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Cynthia Cooper Is the WNBA’s Unsung Star

The Texas Southern University women’s basketball coach has a special connection to the league as its inaugural MVP.
Cynthia Cooper holding the ball

It’s a rainy, overcast Friday morning in Houston in mid-April. Heavy clouds are mixed with H-Town’s famously sticky humidity. It’s downright dreary outside.

But inside the H&PE Arena on the campus of Texas Southern University—a historically Black school that sits smack in the middle of the city’s Third Ward—there’s a different scene.

Lights are blazing, music is blaring, and there’s activity and conversation all about. A handful of women’s basketball players are stretching and working out in a corner of the room with coaching staff nearby.

In walks head coach Cynthia Cooper dressed in black tights, a long-sleeved maroon Nike shirt, black Nikes and a white face mask.

“Listen, listen, LISTEN,” she shouts. “Everyone else is here with their legs slightly bent and then they are doing it,” she says as she models the correct form for squats. “If you’re just standing straight like this and doing it, that’s not right. You’re going to hurt your back.”

Watching from the other side of the room is TSU strength and conditioning coach Stephen Butler. “Hey, Coach. Coach, they’re not doing it right,” he yells out. “I’m fixing to make them redo it.”

Butler walks over to model the correct moves. Coach Cooper, 58, stands off to the side, keeping a careful watch over her players.

She’s accepting nothing less than their maximum effort.

She’s pushing them because she’s building their strength, character, heart and discipline.

She’s building champions. Like herself.

Cynthia Cooper looks on as her players work out on the ground

Cooper oversees a workout in her second stint as Texas Southern University's women's basketball coach.

As the WNBA celebrates its 25th-anniversary season, fans are honoring some of the early superstars who made the W what it is today—superstars like Cooper, whose name one might not hear alongside names like Rebecca Lobo’s or Lisa Leslie’s, made a significant impact on the league.

In fact, Cooper is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players ever. “Cynthia Cooper will go down as one of the top-five players to ever play in the [WNBA],” says Brian Agler, a two-time American Basketball League and WNBA champion coach.

As a member of the iconic Houston Comets, Cooper won the first four championships of the WNBA’s existence and was the league’s first (and second) MVP. She led the league in scoring three consecutive years and was named MVP in each of those four WNBA Finals.

Cooper was named the 1998 Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation and became the first player in WNBA history to score 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 career points. She also won back-to-back NCAA championships with USC and is an Olympic gold medalist. But despite the accomplishments, the Hall of Famer is not fazed by any hoopla about her.

“I’m just me,” she says from her spacious office on campus. “Now you can call me the GOAT, you can call me a Hall of Famer, but I still go by Cynthia Cooper; Coop; what’s up, girl; hey you. That’s just me.”

Racquel Spurlock, her Comets teammate in 1997 and ’98, calls her time playing with Cooper “an amazing experience.”

“She was the female Michael Jordan of the game,” Spurlock says. “She was always confident on and off the court. She was a true leader for everyone.”

TSU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Lulu McKinney marvels at Cooper’s work on campus.

“Her mentality is like no other. The way she thinks is on a whole other level; it can motivate anyone,” says McKinney.

That championship mentality served Cooper well when she became a pioneering face of the brand-new WNBA.

After a successful college career—she left in 1986, ranking eighth on USC’s all-time scoring list with 1,559 points, fifth in assists (381) and third in steals (256) —Cooper took her talents overseas.

During the decade she played in Italian leagues, she was the leading scorer eight times and finished second the other two years. In 1987, she was the MVP of the European All-Star team. She was also named to the All-Star team of the Italian leagues in 1996–97.

Then the WNBA was formed, and a seasoned Cooper—then 34—jumped at the chance to return to the States even though she didn’t quite know what to expect from the new league.

“All I knew is I wanted to play in a professional league in America. I had been overseas for 11 years. I wanted to get back to America and get back into contact with friends,” she says. “My mindset was winning championships and that is what I play basketball to do. I don’t play just to participate or be happy to be in the WNBA.

“When I got to the W, I had a chip on my shoulder: one, because I was older; two, because no one knew me; and three, because I wanted to show my family what I had been doing overseas. I wanted them to be proud of me and know I had been playing pro and I was pretty good,” Cooper says. “That translated into championships. But also I was out to prove something: that I could play at 34 and was a force to be reckoned with.”

And she was, notching four consecutive championships, MVPs and a legendary career.

“I didn’t know I would be titled a legend or the GOAT,” she says. “I did know I was coming out to showcase my talent, that I wanted to win championships and that I wanted to lay a solid foundation for the next generation of basketball championships to play in the WNBA.”

Cooper retired in 2000 and coached for one and a half seasons with the Phoenix Mercury (2001–02). She returned as an active player in the 2003 season, but announced her final retirement from professional basketball in 2004.

Her post-WNBA career has included being a TV analyst for the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and NCAA and WNBA games. She kicked off her coaching career at Prairie View A&M, then went to UNC Wilmington and TSU in 2012.

The mother of twins who are now in college, she took some time off before returning to TSU in 2019 as head basketball coach for round two because, she says, of her love for the city, the college and, in particular, HBCU

While Cooper spent four years at USC, she graduated with her degree from Prairie View, an HBCU about 50 miles from Houston, in 2005.

“I love the city of Houston and wanted to give back one way or the other,” Cooper says of her return to the city and TSU for a second stint. “I wanted to coach but I also wanted to bring talent to HBCUs: not just basketball players but talented basketball players who have aspirations of playing in the W and overseas.

“I want to bring a different mentality to women’s basketball in HBCUs, and that is where my passion is,” she continues. “That is why I hold my athletes to a certain standard.”

Ty Bridges, TSU’s point guard, knows all about those high standards and calls playing under Cooper “a great experience.”

“She holds you to a high level and expects you to play up to it,” says Bridges, 22. “In my opinion, that’s big. That a big-time player comes back to a city to give back and drop knowledge on girls and train them up to follow in her footsteps. That we then could possibly have a chance to do the things that she did—or better? That’s big.”

Cynthia Cooper celebrates a Houston Comets championship

Carlos Wilson, TSU’s associate head coach before Cooper returned, stayed on when she came back in 2019. During her first stint at TSU in 2012–13, the team finished with a record of 20–12 and made the postseason, playing in the NIT, but losing in the first round to Kansas State. This season TSU—which plays in the Southwestern Athletic Conference—battled like so many other collegiate teams with COVID-19 affecting players and games. They finished seventh in the 10-school SWAC with a 5–10 record (4–8 in conference).

“Everything that we are here at TSU is because of her, because of the foundation she laid the first time she was here,” Wilson says. “She set the standard for winning and championships here. Before she came, we hadn’t won anything in a long time.

“It’s not very often that you get to work for or with a Hall of Famer, arguably the best player to ever play the female game and one of the best to ever play basketball period,” Wilson continues. “It’s not often that you get to delve into the mind of an elite, special player and what makes them tick. I’m very fortunate to be able to work alongside her.”

Butler, in his first year as TSU’s strength and conditioning coach, says his mom was a Comets season-ticket holder. So when he arrived at TSU, he was well aware of Cooper’s legacy.

“I called my mom and told her who the head coach was,” he says. “The same thing we saw Deion Sanders do at Jackson State [as head football coach], that’s exactly what she is going to do here. I love it, and they definitely respect her. She is making a difference.”

The mentality, desire and determination to succeed, Cooper says, come from growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. “It comes from the inner city, where the only option you have is to be successful. If you’re not this, then you’re that. If you’re not successful and focused and driven then you can fall into drugs or gangs or fall into a path that you don’t want to go down.”

Her long journey from Watts to the W has left her with a special connection to the league.

“I love coaching. I love to continue to be around women’s basketball and I love continuing to promote the sport,” she says. “I have an incredible passion for women’s basketball, and I love where the W is today.”

She talks excitedly about the range of players in the league now, from Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd to Candace Parker and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

At the same time, Cooper has her sights set on another league: the NBA.

“I would love to have the opportunity to coach guys in the NBA, and I think that is what’s next,” she says. “I’ve coached everywhere—overseas, college, the W—and I want to coach men in the NBA.

“I think it’s time [for a female NBA head coach], and I know I’m capable,” Cooper adds. But she’s in no rush.

“I think everything is a journey and happens in time,” she says. “I think that’s what's next for me, but right now I’m focused on getting TSU to a championship level, and that is where my heart, spirit and soul is.”

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