Early on, no player more important to WNBA than Cynthia Cooper-Dyke

Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Houston won the first four titles in WNBA history. She averaged 21 PPG over 124 career WNBA games. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- It's a story she's told many times, even though it seems hilariously improbable now. But the fact is, when Cynthia Cooper-Dyke was gearing up for her sales pitch to join the WNBA, she really had no idea that the league was already sold on her.

As the WNBA celebrates its 20th season in 2016, it's essential to remember that in those crucial early years of establishing the league, there was no player more important than Cooper-Dyke.

The league's MVP the first two seasons -- no one else has won that award in back-to-back years -- Cooper-Dyke led the Houston Comets to the first four WNBA titles. She was the big guard who could score from anywhere while always looking so smooth and confident doing it.

She showed women's basketball fans in the United States what they had been missing while she played overseas. And she made them grateful that the WNBA came along in time for her to do that. Cooper-Dyke turned 34 the month before the league launched in June 1997.

When she had first heard in 1996 about the WNBA, though, Cooper-Dyke wasn't sure anyone involved was all that aware of her.

Yes, she had won two NCAA titles with Southern Cal (1983, '84), and she'd been on two U.S. Olympic teams (1988, '92) -- although she hadn't been a headliner on those squads. However, she was one of the top scorers in Europe for a decade-plus, all but one year in Italy. With the technology of the times then, though, all of that was mostly invisible to American fans.

When she had reached out to the American Basketball League -- the short-lived rival to the WNBA that launched in the fall of 1996 -- she thought it had no recognition of her skill level.

"I felt like they didn't really know what I'd been doing," Cooper-Dyke recalled. "They were like, 'OK, come try out with these other 300 people, and we'll see what we can do.'"

Instead, she made a tape of her performances and focused more on the WNBA. Before mailing the tape, she reached out to Renee Brown in the league's New York office to make sure she was sending it to the right place.

Brown had been an assistant for the 1996 U.S. women's team that won a gold medal in Atlanta, then was hired as director of player personnel for the in-development WNBA.

"I didn't know that they had done their research on me and already had video of me playing," Cooper-Dyke said of the WNBA. "So in my mind, I had to put together an airtight case for them to select me.

"And then Renee goes, 'Is this Coop from Italy? Oh, we've been looking for you. Where can we send the contract?'"

"We have to continue to promote the league and be good stewards. We've still got to sell people on the game of women's basketball. And not be offended by that. ... We've got to keep marketing." Cynthia Cooper-Dyke

Brown laughs at the recollection, too.

"I couldn't locate Cynthia for some reason," Brown said, "and so I was sitting here in my office late at night, and she called me. I'll always remember that."

Cooper-Dyke tried to stay calm at the news that the WNBA wanted her; no tape nor cover letter nor résumé needed.

"I think in my most professional voice, I gave Renee my address," she said. "But then I was all over the place: smiling, jumping up and down.

"I called my mother right after. I was screaming on the phone: 'I'm going to play in the WNBA!' She said, 'Where?' I said, 'I don't care! I'm going to play in the WNBA!'"

Right place, right time ... finally

Part of why Cooper-Dyke was so ready when the WNBA came along late in her career was that she had not spent her prime years as a professional mired in lamenting its absence.

She had grown up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, then went to USC. If basketball could take her to some faraway places, she was ready to go. Oh, she definitely dreamed of the opportunity to play in the United States, too. But rather than treat her time in Europe as just a painfully necessary exile, she chose to revel in the adventure.

"I saw it as an opportunity to travel the world," Cooper-Dyke said. "I immersed myself and adjusted to the culture. I lived as an Italian in Italy, not as an American in Italy. I wasn't calling back home constantly and having $5,000 in phone bills. I wasn't asking for the care packages.

"Yes, I was homesick sometimes, and I always missed my family. But I don't think it was as big a burden for me as it was for some others. How many kids from Watts get a chance to travel to see France and Greece and Venice and Florence and Rome and go on a jog past the Coliseum? Or go buy chocolate in Switzerland?"

Cooper-Dyke is now head coach of the women's hoops program at her alma mater, and her players there do not know about a world without the WNBA. They were toddlers, babies or not even born yet when the league began. It would be hard for them to fully realize just how many miles Cooper-Dyke had traveled playing basketball before she leaped onto the scorers' table in celebration of the first WNBA title, which her Comets won in late August 1997.

She hadn't been a young superstar who played years of club basketball and competed all around the nation, the way so many aspiring WNBA players do now.

"I was a late bloomer; I really started playing basketball at 15, 16 years of age," she said. "I wasn't a high school All-American. I was just a player that had a lot of passion, and I wanted to be great."

It ended up working in her favor more than she knew at the time: With the later start, she had a little less wear and tear physically and mentally. That helped extend her career enough to give her four full seasons in the WNBA. But her longevity was also attributable to her embrace of fitness and diet -- before most players really understood their importance -- and how her game continued to evolve.

Although Brown and others with the WNBA knew Cooper-Dyke was very good, even they underestimated just how great she would be. Through player allocation and the draft, the Comets ended up with the likes of Cooper-Dyke, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain. The Comets were the young league's most powerful team. And whatever clashes of egos they had -- which everyone acknowledges happened -- they overcame them for four titles.

Cooper-Dyke was the most valuable player in the single-game championship of 1997 and the subsequent three WNBA Finals. Then she stepped away at age 37 and began a whole other odyssey with her coaching career. It started with a brief stay in the WNBA with Phoenix; then there was an eventual move to the college ranks.

"I'm very happy at USC," said Cooper-Dyke, who has a 56-41 record in three seasons there. "I love teaching basketball and instilling my passion in the game. I had to pay my dues in coaching. I stumbled early on and learned a lot. I want to do as a coach what we did as players at USC: win a championship."

Making the most of it

So Cooper-Dyke's hoops world is in the college realm now, but it's not as if the WNBA is ever far away -- literally and figuratively. The Los Angeles Sparks play at the Staples Center and often practice at USC's Galen Center; the arenas are just a few minutes' drive apart.

Cooper-Dyke still remains one of the gold-standard players against whom others are measured. After retiring following the 2000 season, she did come back briefly -- for four games -- in 2003. She averaged 16 points in those games, and 21 PPG for her WNBA career.

"She made very difficult things look easy. ... She read defenders one-on-one probably better than anybody you can think of." Sue Bird on Cynthia Cooper-Dyke

"I remember watching her 'raising the roof' when I was in high school," Seattle guard Sue Bird said in reference to Cooper-Dyke's signature celebratory gesture. "I feel fortunate that when she came back [in 2003], I was in the league. She was an older player, but I could tell guarding her one time what she was like.

"She made very difficult things look easy. When you watch the highlights -- the Euro step, her ability to shoot from anywhere, creating off the dribble -- it's so impressive. She read defenders one-on-one probably better than anybody you can think of."

Cooper-Dyke is 53 now, yet still has the lean look of an elite athlete. She and her husband, Brian, are parents to twins, son Brian Jr. and daughter Cyan, who will be 14 later this month. They have played a variety of sports but now seem to be expressing more interest in basketball.

As much as L.A. is truly home for Cooper-Dyke, the time she spent in Houston will always be particularly precious to her. She said she gladly would have played anywhere, but the assignment to the Comets was very welcome because she actually already had a home there and had trained for several years in the greater Houston area.

One of her favorite memories is watching the highlights on television of Comets games with her mother, Mary, especially after their titles in 1997 and '98. All those years in Europe, Cooper-Dyke's games had been mostly inaccessible to her family. So she savored sharing the WNBA with her mom.

"Those were the best moments," Cooper-Dyke said. "I miss them to this day."

Her mother died in 1999, a particularly tough year because her Comets teammate Kim Perrot also died, of cancer. Houston still won the WNBA championship that year. And even though the Comets are gone -- the franchise disbanded in 2008 -- Cooper-Dyke knows that's a part of her life and career that was well-chronicled enough that it won't be forgotten. The history of the WNBA can't be told without her.

"I'm glad the WNBA can celebrate 20 years of champions," Cooper-Dyke said. "And I'm proud of what everyone has done to promote and keep the WNBA going. It hasn't been easy. We've lost some great franchises, the Comets being one.

"We have to continue to promote the league and be good stewards. We've still got to sell people on the game of women's basketball. And not be offended by that. We have amazing talent, but that's not enough. We've got to keep marketing. We've got to be not only gifted but interesting. We've got to tell our stories."