On Friday night in Springfield, Massachusetts, Sheryl Swoopes — the first player to sign with the WNBA in 1996 — will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
While she won’t be the first WNBA legend to enter the Hall – former Houston Comets teammates Cynthia Cooper (Class of 2010) and Dawn Staley (2013) as well as opponent Lisa Leslie (2015) were eligible for induction before her – when it comes to Sheryl’s impact on the game – the word “first” comes up quite often in Swoopes’ career timeline:
- First player to sign into the WNBA
- First women’s player to have a signature shoe – the Nike “Air Swoopes”
- First three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player (2000, 2002, 2005)
- Leslie and Lauren Jackson would later match the mark; no one has surpassed it
- First three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2002, 2003)
- Tamika Catchings would later surpass the mark with five
- First player to record a triple-double in the WNBA (July 27, 1999)
- First (and only) to record a playoff triple-double in the WNBA (2005)
- First (along with Cooper in 1997) to have won an NCAA title, WNBA title and Olympic gold medal
Swoopes first rose to fame in 1993 when she led the Texas Tech Lady Raiders to their first and only NCAA title after scoring an NCAA championship game record 47 points in the 84-82 win over Ohio State. Three years later, Swoopes was a prominent member of the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Atlanta and help fuel the fire for women’s basketball in this country.
Once the WNBA tipped off a year later, Swoopes was a part of the league’s first dynasty as one of the Big Three in Houston with Cooper and Tina Thompson. Together they would lead the Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships, a run that has yet to be matched in the league’s first two decades.
“I actually talked to her right after the announcement and I think that it’s incredible,” said Thompson, Swoopes’ teammate from 1997-2007 and the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. “I think that it’s very deserving; she is absolutely a first ballot Hall of Famer. She has done so much for this game in her career. I mean, she kind of changed the game in a sense, playing the guard position at her size and just so many of the things that she did on the defensive as well as the offensive side of the floor.”
Swoopes possessed a unique set of skills that allowed her to affect nearly every aspect of the game. It’s no wonder she has often been called the Michael Jordan of the women’s game.
On offense, she could shoot from the outside, drive past a defender and either pull up from mid-range or get all the way to the basket and finish. She could cross you up with her handle or just pull up and shoot over smaller defenders that were used on her to try to counter her speed.
On defense, she was simply the best perimeter defender in the game, constantly frustrating her opponents with her quick hands, fast feet and great lateral quickness. She had fantastic instincts for coming up with steals and blocking shots. She could play the passing lanes and get deflections or simply take the ball from the offensive player she was locking down. Her outstanding defense led directly to some of her best offense as she was a one-woman fast break, getting a steal and taking the ball coast-to-coast for a layup.
Perhaps the best comparison to Swoopes in today’s game is Catchings, the Fever forward who is set to wrap up what will surely be a Hall of Fame career this season. She is the only player to garner more Defensive Player of the Year awards than Swoopes and plays with a similar intensity and tenacity each and every night.
“I always joke around with her, cause I’m like, ‘You know the first time I played with you with the USA team, you were really mean to me,’” said Catchings. “But we got to know each other, and our relationship changed, and our friendship grew, and the mutual respect we have for each other is really, really high. Sheryl is definitely one of the players who has helped shape me as a person and a player.”
Swoopes’ impact on today’s game is profound because the players entering the league over the past few seasons were able to watch her year after year as the WNBA debuted in their early childhoods. Having role models like Swoopes and fellow Hall of Famers Cooper, Staley and Leslie on television playing the game they loved was a source of inspiration for so many.
“She was great; she was a player who was a star as far as her talent and her ability to help her team win a championship,” said Minnesota’s Maya Moore. “She was a pro, someone who I could look up to, who had a shoe. I had her shoe.”
Just as Swoopes was the first women’s basketball player with her own shoe, Moore is the first women’s player to sign on with Jordan Brand as she constantly wears Lynx colorways of the latest Jordan model — just as her NBA counterparts Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin do for the Thunder and Clippers, respectively.
“I can tell you when Nike first approached me about doing a women’s basketball shoe and saying we’re going to call it the Air Swoopes, I honestly didn’t think things could get any better than that,” Swoopes said. “To me I always felt like I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and God has blessed me tremendously throughout my life, through the good, the bad.”
The Nike Air Swoopes was a hit with women’s basketball players and sneakerheads alike. Nike would release seven signature models for Swoopes during her career and she thinks it’s about time for Nike to release a retro version so today’s sneakerheads can rock on the court.
“But 1997’s Nike Air Swoopes Zoom, a toothy sibling to Jason Kidd’s Zoom Flight Five, wasn’t just a great women’s basketball sneaker design — it was a great basketball sneaker design, period,” said noted sneaker writer Russ Bengston of Complex in his An Ode to the Nike Air Swoopes Zoom feature from 2014. “Not only did it look great, but its construction predated conceptually similar designs like the Fly By U Uptempo and even the Air Jordan XX8 SE. It became one of the first women’s specific sneakers to get national ads — and that guys made a point to chase down.”
Earlier this season, Nike released a Skylar Diggins player edition of the Zoom HyperRev 2016 in unisex sizing so both guys and girls alike could wear the same shoe they saw their favorite player wear each night for the Dallas Wings. Does that happen without the foundation laid by Swoopes?
“I think there were so many greats that came before me and this is on the women’s side,” Swoopes told Turner’s Craig Sager following the announcement of her induction. “And a lot of them, that unfortunately at the time, didn’t have a WNBA, didn’t have a Nike, didn’t have a shoe contract, so I do feel like those women opened a lot of doors for players such as myself. When I look at it I say because of what happened to me and the ones I played with, we’re now opening so many more doors for all of the players that are coming up after us.”
Swoopes’ basketball resume is filled to the top with accolades from the college, professional and international ranks. She’s a six-time WNBA All-Star, five-time All-WNBA First Team selection, three-time MVP, three-time DPOY, three-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time WNBA champion, a member of all three WNBA anniversary teams (All-Decade in 2006, Top 15 in 2011 and Top 20@20 in 2016) and now she is an inductee in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Growing up, I had so many goals and dreams and things I wanted to accomplish with my life and, to be honest with you, I don’t think ‘Hall of Famer’ was ever on that list,” said Swoopes. “Because that’s the best of the best and I’ve had a privilege and an honor to have played with some of the best, against some of the best, watched some of the best, and for me to now be considered one of the best, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.”
On top of all of those honors, she is an inspiration to a new generation of basketball players and a pioneer that helped blaze the trail that today’s players can follow.
“Just someone that when you thought of women’s basketball or the WNBA, she was definitely one of the main players you thought of,” said Moore. “Just her story of being a mother, and being in the WNBA, she just represented so many things of just being a female basketball pro. So, I definitely enjoyed watching her and the Comets, they were one of my favorite teams growing up. Definitely followed her and cheered for her a lot.”
Note: Nike Air Swoopes image courtesy of Nike News