Remembering the Comets

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Kevin Pelton, | December 2, 2008
It is always a sad day when a professional sports franchise moves or folds, but in the case of the Houston Comets as compared to past WNBA teams unable to survive, the reaction is surely a little more poignant than normal. The Comets are now history, but in this case that statement is literally true. For the league's first half-decade, the Houston Comets were synonymous with the WNBA. During that period, all the Comets did was win the first four WNBA championships, three of the first four MVP awards and post a league-record .900 winning percentage (going 27-3 in 1998) that is unlikely to be threatened any time soon.

Beyond the role they played in WNBA history, the Comets also have a special place in Storm history because the first Storm game at KeyArena on June 1, 2000 was played against Houston, en route to a third straight championship. The Comets prevailed 77-47 in front of a crowd of 10,840.

Sheryl Swoopes had a vintage performance against the Storm in the 2005 WNBA Playoffs.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty Images
I come today not to bury the Comets but to praise them. Last week, my Basketball Prospectus colleague Bradford Doolittle - inspired by the memory of our own departed NBA SuperSonics - put together the memories he would take with him if any of the league's other teams were to move. Now seems like an appropriate time to do the same thing with my personal memories of the Comets.

It's worth noting at the start that I did not begin following the WNBA until 2002, so my memories of the dominant early Comets teams are a combination of being aware of their success as a semi-casual fan and having read and learned about them since then. Certainly, everyone knows Teresa Weatherspoon's game-winning prayer against the Comets in the 1998 WNBA Finals, while the late Kim Perrot's tragic yet inspirational tale transcends the league itself and is remembered in the Sportsmanship Award named in her honor.

When I think of the Comets, what will stand out to me is the Storm's playoff series against Houston in 2005, one that taught me a lot about the so-called "heart of a champion" - fittingly enough, a phrase made famous in Houston by then-Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich making sure his team's heart wasn't underestimated in the wake of a second straight championship.

If you remember that series, the Storm went into the Toyota Center and stole Game 1, which should have all but guaranteed a series victory. Only once before in league history had a team lost Game 1 on its home court and come back to win the series. In fact, the Comets were minutes away from elimination, trailing late in Game 2 in Seattle. However, the Storm committed costly mistakes down the stretch and Houston emerged victorious, forcing a winner-take-all Game 3 back at the Key.

What I remember about that series more than anything is seeing the Comets come into The Furtado Center on Friday, the day off between Games 2 and 3, for practice. Led by veteran superstars Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, there was an air of confidence that bordered on cockiness.

The next evening, Houston would back it up with one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen, a 75-58 victory that wasn't nearly that close. All Swoopes did was post the first playoff triple-double in WNBA history (14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists), and just when the Storm began to hope for a second-half comeback, Staley stepped up to hit a crucial three-pointer to quell the uprising. I spent that game saddened by the end of the Storm's season but also in awe of the performance by the Comets.

Certainly, any chance to watch Swoopes in her prime was a treat, and she saved some of her best performances for matchups with the Storm before signing here in Seattle. In consecutive seasons, Swoopes first tied her career high with 33 points than set it again with 34 at KeyArena in August 2005 - in a game the Storm still won.

Another matchup with the Comets that holds a special place in my memory, but for more positive reasons, was Opening Night 2007. The Storm trailed that game by 22 points midway through the third quarter only to finish it with a 44-9 run to win by 13 points. The game was capped by Lauren Jackson casually flipping up a shot from halfcourt near the buzzer and seeing it go in. (Side memorable note: Jackson's shot infuriated the Comets' play-by-play announcer, Craig Ackerman, who loudly denounced her throughout the next Storm-Comets game in Seattle only half-jokingly.)

Comets legend Sheryl Swoopes, now playing for the Storm, released a statement on her former team's demise Tuesday.
Other memorable games include another comeback against the Comets in May 2005, and a crucial win in July 2003 when Houston served as a measuring stick for up-and-coming teams like the Storm. Then there's all the ancillary memories, like watching Swoopes' son Jordan get a little bigger each year or Van Chancellor tossing candy to fans in the stands.

Chancellor was enough of a character that he might deserve his own section. I remember one game in 2006 where I interviewed Chancellor after shootaround and he decided to speak with me while sitting in one of the oversized plush chairs that sat behind the basket as part of a nightly Storm promotion. Later, during a press conference to announce Sue Bird, Swoopes and Thompson as members of the U.S. National Team for the World Championships, Chancellor sat in with the media and made productive use of his time drawing up plays on the back of the packet handed to the media.

The Houston Comets may play no more, but there is no erasing the indelible mark they have left on the WNBA, from the perspective of the league's history and in terms of the specific memories each of us will always hold involving the Comets. In that we can take comfort in the disappointment of today's outcome.