Cynthia Cooper's No. 44 to be retired

Looking back, it feels like a lifetime ago, because of what came after.

It was also at the beginning, which is why it feels so fitting for this to be the last of her jerseys to be retired.

Cynthia Cooper was inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in April 2010. The Houston Comets retired her jersey in 2008. Locke High School in Watts, Calif., did the same the first chance it got.

On Sunday afternoon, USC will finally do the same.

"It really does feel like it's a homecoming for me," Cooper said. "This has kind of been the missing piece to my puzzle. I've had my high school jersey retired. I've had my professional jersey retired, the Hall of Fame. So this has kind of been that one missing piece."

It is not merely happenstance that the Trojans are the last of Cooper's teams to hang her jersey from the rafters.

She was never USC's brightest star. Cheryl Miller was. Then Pam and Paula McGee, then probably Rhonda Windham.

Cooper was the top reserve on USC's back-to-back national championship teams in 1983 and '84. The spark plug off the bench whose most valuable play was on the defensive end, when she took a key charge against Louisiana Tech's Kim Mulkey to seal the 1983 title.

"I've never been a defensive specialist, but I took a charge in that game," Cooper said, laughing at the memory. "That charge was like my claim to fame."

It wasn't until she left USC, honed her all-around game during 11 professional seasons in Europe then took the WNBA by storm when it launched in 1997 that Cooper's fame really began to grow.

If it hadn't been for her experiences at USC, none of it would have happened.

"I really grew up at USC. It was a steppingstone to everything I was able to achieve in my career. USC really gave me that first shot out of the inner city and opened up that window to the world for me."

Cooper had come to the Trojans as a raw, shy teenager who'd only been playing basketball for a couple of years. School was difficult. It was hard to fit in socially. Head coach Linda Sharp might as well have been speaking Greek to her when she diagrammed plays.

"She was very talented, but very raw," Sharp once said. "When she was in high school, all they played was offense."

Every bit of her was uncomfortable. But every bit of her seemed to know she needed to stick it out.

All that was hard enough. Then her brother was killed and Cooper's life nearly unraveled.

She was depressed and angry. Her family was crushed and all she could think to do was to quit school, find a job and help her mother support her six remaining brothers and sisters.

After she missed almost an entire semester, USC's coaches tried one last time to convince Cooper to return.

Assistant coach Fred Williams drove down to the First Interstate Bank in Watts, where Cooper was working as a teller, and talked her into coming back to school.

"Honestly, I probably never would've played basketball again if Fred didn't come get me," Cooper said, marveling at the twist of fate.

"At that time of my life, I was really sad. I'd just lost my brother. I was going through a lot of stuff. It could've been that moment where I lost my way.

"But my Trojan family wouldn't let me fail. And that's what family is. You might have some rough roads or times when things don't go exactly right, but family doesn't let you fail."

It's amazing to think of what might have happened -- or rather what wouldn't have happened if Williams hadn't driven down to the bank that day.

Of the brilliant career that might not have been.

Of all the lives Cooper has touched that might never have known her.

She's the head coach at UNC-Wilmington now, a wife, and a mother to 8-year-old fraternal twins Brian and Cyan. She raised four nieces and nephews, and has taken in and helped countless others youths.

None of it has come easy. In the beginning or in the present.

Even now, she's slowly working her way up the coaching ranks, proving herself at each stop. First at Prairie View A&M -- which she led to its first NCAA appearance in 2006 -- and now at UNC-Wilmington, where her team is 22-8.

"I think it's only right," she said. "In my career I've always had to pay my dues. When I went to play for USA Basketball, for the '86 world championship team, I actually tried out in an open tryout. I paid my way there [to Colorado Springs] and paid for the motel while I was there.

"Nothing has come easy, and I've never asked for it to come easy. But I've worked hard and I worked my way through some difficult moments, and at the end of the day, I'm getting my jersey retired."

Her No. 44 jersey will hang alongside Miller's and Lisa Leslie's at USC's Galen Center. It will be the third jersey the Trojans have retired, and the last of Cooper's jerseys to hang with honor in perpetuity.

Cooper found her place in the world here.

Now, after all these years away, she's found her way home.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.