In part one of our three-part Women’s History Month series, we celebrate the defining eras in WNBA history, beginning with the Houston Comets.
At a time when the league needed it most, the Houston Comets set the standard for play and ripped off four consecutive WNBA Championships (1997, 1998, 1999, 2000). This feat has yet to be replicated and may never be. It wasn’t just about the wins, though. It was how they won and showed out on the court.
Playing professionally overseas for over a decade prior to the start of the W, Comets star, two-time MVP, and basketball legend Cynthia Cooper knew that she and the Comets needed to be special.
“I understood the goal. I understood what we had to do in order for there to be longevity in the league. I understood that I had to come out and perform every single night, I had to come out and bring my A game, I had to come out and showcase the talent of the W every single night so that we could gain fans, gain fan support, silence the naysayers… you’ve got to put a product on the floor that makes them shake their heads,” says Cooper.
Cooper and the Comets did just that.
An electric scoring guard, Cooper was a dynamic slasher, capable of taking opponents off the dribble without a screen, rising and firing off pull-ups, and getting to the line on high volume.
Her finishing package is amongst the most comprehensive and mesmerizing in the history of the game; double clutch layups, teardrop floaters through contact from afar distance, routine acrobatic finishes with both hands… she had it all as a scorer and was remarkably efficient as well, leading the W in scoring for three straight seasons.
That made her journey to the W all the more mind-boggling. She dominated overseas after a prolific collegiate career at the University of Southern California, but she was the one who originally reached out to the WNBA about playing.
“It was difficult to get film on people like me, that had been playing overseas for so many years. It’s still difficult for me to find film of my games overseas because everyone says, ‘you were at your peak in the WNBA’. I was like, ‘I was 35 years old in the WNBA,’” says Cooper with a laugh.
It’s a stark reminder of how different access was less than 30 years ago. Cooper needed actual hard copy tapes to show her game if it wasn’t on live TV.
While Cooper was dominating overseas, Sheryl Swoopes was captivating audiences during March Madness at Texas Tech before playing for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team that won Gold.
“Honestly, I had never heard of Sheryl Swoopes,” says Cooper.
Cooper was playing in Italy when Swoopes won the National Championship at Tech. When Cooper moved to Sugar Land, Texas, prior to the WNBA season, she did whatever she could to get tape on Swoopes. When she did her research and found out Swoopes was on the National Team, she knew she needed to learn as much about her as possible.
There were questions about how well the duo could fit together, but Cooper had no doubts about their fit after watching her play. Cooper’s drive game and ability to carve up the paint was the perfectly adjacent puzzle piece to Swoopes’ ‘outside in’ game.
Swoopes could get her shot off effortlessly off movement, with a high release point and the ability to stop on a dime to get into a one or two-dribble pull-up. She was a dynamic weapon off screens, and as her ability to handle and get downhill grew, so did her passing, showcasing her court vision.
Swoopes was also a great defender.
“She’s more of a defender, I don’t defend at all,” laughs Cooper.
“I don’t know if the coaches believed we could play together. I don’t think the public believed we could play together. But we made it work. Because at the end of the day, we focused on one thing, and the most important thing for us was winning championships.”
Fellow former USC star, Tina Thompson, the third addition to the Big Three, was the 1st pick in the first WNBA Draft in 1997.
Thompson was versatile, a stretch forward who shot incredibly well from deep on high volume (37.7% on ~4 attempts per game from 1997-2000). Her face-up game and ability to put the ball on the floor to attack the rack made her a player who always needed to be defended regardless of where she was spaced in the halfcourt.
A frontcourt player that could post-up, screen, roll, pop behind the arc, and attack off the dribble cleared the lane for Cooper and Swoopes. A sort of energy between the three and the rest of the roster fostered a high level of ball movement. They were third or higher in three-point attempts and makes all four seasons, which fed into their spacing.
“That constant movement allowed us to open up the court for players that wanted to penetrate and slash and then, you know, penetrate and dish, penetrate and finish. We complemented each other in a great way,” says Cooper.
The numbers are not jarring to look at compared to today; the Comets attempted 17.4 threes per game in 1998 (28.6% of field goal attempts), the highest attempt rate in their dynastic run. The Las Vegas Aces attempted 26.4 per game last season (37.6% of field goal attempts), the second-highest rate in the league and 7th in league history.
However, when accounting for pace and recognizing how much the game has shifted in the pace and space era, it stands out how much this team resembled what the game has become a quarter-century later. Attacking the basket, opening driving lanes with good spacing, and quick decision-making are the bones of good basketball; consider the Comets the vertebrae of modern hoops.
Cooper and others detail that the 1999 Western Conference Finals, a showdown with Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks, was the hardest series of the 4-peat. Every team brought unique difficulties, but the 1999 season itself brought sorrow and hardship outside of basketball.
Kim Perrot, the starting point guard, was the heart and soul of the Comets, someone the players actively fought to have on the roster. The Comets filled out their roster in 1999 after the draft by having open tryouts. Perrot popped for the players, but Head Coach Van Chancellor didn’t love her game (yet).
“We were in the war room trying to figure out who we’re gonna keep, who we were gonna let go. I said no, we got to keep her. He (Van) was like, “no, she’s all over the place. She’s so quick. I can’t keep up with her.” That’s exactly what we need! We need someone with a loud mouth that can control us, that can run this team, that can run the fast break, and we’re not just sitting up in the half court,” says Cooper.
Perrot would set the table as a facilitator, but also with the tone. She wasn’t afraid to put the stars of the team in place and tell them what was what.
“She’s the only person that could really look me in the face and curse me out,” says Cooper.
Cooper then details a vivid memory from a game in which Perrot told her if she didn’t pass the ball back, she wasn’t bringing the ball on her side of the court again.
“You can’t tell me that. I’m Cynthia Cooper!”
Perrot stood fast and tall, much larger than her 5’5 listing would tell you.
“She was just a great teammate, a great person,” says Cooper.
Perrot was diagnosed with cancer in February, just before the season, and passed away on August 19th, 1999. The Comets played the first game of the best of three series a week later.
“We had a lot of excuses to underachieve (in 1999); it was important for us to show the world how special she was to us by winning that championship.”
The Comets beat the Sparks 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals, after dropping game one, winning by double digits the next two games before taking on and dispatching the New York Liberty 2-1 in the Finals. They’d go on to win their fourth straight title the next year, Cooper’s last series before retirement.
She’ll never forget the crowds, 16,000 strong at Compaq Center. She’d never imagined playing in front of so many fans back at home in the U.S.
“I was living a dream… this city was on fire for the Houston Comets. I enjoyed every single moment, and I didn’t take it for granted,” says Cooper.
The Comets set the table for the WNBA, paving the way for the future of women’s basketball. Their accomplishments, feats of grandeur, and the reverberations of their greatness are still felt in the present.
WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.