Sheryl Swoopes still waiting for farewell

COLDWATER, Kan. -- Sheryl Swoopes doesn't want to sound angry. She's past that, she says. And besides, what's the point?

But the problem is, it does bother her. Swoopes, one of the founding players of the WNBA along with Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, has never gotten her fond farewell from the league.

"More than anything, I'm just hurt," Swoopes said before she prepared to play in an exhibition basketball game in western Kansas, an event that raises money for cancer screening for women in this rural area. "To not go out and feel appreciated, that hurts me."

But Friday night, in a small high school gym adorned with pink and white bunting, Swoopes got to see that she certainly hasn't been forgotten. Fans cheered loudly for her in introductions. At times they chanted her name during the game. For an hour after it ended, people were still coming up to Swoopes, asking her to autograph things and pose for pictures.

"Hey, we're your biggest fans," said one of five shirtless teenaged boys who'd painted their chests for the event and wanted a group photo with Swoopes.

Swoopes fulfilled all requests. She acknowledged she was weary and needed ice all over her body after the game. She had warned, with a smile, beforehand that her play on the court wouldn't necessarily be pretty. She hadn't really spent much time on a court at all since ending her European season in Greece this spring. She is making the transition to saying goodbye to competitive play.

Swoopes was among a group of current and former WNBA players who came to the event, which began last year. Called the WEPAC "Hoops for Hope" game, its acronym stands for the group of small Kansas towns that the game benefits: Wilmore, Englewood, Protection, Ashland and Coldwater.

The seed of the idea began with a man who worked at a local hospital talking about his grief over his grandmother's death from cancer. He thought it might have been prevented if she'd had an annual checkup and the disease was caught earlier.

He mentioned this to hospital CEO Benjamin Anderson, the kind of guy who takes an idea and runs a marathon with it. Anderson started thinking about how money could be raised to help women in his area -- women who tended to take care of everyone else in their families before themselves -- pay for preventative care if they needed assistance.

So the idea arose for a benefit women/girls basketball game, and soon the name Jackie Stiles was mentioned. A Kansas native from Claflin, a similarly small town in the central part of the Sunflower State, Stiles immediately was on board, even if she couldn't play due to an accumulation of injuries. So she has coached a team in the event both years -- it began in October 2009 -- plus helped provide contacts to other players.

This is an area of the nation with sporadic cell phone service and Internet access. You can get it, just not all the time everywhere. Coldwater is about 30 miles from Greensburg, the town that captured national attention in 2007 when it was nearly wiped off the map by a monstrous tornado.

It's a place where kids go to school four days a week and have most Fridays off -- but they usually spend that day working, either on their family farms or in local businesses.

This isn't a region with all that many people or resources. Yet this band of communities, with a massive volunteer effort, has raised enough money to not only support the cause, but to pay for a television broadcast of the game, plus for the travel expenses to bring WNBA players in. Local families house them.

Helen Darling of the San Antonio Silver Stars was here with her triplets, who are now 8. They got the chance to ride horses and milk cows, to see what life in farming/ranching country was really like. All the players speak warmly about the hospitality, what a moving experience it is to come here.

And it definitely was that for Swoopes, too. She spent a few days here, talking to students about fitness and life choices, visiting with people, and playing in the game.

"It was fun," she said afterward while signing autographs. "First of all, I haven't really worked out in forever. But I knew at some point the competitive juices would start flowing -- like when Helen started talking smack. But it really did feel good just to be out there running up and down the court, playing ball again.

"To me, this event shows it doesn't matter how big or small you are. When everybody comes together, anything's possible."

Going out the right way

Which leads to the question: What would have to come together to make it possible for Swoopes to really feel OK about her relationship with the WNBA?

This is the woman who scored more points than anyone in an NCAA championship game, 47 for Texas Tech in 1993. Who won four WNBA titles and three league MVP awards. Who perennially was one of the best offensive and defensive players in the world. Who helped the United States win three Olympic gold medals.

Who is high on anyone's ranking of the best in the history of women's basketball.

Swoopes doesn't talk about all her accomplishments. She doesn't need to. She's not in diva mode. She's not looking for anyone to feel sorry for her. In some ways, she doesn't even want to discuss any of this. She has one foot officially in retirement … and while the other foot might not totally be there yet, she is relatively at peace with the word now.

But where was the goodbye? Where was the chance to tell fans how much she appreciated their support? Where was the reach-out from the WNBA to let her know she will always be a part of the league, that her name and her legacy are truly valued?

Swoopes last played in the WNBA in 2008, for Seattle, when she was recovering from back surgery. She had spent 2007, her final season in Houston, in pain, playing in just three games while struggling with a ruptured disk.

During the summer of 2007, Swoops had treatment on her back, injections, therapy. When the season ended, she finally went to see a specialist in Dallas who she said told her, "I don't even know how you're walking."

Swoopes said her concern then was less being able to play and more having the ability to live a normal life and do things with her son, Jordan. She had surgery, but it took a long time to recover. She'd wake up in the mornings and struggle to walk. At times, her legs were numb and she couldn't feel her toes.

Still, by March 2008, Swoopes felt ready to come back to the WNBA, and signed with the Seattle Storm.

"I still wasn't 100 percent, but I kept playing," she said. "I knew I wasn't having a great season because I still wasn't healthy. My thought was the next year, I would be much better. I had no idea they were going to let me go."

But Seattle did that in February 2009. And Swoopes hasn't played in the WNBA since. No other teams have been willing to take a chance on her, even though she wasn't asking for any guarantees. She went to Greece last winter and played through the European season.

Then her agent went to all 12 WNBA teams, asking the veteran minimum salary -- if she made the team. No takers. Not even Tulsa, which was willing to give a roster spot to fallen track star Marion Jones, who hadn't played competitive basketball in 13 years. That, in particular, Swoopes found galling.

Swoopes said all she wanted was a chance to make a team. When that didn't happen, she really began readying herself for moving ahead. She says she is happy away from basketball, enjoying sleeping late sometimes and giving her body a break from decades of pushing it. She's caught up in Jordan's many sports activities, and marveling that he is now a teenager.

It's easy to remember Jordan's birth year, actually, because it's the same as the WNBA's: 1997. Swoopes came back that to play the final third of that season -- just six weeks after giving birth to Jordan -- and the Comets won the first league title. They also won the subsequent three.

So important was Swoopes to the WNBA's foundation that you would think it was just automatic that someone with the league would have been in contact with her these past two years. To check how she was doing and feeling, to see how her connection with the league could be maintained, to figure out a way to honor her if her career was, indeed, done.

But according to Swoopes, none of that has happened. She said the only contact she has had from the WNBA came in a phone call from Renee Brown, the league's chief of basketball operations, and it was prompted by Swoopes' former Comets teammate Cynthia Cooper's induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame in August.

"I have respect for the game, the league, the players," Swoopes said. "But when I get frustrated is when I start thinking and talking about how it ended. I feel like it's time to move on to things that are going to positively affect my life and others, maybe more than basketball ever did.

"But I am hurt. I know what I've given to the league, to the fans, to the game. It doesn't hurt me now that I'm not playing in the WNBA. It hurts me to not feel appreciated."

When Swoopes had first begun to talk Friday about her thoughts on the end of her career, she'd been relatively upbeat. Yes, she wished she could have played in the WNBA the last two years, and she feels certain she could have helped a team. But that's over. She knows it would take a big effort to get back into true playing shape at this point, with her 40th birthday awaiting in March.

Would it be possible for her to return to a point where she thought she could play again next season in the WNBA? She says yes, she's sure that she could. But she doesn't think she wants to, especially since no team was interested in giving her a chance the last two years.

So she is OK with moving forward. It's hard for any athlete, harder still for the most successful, to let go.

"I don't want to bad mouth the league at all," Swoopes said. "It's great for girls and women. I'm not looking for pity or anything like that. But I feel it's like they say, 'You've done everything you can for us, thank you, and now we're done.'

"I gave everything I had to help this league be as successful as I could. And it seems like they just shut the door. I don't want anything from the league except to go out the right way."

Feeling forgotten

In fairness to the league, the issue with how to honor stars who are exiting -- but no one is sure exactly when and how -- is not unique to the WNBA. It has happened in other leagues, too.

Swoopes did want to play again this past season, but didn't get the opportunity. In an ideal situation, the league should have reached out to her when she wasn't on a roster this summer and said, "OK, do you think this is really it? Should we try to plan something for you?"

It could have been done at the "Stars at the Sun" game in July, honoring Swoopes as not just a pillar of the WNBA but also the U.S. national team. But considering that even now Swoopes says that if she got into shape, there is no doubt in her mind that she could play in the league, you wonder if she really would have been ready to close the door this summer.

Is she ready to now? It seems like it. Swoopes sees that there are other things she wants to do in life. She's realizing that there's nothing to accomplish in basketball that she hasn't already accomplished. Letting go is always hard. But maybe the hardest part -- really admitting to yourself that it's time -- is something Swoopes has done, or is about 75 percent on the way to having done.

Still, we're left with the hurt. It's easy to blame the league, and the league does have some culpability in blanking out on a big-picture issue. But circumstance affected this, too. The organization that should have made honoring Swoopes a priority no longer exists: the Houston Comets franchise.

Swoopes spent 11 seasons there, and the city is again her home base. But the Comets disbanded, and her one season in Seattle really doesn't tie her to the Storm. So it's left to the league to step forward and recognize this is the WNBA's responsibility. Swoopes is far, far too important a part of the league's history to allow her to keep feeling so forgotten and isolated.

President Donna Orender and Brown, whom Swoopes has known longer, both need to reach out and mend fences. They might say, "How were we supposed to know this if she didn't call and tell us?"
I would just say that this is about pride, the understandable kind. The kind that anyone who was extremely successful at anything would have. Let's face it: If you were Swoopes, wouldn't you feel the same way? Wouldn't it have seemed unbearable to you to have to call the WNBA to basically say, "Um, I think my Hall of Fame-worthy career might be over, so I was just checking to see if you care."

Hello, WNBA! We're talking in our loudest voice here! Consider this your official kick in the pants to reach out to Swoopes!

But then she needs to be open to this, too, and not say, "Oh, now you're calling?" Her hurt feelings are justified, but it's time to patch up this relationship. Swoopes should be an ambassador for the league, not a wounded outsider. She had a lot to offer based on her experience, her success and her continued popularity.

When Sheryl Swoopes feels more welcomed and appreciated out in the middle of the Kansas plains than she does in the WNBA's headquarters, something is not right. But there's really no reason it can't be fixed.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.