The words have been setting fires inside her since she was
seven. Her older brothers, James and Earl, would be in the yard,
shooting baskets, playing one-on-one, knocking each other
around, and she would wander onto the court. What are you doing
here, Sheryl? You can't play with guys.
This is an article from the July 19, 1996 issue
In high school she would hang around the gym during the boys'
pickup games, hoping they would come up one player short. Who
else can we get? The girl, someone would say. What about the
girl? She would join the game, but the boys would play as if she
weren't on the floor. "The only time I got to shoot was if I got
the rebound and dribbled the length of the court myself," she
says. "It's always been that way. It didn't matter how good I
was. It was always, 'You're a girl. You can't play with the
guys.' It's always been motivation for me."
That has been all the pep talk Sheryl Swoopes has ever needed.
It has helped make her perhaps the finest female player in
history, a 6-foot, 145-pound forward who floats like air on a
basketball court. But even now, at 25, she is all too aware of
being a woman in a sport that still belongs, by and large, to
men. While the top American male basketball players enjoy fame
and riches in the NBA, their female counterparts, including
Swoopes, are forced to travel overseas to find jobs. Swoopes
can't figure this one out: There is big-time women's pro
basketball in Hungary but not in the U.S. How does that happen?
There is room for American Gladiators and a boxer named
Butterbean but not women's basketball. Sorry, Sheryl. This is
for the guys.
"Some people say a women's league won't work because the NBA is
so popular and we don't need any more pro basketball," says
Swoopes. "But I think the NBA's popularity just shows that
there's a lot of interest in the sport. I think there are enough
fans out there to support professional leagues for both men and
Swoopes may soon get her wish. She is part of the first standing
U.S. women's national basketball team, assembled in the spring
of 1995 to train and tour together in preparation for the
Atlanta Olympics. An eight-team women's pro league, known as the
American Basketball League, is supposed to begin play next fall,
and an NBA-sponsored women's pro league is scheduled to launch
next summer. No one has to tell Swoopes and her teammates what's
on the line in Atlanta. A gold medal could boost the new
leagues' chances of success. A poor showing by the U.S. team
and, well, American women can go back to playing in Hungary.
"Obviously our Number 1 goal is to win the gold medal," says
Swoopes, who along with her teammates will begin play on Sunday
against Cuba, "but we're also hoping to show people what women's
basketball is like on a pro level. We want to make this work. I
know one thing: I don't want to go back to Europe."
As a kid in Brownfield, Texas, Swoopes would read in her
schoolbooks about distant lands. She would wonder, What's the
point of learning about other places when you're happy where you
are? Her father left the family before she was born, and her
mother, Louise, often worked three jobs to support Sheryl and
her two brothers, but as far as Sheryl can recall, she had
everything she needed in Brownfield, a farming town of 10,387,
about 40 miles from Lubbock.
"I didn't have all the pressures of alcohol and drugs when I was
growing up," she says. "We were practically raised in church.
The hardest thing for me was when my friends would call and ask
if I wanted to go shopping at the mall. I could go, but I could
just look. I didn't have the money to buy anything."
Sheryl's introduction to basketball was right out of a movie.
Her brothers knocked the spokes out of an old bicycle wheel and
attached it to a post next to the house. They told Sheryl that
maybe she could play. "Oh, we'd let her sometimes," says James,
now 29 and a software engineer in Dallas. "But our games were
always pretty rough, and she'd go running to our mother and
crying about how we were picking on her. We were just trying to
toughen her up."
The Swoopes brothers succeeded. Before Sheryl played an
organized game with girls, at seven years old, she was good
enough to play with boys. "Sometimes I just wanted her to come
in and play with dolls," says Louise, "but right from the
beginning she wanted to prove that she could keep up with the
As a senior Swoopes was named female high school player of the
year in Texas. Soon after graduating she began dating Eric
Jackson, whom she married last June. Given her pick of
colleges--most recruiters felt she could turn any Division I
school into a national title contender--Swoopes chose to go to
the University of Texas. It was about 400 miles from Brownfield,
but she figured it had a big-time program and at least was in
her home state. She lasted four days. "I knew she didn't like
her decision even before she left," says Louise. "I think she
started on a Monday, and every day she called and said, 'Mom, I
want to come home.' I just said, 'You know the door's always
open.' On Friday she was home."
Swoopes called the coach at South Plains College, a junior
college in Levelland, about 25 miles from Brownfield, and asked
if she could play for his team. He thought she was joking. She
wasn't. She enrolled right away and in her second year was named
female junior college player of the year. She then transferred
to Texas Tech, in nearby Lubbock.
Because of her physical abilities, Swoopes has been compared to
Michael Jordan, but her story is more similar to that of Larry
Bird, another stubborn, small-town superstar. Bird left Indiana
University a few days after arriving and eventually carried
Indiana State, a smaller, less intimidating school, to national
prominence. One difference: Swoopes took her school to the
pinnacle, an 84-82 Texas Tech triumph over Ohio State in the
1993 NCAA women's final, while Bird's Sycamores lost the '79
men's national championship game, to Magic Johnson and Michigan
Two things have made Swoopes one of the most famous names in
women's basketball. One was her performance in that 1993 title
game, in which she scored 47 points--a record for an NCAA
championship game, men's or women's. "It amazes me how many
people still talk to me about that game," she says. "I mean, it
was only a women's basketball game, but everywhere we go,
someone mentions it."
The second thing that caught the public's fancy, of course, has
been Swoopes's name. It is as smooth as the player who owns it.
Headline writers and P.A. announcers love it, and so does Nike,
which introduced its Air Swoopes line of basketball shoes early
last year. Nike vice president of marketing Liz Dolan has said
that one reason Swoopes was chosen for the line was "because she
has a cool name." That she was the first person, after Jordan,
to have a Nike shoe bearing her name is an honor that means as
much to Swoopes as the six-figure income the endorsement earns
for her. "That's the greatest compliment I've ever received
because Michael has always been my idol," she says. "But the
most important thing is that my Nike deal has done so much for
women's basketball. Now every player on the national team has a
shoe contract. Can you imagine that having happened five years
ago? It wouldn't have."
Rebecca Lobo, who led Connecticut to an undefeated season and
the NCAA title in 1994-95, has done her share to promote women's
basketball, but she insists Swoopes made it possible. "She's
where it all started," Lobo says. "She's the first one to have a
real recognizable name in women's basketball."
Swoopes has yet to meet the man who gave her that surname.
Louise says she was pregnant with her only daughter when her
husband, Billy Swoopes, walked out. Sheryl, a devout Christian,
says her mother didn't raise her to hold grudges, and she
wouldn't turn her back on her father if he suddenly popped into
her life. "I don't hold on to the past or pass judgment on
people," she says. "I'm sure he's read about me or seen me on
TV. I'd like to see him. I hope I will. He's still my father."
Maybe because her family always got by on a modest income,
Swoopes knows that money isn't what matters most in life. "I
have to be happy," she says. "And no amount of money is going to
buy my happiness." Many of the women on the U.S. team gave up
lucrative gigs overseas to play in Atlanta. Not Swoopes, who had
bailed out of the Italian women's pro league and returned to
playing pickup games in Lubbock long before her Olympic
Her experience in Italy was soured, at least in part, by the
same malady that brought her back from the University of Texas:
homesickness. Swoopes lasted three months in Italy in 1993. She
has no desire to go back. "To be honest, Sheryl doesn't like the
international lifestyle," says Jackson, who accompanied her to
Italy. "They had lots of seafood, things like mussels and pasta,
and she would much rather have a burger and fries."
Moreover, collecting Swoopes's $60,000 salary from the Basket
Bari team proved to be difficult; she ended up receiving less
than $15,000 of it. "The owner of the team would tell us to meet
him at the bank on Thursday so he could pay her," says Jackson.
"Then he wouldn't show up, and he'd blame it on the language
barrier. He'd say, 'Oh, you misunderstood. I meant a week from
Thursday.'" Says Sheryl, "If I'm going to play basketball and
not get paid, I'm going to do it in some gym in Texas."
Like all national team members, Swoopes was paid $50,000 by USA
Basketball, the sport's domestic governing body, to spend the
past year training for Atlanta. During a grueling 7 1/2-month
worldwide barnstorming tour that ended on June 15, the women
played 51 games against college and national teams and never
lost. Swoopes averaged 12 points and about 20 minutes per game.
Almost everywhere they went in the U.S., team members signed
autographs, made appearances at schools and hospitals and
generally tried to generate goodwill. "We wanted to go out and
show people what kind of game we play and also what kind of
people we are off the court," says Swoopes. "If a woman
basketball player had made a public appearance when I was kid, I
know I would have remembered it my entire life."
During the team's stop at Vanderbilt, Swoopes met a
wheelchair-bound man named Roger who said he was a huge fan of
women's basketball. He said he had forgiven her for Texas Tech's
having beaten his beloved Vandy team in 1993, and he asked her
for a pair of Air Swoopes. She thought this was an unusual
request, since Roger had no arms or legs, but before a game the
next night she gave him the sneakers. "The man was so happy, I
just broke down in tears," she says. "I couldn't believe it. All
I did was give him a pair of shoes--and he can't even wear them.
When a man like that can find happiness inside him, how can we
complain about anything?"
Inside Swoopes there will always be a delicate balance between
contentment and competitiveness. She knows that she is blessed
with family and friends and sublime athletic talent, but she
also knows that there is more to accomplish--more games to win,
more to prove. She still doesn't have an Olympic medal or a
place to play professionally in her home country. The inner
fires burn. "The thing with Sheryl is that if you say she can't
do it," says her husband, "that's all she needs to hear."