It was sixteen summers ago.
I had just had my first child and was working my way back into my job with NBC sports. Baby in tow, I travelled to the NBA Finals with bottles, stroller and crib, chronicling Michael Jordan's heyday while just beginning to comprehend the delicate balance of work and motherhood. And I had a daunting assignment on the horizon. The WNBA was launching its inaugural season, and I had been named the first ever play-by-play voice of the newly established league for NBC. It required a summer of travel and untold hours of preparation, while developing a brand-new broadcast skill... an ulcer-inducing task for a new mom. Little could I have imagined that the league's biggest star was about to undergo a similar journey.
Sheryl Swoopes was counted upon to launch the fledgling WNBA. She was already a household name, having had one of the greatest NCAA tournaments in history, leading Texas Tech to its first title, and drawing breathless comparisons to Michael Jordan along the way. Sheryl made history off the court too, becoming the first woman to have a Nike shoe named after her, the "Air Swoopes" under the Jordan brand. After helping USA to the first of her three Olympic golds in 1996, Swoopes was part of a trio of talent upon whom the league pinned its hopes; Sheryl Swoopes/Lisa Leslie/Rebecca Lobo were the equivalent of the modern day trifecta of Brittany Griner/Skylar Diggins/Elena Della Donne. However Swoopes, in typical fashion, forged her own path. She became pregnant before the start of the season. Just six weeks after the baby (aptly named Jordan) was born, she returned for the final one-third of the season to play for the Houston Comets. As I covered the team that summer, we had an immediate connection, as young mothers trying to find our way in uncharted waters, struggling to return to our respective careers and bearing the weight of responsibility that being in the forefront requires.
I liked Sheryl and I loved the Comets. They were my hometown team; my mom was a season ticket holder. They were the epitome of "girl power" and they won. Again and Again. Four straight championships and thousands lining the streets for their parade. The NFL's Oilers had skipped town and the Comets filled an emotional void in the hearts of Houston sports fans. It was really important for me to tell their story along with Sheryl's because it is such an important, and forgotten piece of basketball history. The Comets are no more, but deserve to be remembered. And Sheryl's legacy, in many respects, has been under appreciated.
Sheryl and I each did what we set out to do in the summer of 1997. Swoopes helped deliver the first of those remarkable four WNBA championships for the Comets, making them the leagues dominant force. I called the play-by-play as the confetti rained down at the Houston Summit that August. Those moments are the genesis of a trust that Sheryl has placed in me, these many years later, to tell her story.
It's a complicated story. A story that has been largely untold, and in her voice, is punctuated with an honesty few possess. Sheryl's break with expectations at every turn is recounted with a self-awareness that has neither embittered nor deterred her. She has defied society's labels from that very first WNBA season in regards to choices about motherhood, sexuality, finances and what it means to be an elite female athlete. Swoopes "coming out" after she was named league MVP for a third time, was met with all manner of reaction, much of it a far cry from the chorus of support that greeted Jason Collins' revelation this past April. Sheryl is every woman. Struggling with money, love, family, and pride... But with no regrets and no excuses.
One of the reasons I like her story is its about survival. Sheryl is compelling because she has come back from losing it all and yet still standing. Her trademark tenacity has resulted in her recently being hired as the new head coach of Loyola Chicago. I was happy to be able to re-shoot that part (the ending of the film) because it is in many respects a beginning for her.
Swoopes is at once a cautionary and inspirational tale that I felt compelled to put on film. I hope those who watch come to appreciate an incredible era in women's basketball and a singular woman, who is unforgettable in so many ways.
SWOOPES premieres on July 30th at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN as part of ESPN Films' and espnW's Nine for IX series.
This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and ESPN, in conjuncture with the latter's 'Nine for IX' film series, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Title IX was a landmark legislative victory for justice that prohibited discrimination by gender in schools and sports. To see all the posts in the series, click here. To learn more about 'Nine for IX,' click here.
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