Sheryl Swoopes being herself
CHICAGO -- Sheryl Swoopes and I have history.
In 2005, she trusted me to tell an incredibly personal story, a story in which arguably the greatest women's basketball player of all time said "I didn't always know I was gay. I honestly didn't. Do I think I was born this way? No."
It was a bittersweet proclamation for me to write and share.
On the one hand, you had a high-profile athlete, one who had just won her third WNBA MVP trophy, tell the world she was gay. And she did so a mere few months after another high-profile Texan, President George W. Bush, endorsed an amendment banning same-sex marriage to the U.S. Constitution.
While having someone of Swoopes' stature be openly gay provided activists with an important figurehead in the fight against the proposed law, having that figurehead insinuate she chose to be gay, was not -- as politicos would say -- on message.
But that's Sheryl Swoopes -- not a spokeswoman, not a contrarian, just herself.
"I would go to my grave saying I was not born gay because I know I wasn't," she recently told me from her office at Loyola University Chicago, where she was announced as the new women's basketball head coach this past spring.
And no, you didn't miss it; she was not an assistant college coach somewhere before this.
She wasn't a high school head coach, either.
The office is large, and Swoopes is still working to make the space her own. On a coffee table there are a couple of books about the school and a cinnamon-pastry-scented candle. On a bookshelf there are pictures of her with President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. She smiled and said there's one of her with Beyonce in a box somewhere she wants to put up as well.
Speaking of Beyonce, I noticed Swoopes' left hand. Someone put a ring on it -- Chris Unclesho -- a man.
I guess you can say a lot has happened since 2005.
"I'm not confused," she said. "I'm in love with who I am supposed to be in love with.
"What would I like to say to the LGBT community? I don't know how to answer that question. I guess the best thing to say is if they welcome me to the community, then I want to be part of the community."
Do you consider yourself bisexual?
Lake Shore Drive is one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the Midwest. It runs through the city's downtown and along its beach shoreline.
Sand and skyscrapers.
Sharp curves and the waves of Lake Michigan.
Elegance served on a 16-mile platter.
Just 10 minutes north of where this pretty stretch of road ends is the midsized Jesuit Catholic university that handed the keys of its women's basketball program to someone who has not driven before.
It's a Division I institution with a strong academic backbone -- 31 doctoral degrees, recognized by U.S. News and World Report -- but hardly a household name. Being geographically sandwiched between Northwestern and DePaul makes brand recognition tough.
Not having a football team doesn't help, either.
Despite that, Loyola is not completely obscure.
On March 15, 1963, its men's basketball team, which featured four black players in its starting lineup, played an all-white Mississippi State squad that, until then, had not been able to compete in postseason play against integrated teams because of an unwritten state law. The Mississippi team snuck out of the state, despite an injunction from the governor, to face Loyola in a regional game in East Lansing, Mich. That matchup -- three years before Texas Western beat Kentucky for the national championship -- is known as "The Game of Change."
Seems fitting that basketball, once again, may be the lure to draw the eyes of history to the end of Lake Shore Drive and onto Loyola's campus.
Being openly Swoopes aside, the rookie head coach has done everything an athlete can do in her sport.
High school state championship: check.
NCAA title: check.
Olympic gold medals: check.
Professional championships, MVPs, her own shoe, all-time records: check, check, check and check.
But knowing she has never drawn up a play, never run practice, never had college administrative duties does give pause. Her latest assistant coach hire, Dustin Edwards -- a onetime graduate assistant for both Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt -- has done more recruiting than she has.
None of that is lost on her, which is probably why, when Swoopes began this transition into coaching, she was looking for an assistant job.
"I wouldn't even have this job if it wasn't for [my fiancé], Chris," she said. "He kept telling me to apply for head-coaching jobs, keep pushing me. And I kept saying, 'no,' because I knew what kind of experience you needed to have, and I didn't have that experience."
In fact, the night before Dr. Grace Calhoun, Loyola's athletic director, called, the two got into a big fight.
"We were having a glass of wine and he asked, did I send my résumé to this one head-coaching job [at another school]? I said 'no' and he went off, 'I don't know why you don't think you can do this,' and I'm getting frustrated and angry and was like, 'I have told you why, and I'm done talking about this.' … And the next day, Grace called."
Swoopes said she knew Loyola had a head-coaching vacancy but she didn't apply for it. She sent her résumé to the school in hopes that the eventual hire would be looking for an assistant.
Calhoun had other ideas.
"I asked her if she would consider the head-coaching job," the AD said. "I knew she didn't have any prior coaching experience, but I also knew it was Sheryl Swoopes. I knew all that she had accomplished. And when you look at what she has done versus what she hasn't done, it was not that hard of a decision."
Still, why would a Division I school that opened up a new multipurpose athletic facility and remodeled its arena less than two years ago, a school that announced this year it is moving from the Horizon League to the Missouri Valley Conference, a school whose greatest basketball moment may have happened more than 50 years ago, take a chance like that?
"That's a good question," Swoopes said, laughing.
"I guess they have a lot of faith in me. And I have a lot of faith in God."
"God" is as good of a place to start as any considering Swoopes' journey down Lake Shore Drive began with tearful prayers one night in Seattle back in 2009.
The Seattle Storm had just waived her.
She was 37 and so broke she couldn't afford to stay in the apartment she had rented.
All of the memorabilia from 12 years of playing in the WNBA plus the Olympics and Texas Tech were gone, auctioned off when she could no longer afford to make payments on the storage unit in which she had housed them.
After I wrote Swoopes' coming-out story in 2005, details of her financial distress were revealed in reports a short time later. Olivia Cruises, a travel company catering to lesbians, had approached her about an endorsement deal around the same time Swoopes was considering confirming rumors about her relationship with Alisa Scott. Scott was an assistant coach for the Houston Comets, the team Swoopes had won four WNBA titles with. The two of them were inseparable, which led to gossip.
"I had gotten tired of all the talk, you know?" she said. "And it's not like I was ashamed or trying to hide. … I just thought it was my business.
"Olivia came at the right time. I was not in a good place financially and I was like, I could come out and say this is who I am and now I'll have a little bit more income. More importantly I thought people would stop talking. But I would say it got worse after that, the talking got worse. People were like, 'See I told you, I told you.'"
Unfortunately, over time, their relationship began to sour. Swoopes said she was crying every night, they would argue constantly, and emotionally she was simply absent from the relationship. The erosion of her relationship even began to affect her relationship with her son, Jordan. So four years after coming out, with the endorsement money gone, career all but over, bills mounting and love life in shambles, Swoopes said she had nowhere else to turn but up. (Scott has not spoken publicly about the breakup.)
"I told God I needed help, that I didn't know what to do," she said. "And in that moment, I just felt as if bricks had to be removed from my shoulders. I felt trapped in my relationship. Gender doesn't matter, man or a woman, if you feel trapped, the relationship is not good for you. The next morning I told Alisa, 'I'm not in love with you anymore and I can't do this anymore.'
"Then I got a call from my agent, who told me a team in Greece wanted to sign me. I didn't ask what team, I didn't ask for how much, I just got on a plane with my son and left. For me, it was a sign from God."
Swoopes said the eight months she spent in Greece gave her the time and space to strengthen her relationships with Jordan and God.
"Playing in Greece, living in Greece, was exactly what I needed," she said. "That put me on my journey to Loyola."
Soft sobs can be heard in the movie theater.
The documentary "Swoopes" is playing, and Kim Perrot, the fiery point guard for the Houston Comets, is on the screen announcing she has cancer. A year later, she is dead.
The sobs come from Loyola administrators, assistant coaches, players and, of course, the head coach. She said she has seen the movie, part of ESPN's "Nine for IX" series, at least 10 times but she still cries when the film gets to that part. Perrot, who led the team to two of its four championships, was more than a teammate, Swoopes said.
She was family.
"When I got here [to Chicago], I asked the players to list five on-court goals they wanted to achieve this year," Swoopes said. "Every one of them said they wanted the team to be closer, to be like a family. They didn't have time to talk to each other, they wrote their answers down individually. And as I'm reading the cards, one after another, I kept seeing that they wanted to be like a family."
Which would make Swoopes "Mama."
And Mama don't play.
Case in point: two team rule violations caused the squad to lose its locker room.
You read that right: Their new coach kicked them out of their own locker room. The infractions? Spilled Cheerios left on the floor and a cellphone left on in a team meeting. Swoopes experienced this eviction trick as a member of Team USA. Apparently players on gold-medal teams didn't always pick up after themselves, either.
"For two weeks they had to change in the bathroom. I want them to understand that having a locker room, playing this game at this level is a privilege, not a right. And you can lose privileges if you don't take care of them.
"It's learning to appreciate the little things that will help them be strong women when they leave here."
And that, perhaps more than anything, is the reason Swoopes could be the perfect head coach. She may not have experience drawing up X's and O's, but she has plenty of life lessons to share. Most of which can be seen in the documentary that chronicles her life.
Sometimes uncomfortably so.
At the film's premiere in Houston, director Hannah Storm said Swoopes held nothing back during two days of intense interviews, and it shows. One moment she talks about wearing hand-me-downs, the next she's buying a candy-apple-red Mercedes, only to be followed by a story of her taking odd jobs to put food on the table for her and Jordan. That's why in the documentary I called her a great illustration of the American dream: rock bottom, top of the mountain, back to the bottom and here she is in Chicago, on her way back up again.
After the movie ends and the lights come on, Swoopes asks the players whether they have any questions.
One talks about the amount of lipstick WNBA players wear.
Another makes comments about her various hairstyles throughout the years.
One said it was encouraging to listen to Swoopes talk about wanting to play basketball and win championships ever since she was a little girl, because she, too, has been talking about playing ball and winning since she was little.
"If it wasn't for Title IX, none of that would have happened," Swoopes said, pointing to the movie screen. "It's important that you know this history. It's important that you know what Title IX has done for so many women before you and what it is doing for you today."
The room is silent.
She has their full attention, their respect.
How could she not? After all, she is Sheryl Swoopes.
"Does anyone have any questions about the schedule this weekend? Everyone knows where they are supposed to be? OK, see you tomorrow."
As she makes her way from the theater in the student center to her office, talking to her staff about schedules, smiling, encouraging them, it is clear that Swoopes was not a P.R. hire.
"Once I got here, I never thought, 'What did I get myself into?'" she said while sitting on the couch in the office, her shoes off her feet. "This is mine. My program, my team, my opportunity to do something great for those 14 young ladies. I'm not caught up in who I am or what I've done anymore. I've had my time; now it really is about those 14 young ladies.
"I see myself in a lot of them … not knowing where do I fit in, thinking there's no one else like me. These girls don't understand how good they can be, on and off the court. They have doubts. My job is to help them get rid of them."
And if any coach knows how to do that, it's Swoopes.