Aaron Last/Storm Photos
The Veterans: Griffith and Swoopes Hope for Familiar Outcome with New Team
For the entirety of their WNBA careers, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes have been the face of their respective franchises, Griffith in Sacramento and Swoopes in Houston. Nearing the end of their careers, they have swapped their familiar uniforms to team up with each other and the Seattle Storm's younger stars - Sue Bird, Swin Cash and Lauren Jackson - in the quest to win another championship.
While Swoopes shared top billing in Houston with Tina Thompson as well as initially Cynthia Cooper and Ticha Penicheiro and DeMya Walker were also spotlighted in Sacramento, there is a clear sense that there is something comfortable for both veterans about stepping into a role where they are no longer counted on to do it all for their teams.
"I can't really think of a better situation that I would want to be in coming off of an injury, having not played last season," says Swoopes, limited to three games in 2007 by a back injury that ultimately required postseason surgery.
In an interview with Sacramento's News10 shortly after signing with the Storm, Griffith explained that she looked forward to not having to play all the roles she shouldered with the Monarchs, either officially or unofficially.
"I've been the face of the Monarchs," she said. "I've been a captain. I've been a mentor. I've been a mother. I've been slash-coach. But I wasn't a player, because I've had so many things to do that I stopped being me. That took away from who I was."
"I'm never going to lose that leadership and that being vocal," Griffith explains now, "but with this team everybody has that experience. You don't have to wonder who's going to show up and who's going to score. It doesn't matter because we have a great team. Any given night, it's going to be somebody's night."
When the Storm added Griffith and Swoopes, reaction around the league was mixed. While the combined accolades of the Storm's new starting lineup are eye-popping, critics pointed to the age of Griffith (who turned 38 in March) and Swoopes (who turned 37 the same month). Both have dealt with injuries, Griffith playing through a torn ligament in her thumb last season before undergoing offseason surgery of her own. Griffith and Swoopes have heard the doubters, but have ignored them.
"I've been talked about from the beginning when I first got into the WNBA to where I am now," says Griffith. "Didn't stop me then; it's not going to stop me now. I'm a smart player. I don't have to go and get 15 offensive rebounds like I used to. We have a great team where everybody's going to do their part. What I'm capable of doing and helping this team is what I'm going to do."
"I'm at a point in my career where people are going to say what they want to say, good and bad," adds Swoopes. "I don't get online and read the blogs and pay attention to what everybody has to say or what everybody thinks, but of course you're going to hear it. I'm not so concerned with pleasing everybody and proving myself to everybody. At this point of my career, it's more about me proving to myself what I can and can't do.
"Obviously, I'm 37 now, coming off an injury. Even when I'm 100 percent, I'm not going to be able to do the things I did when I was 25 - and I understand that. Do I think I can still play at the level that I want to play at, meaning with some of the best players in the game? Absolutely."
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"I knew that she had come back before," he explains. "That had sort of been the thing that kept coming back to me from Van Chancellor and Tom Cross, who had coached her. She's came back before. She came back from a pregnancy, she came back from an ACL. The difference is she was totally on her back with a back injury and didn't play for a season that way. The combination of that and her age has played a little bit of an impact, but she's working hard right now and there's no reason to believe that she can't do the same thing at this point here in Seattle."
Swoopes was doing well with her rehab process before suffering a pair of minor injuries, first straining her neck in a preseason game at Sacramento and then spraining her left ankle in practice last week.
"I don't think I ever got to 100 percent," she says. "I felt like I was pretty close and then went to Sacramento and hurt my neck and kind of got over that and then came and hurt my ankle. I feel like I've had two bumps in the road. I've looked at that and said I've got my minor injuries out of the way for the season, so I don't have to deal with that.
"I really felt like before the Sacramento injury I was probably a seven or eight out of 10, so it's been very frustrating to have to feel like I've taken two or three steps back. Now I've got to put in a little more extra effort, a little more extra work to get to where I want to be."
Throughout this final week of training camp, Swoopes has lingered on the floor well after the Storm's practices, going through intense drills with Strength and Conditioning Coach Ryan Hite to get her where she needs to be for Saturday's Opening Night against Chicago (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, ).
"Do I feel like I'm ready for Saturday? Absolutely," she says. "Do I feel like I can go out there and play 30, 35 minutes? No. But I think our coaching staff understands that. It's just about pride for me. I don't want to step out on the floor on Saturday and be just another body on the floor. I feel like I'm here for a reason and I have to show that on Saturday."
"I won't be a part of the Olympics," she says. "I'm really kind of at a point where I've won three Olympic gold medals and the experience that I've had with USA Basketball has been a tremendous run. I think there's so much great talent out there and I just really feel like it's time for me to move on and give other players an opportunity to experience that. At the same time, I really want to focus on having a great WNBA season and to have to take that time off and go with USA Basketball and play in the Olympics and come back here ... I'm not 25 anymore."
With Griffith, the question at the end of the 2007 season was whether she was interested in coming back or was ready to head into retirement. As fall gave way to winter and ultimately spring, Griffith felt the urge return and was ready to give it one more shot. She fielded offers from several teams, but the potential to join the Storm's loaded lineup helped her make up her mind, after she weighed the pros and cons.
"I had a lot of offers on the table," she says. "One team had a center already, and I was thinking, 'I'm a center. I'm not a four.' I had other options too, a bigger role. There were so many different things I had to write out. I had a chart about this thick trying to figure out what team was more comfortable for me. This opportunity only comes so often. This is a great opportunity to play with such great players."
Griffith's addition took on added significance for the Storm when the team learned that incumbent starting center Janell Burse would miss the season to rest and give her lingering injuries a chance to heal. In Griffith, the Storm has a replacement who has proven herself one of the premier defenders and rebounders in WNBA history.
"Fortunately, we picked up Yo, who's amazing on the boards," said Jackson, asked about the loss of Burse. "Look, I've played against her for many, many years. I'm happy she's on my team. She's a great player."
Over the course of their careers, Griffith and Swoopes have achieved almost everything a player possibly can - All-Star Games, MVPs, the WNBA All-Decade Team, Olympic gold medals, WNBA championships - but the prospect of adding another ring to the four Swoopes won in Houston from 1997 through 2000 and the one Griffith won with Sacramento in 2005 helped bring them to Seattle and continues to motivate them.
"Once you win a championship, you get that feeling or you get that urge," Griffith said in the press conference announcing her signing. "I've got the urge again. I want to taste it again."
"My goal is to win another championship," Swoopes said when she was introduced in Seattle, "and I couldn't think of a better place, a better team to be able to do that than to come here and play."