SPRINGFIELD, MASS. – “When I stand up here,” a now 45-year-old Sheryl Swoopes said upon taking the Basketball Hall of Fame stage, “my first thought is: ‘Look at me.’”
Nearly 20 years to the day she became the first player to sign to the new Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) – October 23, 1996 – Swoopes could call herself a Hall of Famer. She fittingly entered the Hall during the league’s landmark 20th season – a milestone made possible the day Swoopes and fellow stars Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo declared “We Got Next.”
“It still seems very surreal to me that this is actually happening,” Swoopes told WNBA.com hours before the Enshrinement Ceremony in Springfield, Mass.
But it wasn’t just the pioneering she did on the court that brought out the emotion in the four-time Houston Comets champion. In fact, her enshrinement represented a rare occasion in which she didn’t blaze a trail; Comets teammate Cynthia Cooper (Class of 2010), Dawn Staley (2013) and Leslie (2015) were all eligible for induction before Swoopes, who retired in 2011.
Instead, as Swoopes reflected on the journey that brought her from the small town of Brownfield, Texas, to Springfield, she thought of those around her who made the improbable possible. “I think about all of the people who were there for me, to allow me to do me,” she told WNBA.com.
During a poignant, 12-minute speech, she quoted John Wooden: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” She thanked the two women’s basketball legends who joined her on stage – former WNBA player and coach Nancy Lieberman, “my first basketball role model,” and former Comets coach Van Chancellor, a.k.a. “Van the Man.”
She recognized her coaches at little-known South Plains College in Texas, where she played her first two seasons, and Texas Tech, where she grew into a phenom. She recalled the transformative 1996 U.S. Women’s National Team and the prophetic words of the then soon-to-be first WNBA president, Val Ackerman: “The NBA is working on something special, so sit tight.”
She retold the story of that first whirlwind season – the debut of the “Air Swoopes,” the first-ever signature shoe for a female basketball player; the birth of her son, Jordan, from which she returned to the court six weeks later; and the Comets’ subsequent run to the inaugural WNBA title.
But most meaningful to Swoopes was the phone call that came on March 30 at around 1 PM. She heard about her Hall of Fame induction while sitting in the waiting room of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston alongside her mother, Louise, who had just recently been diagnosed with colon cancer.
“Tears immediately started to flow down my face and I wasn’t sure if it was because I had just become a Hall of Famer or the unknown of whether my mom would be able to share this special moment with me,” Swoopes said, looking at her mom in the crowd at Springfield’s Symphony Hall. “Mom, we made it.”
Sheryl Swoopes is now officially enshrined a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. #16HoopClass
— Basketball HOF (@Hoophall) September 10, 2016
She made it alongside perhaps the most iconic class in the Hall’s history, which she said made the honor “that much more special.” That was fitting, too, given Swoopes’ status in the women’s game — an athletic force like Shaq, an influential personality like Iverson, and a trail blazer like Yao. Just as A.I. said he wanted to be like Mike, Maya Moore looked up to Swoopes — renowned as the “female Michael Jordan” — and wore the Air Swoopes as a child.
“I think that says how special each of us is and was in our own right,” Swoopes told WNBA.com of the Hall of Fame Class of 2016. “Each one of us in our own rights changed the game in sort sort of way.”