uniform. She spent two years at South Plains College where she would become the Junior College player of the year just before making the move to Texas Tech.
In that 1993 NCAA championship season, she averaged 28.1 points per game, which ranked second nationally, and 9.2 rebounds. Her two-year Division I career performances produced 1,645 points and at that rate had she played all four years she most likely would be among at least the top 10 if not lower all time scorers in the NCAA’s most prominent division.
As a Lady Raider, Swoopes set 30 different women’s basketball records, including four Final Four records, three NCAA tournament records, four NCAA championship game records and eight Texas Tech school records, including the single-game school record for points (53), which still stands. Her No. 22 was retired on Feb. 19, 1994, one of only three women’s players in the program to achieve that honor.
“Brownfield is only 30 miles outside of Lubbock, so we recruited her out of high school, of course,” Sharp recalled.
“As much as she could impact the game on the offense end, I think she more definitely impacted it defensively,” Sharp continued. “The first time I saw her she was on the front of a press and she intercepted the ball, about four or five times and scored before the other team got it inbounded.
“A couple of other times she would take it the length of the court and score. She was a sophomore in high school the first time I watched her play a complete game.
“When we got her from the junior college, the second time we were able to convince her to stay home, we knew there was a chance she would be a program-changing decision for us and certainly it proved to be just that.”
From Brownfield to Lubbock to Houton, from Atlanta to Sydney to Athens, Sheryl Swoopes now findsherself in the city where the game was invented.