Commentary

Cynthia Cooper left mark on WNBA

Some would have been pondering retirement, but then 34-year-old dominated WNBA

Originally Published: August 12, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Cynthia Cooper's peak years -- that time when she was at her absolute zenith in making demoralized defenders feel they were mostly wasting their time -- were not seen in the United States.

And on the eve of her induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, it's vitally important to remember that. Because she won four WNBA titles with Houston and two MVP awards in the league, American fans tend to think they did see the best of Cooper.

In a way, they did. They saw her when she was still a superstar, still capable of pouring in points from all over the floor, and so amazingly confident that she never looked rattled in games. Cooper was one of those rare athletes who you just figured would come through in the most difficult situations every time.

[+] EnlargeCynthia Cooper
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesCynthia Cooper averaged 21 points and nearly five assists per game during her WNBA career.

Not the majority of the time. Every time.

That's the kind of expectation viewers very quickly came to have of her. Cooper, the 5-foot-10 guard who had the strength, springs and skills to score against any defender, got the acclaim in the WNBA that she hadn't received while in college. The WNBA came along just in time to provide her the chance to show off her talents in the United States.

The league launched in June 1997, two months after Cooper had turned 34 years old, with the inaugural game between Los Angeles and New York. The league's early epicenter, though, would not be either coastal metropolis, but instead the traffic-gridlocked Southern behemoth of Houston.

At the time, the ABL had already gone through one season and some people actually thought there was a future for two pro women's basketball leagues in the United States. It was an absurd notion, but one that some folks clung to ferociously until the ABL folded just into its third season.

There were those angry ABL supporters who insisted that the WNBA was some sort of evil entity out to actually destroy the women's game. And there was a good deal of heated rhetoric about the pro game's future and who/what represented the best opportunity for it to mature. Remember when there were those who furiously proclaimed they would never watch the WNBA because of their ABL loyalty?

Of course, it wasn't that long ago, and yet it can feel like it. Furthermore, because women's basketball is a growing sport, every season the league has new fans who understandably don't have much knowledge of the sport's history, even of the relatively recent vintage.

And even those who were keen followers of women's basketball in 1997 might need to jog their memories a bit to remember how bizarrely fractured the fan base felt then -- the conspiracy theories, the litmus tests some had for what constituted a "true" believer in the sport's pro potential in the United States.

This was the atmosphere into which Cynthia Cooper, former Southern California standout and longtime scorer extraordinaire of the Italian leagues, arrived. She was legendary to those who lived in Europe and followed pro women's ball there.

To an American women's hoops audience, she was someone who had won two NCAA titles on a team where Cheryl Miller's prestige and personality overshadowed everyone else. And Cooper was also someone who had won Olympic gold and bronze medals on Team USA.

American fans could read Coop's bio and see that she'd dominated the Italian leagues for a decade. They could imagine what kind of commitment and endurance it took to play that well for that long overseas, at a time when communication methods with the United States (telephone, letters) were limited and/or expensive. When you had to get past that loneliness and the invisibility to your American fans year after year after year.

Coop survived and thrived overseas because there was really no way during her prime years to make a living playing pro basketball in her homeland. Many players of her '80s college generation (and those from the '70s) played professionally for perhaps a year or two overseas before returning to the United States and settling into a life doing something else. But Coop endured.

Thus, when she was so spectacular that first WNBA season (with Comets teammate Sheryl Swoopes out much of it because of pregnancy), fans thought, "Awesome! We're getting to experience this great player that we've missed all these years."

Which was true, except …

Well, think of it like this. Former Comet and current Sparks player Tina Thompson just became the WNBA's all-time scoring leader Sunday. We've seen her play for 14 seasons in the WNBA.

[+] EnlargeTina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper
AP Photo/Brett CoomerThe Houston Comets, led by Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper, ruled the WNBA from 1997 to 2000, winning four consecutive titles.

But imagine if last season -- 2009, the year in which Thompson turned 34 -- had been the first time you really got to watch her play since college. Envision all you would have missed.

Do a similar thing with Katie Smith, who turned 36 in June, or Ticha Penicheiro and DeLisha Milton-Jones, who both will be 36 in September.

Or think about if you had last seen Sue Bird play through a full season at UConn in 2002 … but didn't get to watch her again regularly through a season until 2014. Change the numbers slightly and sub in the likes of Tamika Catchings or Diana Taurasi or any number of players.

I'm making this point so strongly because it needs to be underlined over and over in regard to Cynthia Cooper. She came into the WNBA at 34, an age when most players are either done with basketball or starting to look seriously at when they will retire. However, in terms of her WNBA career, Coop had only just begun.

Look at her numbers: 22.2 ppg with 131 assists in 1997; 22.7 ppg with 131 assists in 1998; 22.1 ppg with 162 assists in 1999; 17.7 ppg with 156 assists in 2000.

Cooper effectively retired after the 2000 season, in which the Comets won their fourth consecutive WNBA title. She returned briefly during the 2003 season, when she was 40, but was limited to just four games due to injury. Finally, the next spring, at age 41, she ended her playing career for good.

There is much more to Cooper's story, of course, than her four seasons of brilliance in the WNBA. She coached the Phoenix Mercury for a season and a half, which didn't work out as well she had hoped. I was very critical of her exit strategy back then, while understanding that even someone as talented as Cooper might have bitten off more than she could chew at that time in her life.

Since then, she has experienced success as a college coach at Prairie View A&M, going to the postseason four times. There were some NCAA violations and sanctions during her time there, too, though.

Still, overall, I think Cooper -- who goes by her married name of Cynthia Cooper-Dyke now -- might have found college coaching a better fit than pro coaching. This spring, she left Prairie View to take over at North Carolina-Wilmington.

Cooper also has been an active advocate in fundraising for cancer research. The disease took both her mother and her friend and former Comets teammate Kim Perrot.

Last October, with her team's college season just around the corner, Cooper agreed to participate in an exhibition basketball game in southwestern Kansas to help raise money for better cancer screening methods in that very rural area.

She had no "connection" to Kansas; she came simply because she was asked, and she will rarely turn down any opportunity to contribute her time and energy to fight cancer.

There will be more to write about, including the rest of what Cooper accomplishes in her basketball coaching career. The ways she has impacted and affected her sport continue.

But as she goes into the Hall of Fame, those four seasons in Houston are what I will think about most. There's no better way to explain how truly great a player Cooper was than this: Even in the twilight years of her career, she managed to be the brightest star the new WNBA had.

When the league most needed somebody like her, thank goodness Cooper still had what it took to be magical. And had it in abundance.

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

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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