- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Sheryl Swoopes reflects on the first week of the first WNBA season in 1997, and about living in Tulsa.
TULSA, Okla. -- You might be wondering how this could be fun for Sheryl Swoopes. She has won everything there is to win in women's basketball, and so returning for another WNBA season at age 40 had nothing to do with pursuing an ultimate triumph that had eluded her.
Sure, she felt she'd deserved more of a chance to exit the WNBA on her own terms. Yet as the calendar turned to 2011, she was no longer burning with a desire to prove something. In fact, it was as if the call came from the Tulsa Shock after Swoopes already had made some peace with the idea that sometimes you cross a finish line that has no tape to break or crowd to cheer for you.
Swoopes doesn't act like a woman desperately chasing the sun and trying to keep it from setting. Yet
The Shock are 1-9 and might not match last season's total of six victories. Their debut season in 2010, after moving from Detroit, was expected to be rocky -- but not necessarily "rock-bottomy." However, that's what it felt like.
Until this season, that is, when it appears the Shock (and their fans) might be realizing they actually had not hit bottom last season, only a ledge. There's still farther to fall.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that following the Shock was like being along for the ride with someone who really didn't know where he was going, no matter how much he insisted he did. After Tulsa's 30-point loss to Minnesota on Thursday, it's more like the car has now hit a tree, the air bags deployed, and you are left wondering if it's totaled.
Minnesota racked up fast-break points against the Shock as if the Lynx were playing a team made up of players the age of Nolan Richardson, rather than one coached by him. Forty minutes of hell is supposed to be what his squads do to their opponents, not what they put their own fans through.
And in this atmosphere of "who knows when/if the next win will come" is Swoopes, the four-time WNBA champion, the Texas Tech legend who had what remains the greatest individual performance in the NCAA women's title game, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Is she asking herself, "What the hell am I doing here?" Is she obviously miserable or barely able to hide it?
Well no. It might seem like a façade, and perhaps by August it will be. We don't want to be Pollyanna about this. But Swoopes insists she's actually very happy to be in Tulsa. She believes in the franchise. She thinks highly of her teammates.
"I have so much respect for every player; I see how hard we work every day in practice," she said. "The frustrating thing is the fans don't get to see who we really are. I know we're a lot better. It's just a matter of when are we as a unit able to transfer what we do in practice to games?"
Swoopes has held true to this brand of optimism since joining the Shock. She came supposedly as more of a supplemental player whose leadership/experience could help her shepherd developing younger players. When Amber Holt was injured, Swoopes found herself in the starting lineup.
Thursday, Swoopes played just more than six minutes, then was forced out of the game by a hamstring injury. After the game, she again put a positive spin on things, saying the injury wasn't really that severe, and that after some rest she would be able to play again.
Rest time is available; the Shock have a week off before their next game, July 8 at home against Phoenix. Two days after that, the Shock travel to Phoenix. (Guess how many transition buckets the Mercury will hope to compile in those back-to-back games.)
We'll see if Swoopes indeed is able to play then, or if she'll join the list of marquee names on the shelf with injuries. We say marquee "names" because Swoopes most definitely remains that, even if -- by her own admission -- she's not the same marquee player she once was.
"I don't think it's tough to get there mentally," Swoopes said of returning to playing shape after her two years away from the league. "Your mind is saying, 'You know how to do this.' But your body doesn't always respond.
"It's frustrating -- not that I expect to be the same person I was 10 years ago, but I do expect to do certain things. In all honesty, my body for the most part feels really good. But at this point of my career, I have to rely on different parts of my game, knowing how to take some short cuts when you can."
Ending your playing career on a team that is struggling this much might seem the opposite of a short cut, though -- more like a detour through the desert. We're not just talking about the real heat in Tulsa, of course, but how barren the landscape looks for Shock victories the rest of this season.
Again, though, Swoopes says she's not looking at it that way. She points to games like the one against defending WNBA champion Seattle on June 21, when at one juncture the Shock had a double-digit lead. She thinks if everyone is healthy -- incidentally, Tiffany Jackson was also injured Thursday against the Lynx -- and Tulsa competes to its full potential, the Shock really can play with any other WNBA team.
Perhaps Swoopes is right -- for stretches of games, that is. But actually winning is another matter, and we'll see if that part eventually does take its toll on Swoopes as this season continues.
"When I made the decision to come here, I knew that leadership was going to be part of my job," Swoopes said. "We have a very young team. I've never been in a situation like this before in the WNBA; I've played with players who had been doing it for a long time. So they understood the game, all the things as a basketball player that you just know you have to do.
"It's going to take this group a little longer but it's not a bad thing. I'm absolutely enjoying being with this team."
One of the hardest parts, though, is that Swoopes is away from her son, Jordan, who is living in Texas and engaged in his athletic pursuits.
"This is the first time since I've been playing in the WNBA that he hasn't been with me all summer," Swoopes said. "He called me the other day and said, 'I miss you' and I started bawling and said, 'I miss you, too.' But he has his own schedule now."
Jordan just turned 14; he is the same age as the WNBA itself, as Swoopes gave birth to him at the start of the inaugural season. She returned in time to help the Houston Comets win the first league title, although she was not at full strength then.
During the next three years, with the Comets adding additional championships, Swoopes was gloriously good along with "Big Four" teammates Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Janeth Arcain.
Now the Comets are no more, with the franchise folding in 2008. Swoopes was not in Houston for the Comets' last season; she spent 2008 with Seattle, where she started 25 games and averaged 7.1 points.
But it wasn't all that great a fit, really. When you talk to people with the Storm, they will say, haltingly and not wanting to sound disrespectful, that Swoopes did not seem especially on top of her life then.
How much of that had to do with the amount of physical pain she was in -- serious back issues limited her to playing just three games for Houston in 2007 and continued to plague her in Seattle -- is hard to speculate about. But it had its impact.
When Swoopes was let go by the Storm in February 2009, she says it came as a complete surprise. Seattle officials say it really shouldn't have but by the same token, they felt bad that Swoopes was left feeling alienated from the WNBA. She didn't play in the league in the 2009 or '10 seasons, but did go overseas.
When I'd talked to Swoopes last October at a charity basketball game in Kansas, she seemed resigned to the idea that her departure from the league was going to remain a sore spot until it eventually scabbed over and healed.
"More than anything, I'm just hurt," she said at the time about the emotional, not physical, pain she still felt. "To not go out and feel appreciated, that hurts me."
Yet Swoopes appeared to be preparing for the rest of her life to not include playing basketball for a living. She sounded eager to see what that next step was.
There was something else about Swoopes that I became aware of at that time, though I wasn't entirely sure how to ask about it.
Swoopes had been married to Eric Jackson and was pregnant when the WNBA began in 1997. Then in 2005, she came out as gay to ESPN writer LZ Granderson. At that time, she was several years into a long-term relationship with Alisa Scott. Swoopes told Granderson back then, "My reason for coming out now isn't to be some sort of hero. It's not something that I want to throw in people's faces. I'm just at a point in my life where I'm tired of having to pretend to be somebody I'm not."
Swoopes' relationship with Scott had been fairly well-known to those in the media who regularly covered women's basketball. Many of us lauded her decision to publicly acknowledge it. We hoped that it would help the overall climate in athletics, so people were more likely to feel they could be open if they were in a same-sex relationship.
Yet when Swoopes' agent mentioned to me last fall that Swoopes was "in a different situation" now, it wasn't difficult for me to guess what she was referring to. Swoopes was no longer in a relationship with a woman. She was in a relationship with a man whom she'd known for some time.
Swoopes didn't seem to want to have -- for lack of a better way to put it -- a "coming out as straight again" interview. She wasn't renouncing homosexuality or saying she wished she hadn't said what she did in 2005. But the fact remained that she was no longer in a same-sex relationship.
Did this surprise me? Honestly, no. There were things Swoopes said in her initial interview with Granderson that had made me think her relationship then was about what kind of person Scott was and how their lives meshed together, regardless of whether Scott was male or female.
One of the things I wrote back then was this: The concept that sexuality is not just two polar opposites -- heterosexual and homosexual -- but lies on a spectrum, is a theory that has always been grasped to some degree. It came more to the forefront in American culture with Alfred Kinsey's reports in the late 1940s and 1950s, when he introduced the zero-to-six "scale" and the then-shocking concept that not all people actually know where they are on the scale. Nor does everyone always stay in the same place.
I felt that in 2005, Swoopes was relating her own personal experience, not trying to represent a "universal" gay or lesbian experience. Because there is no such thing.
Last fall, though, I wasn't certain what to write about Swoopes' personal life, or how much she even wanted to discuss it. Once she got engaged to her fiancé, Chris, and returned to the WNBA, it seemed it was time to address it.
"If Chris and I had not gotten together, I'm not sure I'd be playing today," Swoopes told me recently. "I know he has a lot to do with where I am in my life now.
"There is nothing I've been through in my life that I regret, or that I would go back and change. I feel like everything that happened -- personally and professionally -- I went through for a reason, and I learned from those things."
There are sure to be gay people who are annoyed at and disappointed with Swoopes. Who feel she has co-opted and trivialized what for many is a sacred, soul-searching, life-altering experience of coming out.
I understand that sentiment. But if Swoopes was being true to what she felt in 2005, and she's also being true to what she feels now that just sounds like "life happens" to me. In retrospect, maybe she should not have felt compelled to label herself "gay" in 2005. But clearly she felt that was the right thing to do then.
People can make their own decisions on what they feel about Swoopes and the entire topic of sexuality -- how much it needs to be publicly defined and proclaimed. I'll take Swoopes at her word that she was happy in 2005, and that she's happy now.
Comfortable in Tulsa
Which brings us back to the starting point. How can Swoopes be happy with basketball now, playing for a team in the WNBA's cellar? How can this be fun?
Maybe it's because she can't give up on what she sees as sparks of promise. And because great athletes always think they can overcome everything. And because she relishes the chance to hand off some nuggets of wisdom even if the Shock, this season, are again panning a stream for nonexistent gold.
"I was very bitter, frustrated, hurt, angry -- I went through all types of emotions when I first was out of the WNBA," Swoopes said. "It took me a year to get through it; that's part of professional sports. But I got to a place where I said, 'Basketball doesn't define who I am. Maybe it's time for me to figure out what else I want to do with my life.' If it's meant for me to come back, I will.
"To me, there is a much bigger picture. I think me being here has to do with a lot more than basketball. Maybe it's being a teacher, and able to tell my teammates things about life. From my failures, and from my victories, I can teach them."
Swoopes celebrated her 40th birthday in March. Even when she returns to full health, she doesn't have that much time left as a player. She isn't thinking about that past the end of this season.
But once she finally does stop playing, then what? In Tulsa, she has seen how much she cares about and wants to be involved in every aspect of what makes a successful franchise. Which the Shock, in their second year in Oklahoma, are trying to become.
"I am able to relate to the players and the organization," Swoopes said. "Players don't really ask for much or want much. But the things that they do need are important. There are things the players and the organization don't understand about each other. I think that's part of my reason for being here, too: To help the communication. In a short amount of time, I've grown to like the city and the fans a lot.
"Everybody wants to win. Nobody is happy in the locker room when we lose. But I haven't woken up one morning and said, 'Why did I do this?' Instead, it's been, 'How can I make this team better? What can I give of myself to help?'"
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.