After being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last September, Sheryl Swoopes is part of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2017.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Sure, there have been times in the last year that Sheryl Swoopes felt distant from basketball. When she doubted the future she might have in the sport that, in so many ways, has defined her life.
But as Swoopes contemplated her second major Hall of Fame induction in the past 10 months — she went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last September, and will enter the Women’s Basketball hall here this weekend — Swoopes seems resolved to reconnect with hoops.
It’s what her mother wanted. Ida Louise Swoopes died of cancer at age 72 on March 14, just 11 days before Sheryl’s 46th birthday.
The pain remains etched on Swoopes’ face; you see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. She desperately misses her mother, and acknowledges she’s still in the acute process of grieving what has been the biggest loss of her life.
But there’s also a sense of Swoopes’ rebuilding and re-evaluating herself, if you will. Loyola of Chicago let Swoopes go last July after three seasons as head coach. Several players had transferred, primarily citing Swoopes’ coaching personality and tactics. After an investigation, the school parted ways with Swoopes, who had not coached previously.
For a while, Swoopes thought maybe that was that, and coaching just wasn’t for her. In fact, she wondered if maybe she had no place left in basketball. However, the bittersweet final months she spent with her mother made Swoopes contemplate her path forward.
“Before she passed, my mom said, ‘You know what your passion is, and what your purpose is. You have to fulfill that,’ ” Swoopes said Friday. “I feel like if I don’t do that, I’m letting her down. When I made the decision to get into coaching, it was because I feel like the game — for it to continue to grow — needs players like myself staying involved.
“I wanted to be able to relate to this generation of kids. I tried to take things from every coach I’ve played for — Marsh Sharp, Van Chancellor, Tara VanDerveer — and mold that into my coaching style, but also be myself. To try to teach players about life, not just basketball.”
Among the things Loyola players complained about was Swoopes being “too involved” in their lives; she says that was largely a difference of opinion on what should and shouldn’t be posted on social media. Players also accused Swoopes of not communicating well, and of letting her emotions and frustrations affect her coaching.
Swoopes is certainly not alone among coaches, especially in recent years, forced to defend themselves against what some players see as emotional abuse. For her part, Swoopes said Friday she focuses on what she hopes she gained from the experience.
“Learning from the things that maybe I didn’t do well or do right,” Swoopes said. “But not changing, fundamentally, who I am. If you’d asked me several months ago about coaching again, I would have said, ‘Absolutely not.’
“But I love this game, and want to help it grow. And personally, I’ve been through a lot of things in my life. And if I can help one young person avoid some of the difficult things I went through, that’s what I want to do. If that’s through coaching, that’s great. But if it’s something else I have to do, I’ll do that.”
Swoops’ basketball bona fides, of course, are unassailable: Her 47 points in the 1993 NCAA final still stands as a championship-game record, as she led Texas Tech to the title. She won four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets, three WNBA MVP awards, and three Olympic gold medals.
Considering the timing of her college career’s zenith in 1993, the U.S. national team’s popularity leading up to and during the 1996 Olympics, and the start of the WNBA in 1997, Swoopes is considered not just as one of the best players ever, but also one of the most influential and important.
As one of her fellow Hall of Fame inductees, UConn center Kara Wolters said, playing with someone as great as Swoopes was at times intimidating.
“Not only her talent as a player, but she was also a coach in the locker room,” said Wolters, who was on the 1999 Comets title team and the 2000 Olympic squad. “She’d be the first to stand up and say, ‘Get your act together.’ You didn’t want to screw up, because you knew Sheryl was working her butt off and she was going to let you know about it if you didn’t.
“I appreciated the way she was as a player and a ‘coach.’ She was such an example to the rest of the team.”
The difficult things Swoopes refers to, though, include financial setbacks, relationship struggles, and the ongoing search for what best suits her in her post-playing career. Realistically, almost anyone around her age or older can relate to facing some similar difficulties. Swoopes being in the public eye, though, made her tough times visible to all.
Her mother was her “rock” through everything. Now Swoopes must navigate the rough waters without her, even if her mom is always there in her mind and heart.
“I have not actively pursued any other coaching job,” Swoopes said. “Because the most important thing for me was taking care of my mom. I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason. At the time when all this stuff was going on at Loyola, I was very frustrated, hurt, disappointed.
“But today, when I look back on it, I feel like it was for a reason. For me to spend every day of the last eight months of my mom’s life with her, it made me realize there were things I took for granted. Like being able to talk to my mom. I can’t do that anymore.
“But there are so many things I’ve learned about myself and about life. I think I was supposed to go through these things to make me tougher, and to appreciate things more.”
Swoopes went to the Naismith induction last year with her mother. She told her fiancé and son that she preferred to make this Hall of Fame trip alone. She wanted the time to really contemplate not just her career, but her sport.
She spoke Friday of things she found out about the history of women’s basketball just by touring the Hall of Fame. She is still trying to heal, as much as she can, and this journey of reflection in coming to Knoxville and this building full of history — some of which Swoopes is directly responsible for — is part of that.
“Instead of always being in a hurry, not having time for things, it’s good to sometimes slow down a little bit,” Swoopes said. “I really wanted this time for me to focus on reminiscing on my life and my playing career. And I think my mom would want that for me, too.”