The unexpected legacy of Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes has won three Olympic gold medals and is a three-time WNBA MVP. Doug Pensinger /Getty Images

The first time I saw Sheryl Swoopes play basketball, I was sitting on a bed in a mid-grade hotel room in Indiana with my AAU teammates. It was 1993. I had just been officially sanctioned to add "teen" to my age. We sat there, focused on the television, watching Swoopes give Vanderbilt, an NCAA tournament favorite that year, work. I had never heard of Swoopes.

What I witnessed would become an integral moment in a career that shaped women's basketball. That was apparent, even then. But it would take until now to fully appreciate all that Swoopes had done for the game and some of the women who play it.

That day, she orchestrated the game so easily, making it beyond apparent that she was the best player on the court. But what I remember more than her Texas Tech teammates or the 47 points she scored in the championship game a few days later, a record that still stands, was hearing one of our assistant coaches yell "Swoopes!" every time she touched the ball.

Like a good church deacon who knows just when to say amen, his voice boomed as if her name was an exhortation for us to pay attention to her undeniable greatness, to take note. He said "Swoopes!" so frequently, enunciating both s's on either side of her name with such ferocity that he started to have a lisp. Her name become a chant, an expression of faith in some curious basketball rites of passage ceremony for me and my teammates, budding women athletes -- some of us lesbians; there had to be more than me in that room, I'm sure--who have just decided that they love basketball and must therefore bow before the proper gods.

Coach's Swoopes utterances made sense. Her last name works well with other basketball words like steals, shoots, scores. Swoopes sounds exactly the way you'd expect a great player to move, what you'd expect them to be, on the court -- quick, effortless. Swoopes is the perfect name for a basketball player. The NBA knew that. And so did Nike.

The comparisons between Swoopes and Michael Jordan were immediate and, in some ways, apt. With a game as impeccable as her name, Swoopes became the heart of women's professional basketball. Young girls didn't have to be like Mike; they could hoop like Swoopes while wearing her shoes.

The Nike Air Swoopes were the first sneakers named after a woman. She was a cornerstone of the women's Dream Team, which won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She was one of three players (Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo were the two others) chosen to promote the fledgling WNBA, which started in 1997 and begins its 21st season on Friday. Along with Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson, Swoopes made the Houston Comets the WNBA's first dynasty. They won the league's first four championships. Swoopes, a three-time league MVP, was tremendous.

Unlike the "Jordan" model the NBA used for years, the WNBA has always relied on several faces to promote the league, each player, in her own way representing some version of womanhood. Still, Swoopes' star was amplified. And Swoopes gave good face. Excellent, actually. She was married to a man, her high school sweetheart. She had a son named Jordan. She was a working, professionally ambitious mother. Her nuclear family and the straightness she embodied ran counter to prevailing ideas about women who play basketball. Swoopes had been deemed worthy of admiration -- and perfect for marketing. She helped engineer the WNBA as it chugged along its first decade. The league made her a millionaire. But by 2005, Swoopes was divorced, in a relationship with a woman and, we would soon learn, like so many male athletes, broke.

When Swoopes came out it altered the axis on which the WNBA spun. It was strange, really. A woman basketball player is gay? I laughed. Was that news? Perhaps that was an unfair assertion on my part. Since its inception, the WNBA had been reticent to fully embrace the part of its workforce that was lesbian and instead chose to give the league a presumably straight front, like Swoopes. The boundary between girl power and lesbian propaganda is treacherous and narrow, let some tell it. It's a difficult balancing act. Although she was not the first WNBA player to come out, at the time, Swoopes was undoubtedly the highest profile WNBA athlete to come out. It mattered.

Admittedly, my snark was easy. It belittled her bravery, a word we often associate with coming out. But the ritual of coming out tells a singular story that doesn't capture queerness or the complicated ways black women, in particular, engage with their sexuality. The prevailing coming out narrative doesn't speak to that, and I wasn't giving Swoopes her due.

What she had done, what she had said was difficult, and at the time, there was not a script or assurances that she would be supported. But describing my reaction as snark is also inaccurate. I was suspicious. And it wasn't because Swoopes wasn't following protocol. When she came out, she made it clear that she did not think she had been born gay, a claim that, in many parts, is akin to heresy. I was suspicious because Swoopes' declaration was immediately coupled with her endorsement of Olivia Travel, which sells vacations to lesbians.

By the time she made her declaration, Swoopes was in financial trouble. She seemed to be taking the pioneer role once again but this time becoming one of the first people to understand that you can use being gay and famous to sell stuff. And there's off-putting about cashing in when you haven't been in the figurative gym for long, shooting jumpers with the rest of us.

Though her announcement echoed the "tired of pretending" lines we often hear when people emerge from the closet, when Swoopes came out, she didn't sound like a team player. Her story was purely individual in tone. It sounded selfish. But there she was, a rookie to "our" game, coming out and cashing in. Had she given a nod to and capitalized on the fans she already knew existed? Did she see us, or did she see an opportunity? Was she on our team, or was her sexuality fluid as long as the endorsement money flowed?

In the time since, the WNBA, has evolved. It still seems to market itself part we're just as good as the guys, part daddy-daughter day. At the same time, it more readily embraces the reality that some of its players and at least part of its viewership are lesbians. They celebrate Pride Month. They acknowledge when their players get married to other women; they suspend them when their domestic troubles mirror a reality show which, in a sense, is a true marker of equality. And when one of its elite players and her wife, also a former player, become parents, we get feel-good stories about that.

In tracing that evolution, we tend to forget Sheryl Swoopes and the role she played, what she sacrificed for such affirming publicity. She's definitely neither lesbian icon nor legend. Perhaps that's because she has a husband again. She was also unceremoniously ousted from a coaching gig at Loyola University-Chicago due to claims that, if true, at the very least are sad and unfortunate. Now, Swoopes works in player development at her alma mater, whose women's team, the one she led to glory, hasn't appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2013. She's not the ambassador for a league she helped start, which is something we would have hardly predicted 20 years ago.

The mystique that shrouded Swoopes when she entered my view was gone. The Houston Comets no longer exist as a team, and it's easy to forget their legacy -- and hers. We have to chant Swoopes, like Coach did, a few times to conjure their, her dominance from our memories. But otherwise they're gone. And in some ways, so is Swoopes. But just because Swoopes wasn't an ideal icon doesn't mean that we should forget. That she was electric. That, no matter the motive or Swoopes' personal life thereafter, her decision to come out created a less arduous environment for those who came after her.

And for that, too, she should be acknowledged.

Originally from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Summer McDonald is a Chicago-based writer and editor.