Director Hannah Storm speaks on the significance Sheryl Swoopes and the Houston Comets.
In 1993 Sheryl Swoopes squarely put her name on the basketball map, scoring a record 47 points in a Final Four game and carrying the Texas Tech Lady Raiders to the school’s only NCAA Championship—winning the Naismith Player of the Year award in the process. She started her WNBA career four years later no less ceremoniously, as the Houston Comets No. 1 pick in the inaugural WNBA Draft. The Comets proceeded to win the league’s first four championships and Swoopes embarked on a career that was just as storied on the court as off it. As part of ESPN Films and espnW’s Nine for IX series, Swoopes profiles the life and times of one of basketball’s greatest talents.
Swoopes is directed by Hannah Storm, an award-winning producer, director, journalist and a pioneer in the field of sports broadcasting for women. In front of the camera hoops fans are familiar with her work on NBA on NBC, ESPN’s NBA Countdown, SportsCenter and as the first ever play-by-play analyst for the WNBA. Behind it, Storm produced the 30 For 30 documentary Unmatched and directed a short film for espnW’s HERoics series called Moving The Goal. Swoopes is shot in Storm’s first person account narrative style, utilizing authentic voices that are closest to the story like Cynthia Cooper, Phil Knight, David Stern and Tina Thompson. So it’s only appropriate that Storm, in her own words, speaks on the significance of Sheryl Swoopes with SLAM, and how she made this film.—Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
by Hannah Storm / @HannahStormESPN, as told to Duane Watson
I knew Sheryl so well early on in her career. I think that obviously she is a singular talent. I covered so much NBA for a decade at NBC and also at ESPN and I covered the entire Michael Jordan era. Those comparisons to Michael Jordan—that was not a shallow comparison, that was a real comparison and a very good one. Not just her skill level and the really underappreciated way she played defense, but she was really committed to and excelling on both sides of the basketball. She was an incredible defender and certainly not as glamorous as the 42 points in the championship game, but she was a phenomenal defender for her whole career.
In terms of her attitude, Sheryl played with swagger. She was supremely confident, she loved playing and you could tell she was having fun and she enjoyed it. That was the other thing about Michael, you could tell how much he enjoyed it. So it was that really cool combination of confidence, the fact that they loved doing it and just absolutely hating to lose. Then you combine that with the skill level that was off the charts and this real dedication to a complete game—that was really, really a cool package.
Sheryl is very single-minded too. You can tell in all the decisions she made that she’s her own person in every way, sometimes to her detriment obviously. She outlined in a very forthright way the consequences of some of the decisions that she made. She takes great ownership of her life and the things that she did.
What I think is pretty evident in this film is she was an athlete first. She and the Comets were a basketball team, and they were treated as such by their coach Van Chancellor, they weren’t a girls’ team per se, they were a real basketball team. They were four-time champs because they played and carried themselves like professionals and like the great men’s teams of the day. She was a woman and a mother, but she was primarily an athlete, with all of the good and the bad that goes along with it.
I wanted to do a film about her legacy, because I felt like it was underappreciated and she sort of faded away into the distance. She retired with no fanfare, there was no farewell tour, there was no acknowledgement of all she’s done for the league. It just sort of fizzled out. I also wanted, and this is a difficult balance in the film, but I wanted to tell the story of the Comets. I knew what an incredible franchise it was and what an incredible story that was and how they took over one of the largest cities in the United States. That was arguably the most successful women’s sports franchise ever in this country, I’ll put it up there with anything. The support they got, the reaction, the love affair they had with the city and the winning and the winning and the winning and the winning.
There’s never been anything like it, and I wanted to remind people how successful a women’s pro franchise can be. Now we focus on if the league is going to survive and the financial hardships. This was a magical time period and it wasn’t for just one or two years—it was for a long period of time, games were selling out and they were the hottest ticket in town. So I just felt it was an important story to tell and I really fought to have this, not just about her, but also about her team. That’s why I really wanted the Kim Perrot story in [Swoopes] and the winning years and Cynthia Cooper and all of it. I think I was able to do that and keep Sheryl as the central focus. To tell that part of the story was critical for me.
She was groundbreaking on so many levels, groundbreaking in the sense that she made it possible to be a mom and play professional sports, and she made it normal. That was something that no one anticipated was going to happen, including her. Nobody thought this league was going to launch and ‘Whoa, hey, our big star is pregnant,” but she made it work. She pulled it off and it made that normal and really de-stigmatized that.
I think the Nike contract was huge for women, the first ever woman to have a Nike shoe, the Air Swoopes. That’s something that had never been done, they had never signed a woman to that kind of deal, that was a watershed endorsement deal. Four-time champs. That was the biggest professional dynasty in sports for women and still is. The fact that she came out when she was league MVP in a team sport, for a high-profile level player to come out about their sexuality, that had never been done and still has never been done. She wasn’t a bit player, she was one of the hugest stars in the league. It was really groundbreaking on a lot of different levels.
It was a long time ago and thankfully as time has passed, we as a country have become a lot more comfortable with the notion of homosexuality. Homosexuality in sports was not part of our national dialogue as it is now. Before Jason Collins came out, there had been some leadership and high-profile players who had come out in support of homosexual athletes. Certainly Martina (Navratilova) had come out as an individual sport athlete, so it had happened in individual sports, but in team sports it hadn’t really happened. With Sheryl, it was uncharted waters.
I think everybody reacted to it differently. Today thankfully, Brittney Griner as a top draft pick was able to come out and be very honest about her sexuality. However, she has recently admitted that she wasn’t able to do that in college because her coach felt it would hurt recruiting, so that’s something she wasn’t able to widely acknowledge at the collegiate level. So maybe we’re becoming more comfortable with it at American team sports and only certain team sports, because it hasn’t happened in the NFL yet. There are still barriers to be crossed, but again, like everything with Sheryl, she was the first.
I’m pretty factual about it, but I sort of let people draw their own conclusions about what that time was like and what it was like for her to come out. I really tried to put a lot of different voices in that section of the film and really give it its due. I think it’s like anything else—when it’s uncharted waters and you’re the first, it’s very complicated. I gave as many different perspectives on what happened, because that’s the way it was. There were perspectives all over the map, it was controversial in the gay community too and I wanted to address that. She was trying to be honest with herself first and foremost and that’s not easy to do. Good or bad, sort of like she said about spending her money, she said, “I only have myself to blame.”
If someone asks, “Is Sheryl Swoopes the most important woman to have played professional basketball?” Yeah, I think yeah. You have to look at the totality of the groundbreaking element—what she established and the success of the Nike contract and how much it opened for other women. Look at the pure basketball sampling; four championships, the three MVPs, the fact that she excelled on both sides of the ball, multiple All-Defense, multiple All-Star. You look at the motherhood aspect—she opened the door for that balance to be achieved on a professional level, which had never been done before. The acceptance if you will, in terms of her coming out as an MVP of the league, not as a fringe player. Forcing people to talk about that issue, moving that issue forward in a league that had a huge gay fan base and really making that something that people addressed and took seriously—she made that discussion happen.
If you look at the groundbreaking nature of her times, is there any acceptance of a Brittney Griner if there’s not a Sheryl Swoopes? Oh and by the way, Brittney Griner was a little girl growing up in Houston. If you ask her about the Comets, she breaks down in tears that the franchise is no longer there. Those were her idols. I do believe yes, that Sheryl is the most important, not just from a basketball standpoint, but also from a cultural and socio-economical standpoint. The fact that she is also brave enough to serve as a cautionary voice for women and their finances is important, ’cause that’s a huge issue. Not just with basketball players, but women and money is a whole other level. For her to come out and acknowledge that she lost everything because of her own irresponsibility is a great cautionary tale.
I think from all those standpoints, she is the most important figure. I’ll lay her down against anybody—I think I have a pretty strong case. You might have people who were groundbreaking in other ways, maybe some of those aspects? But if you look at the totality across the board, I would say she’s the most important figure. You have to look at all those different layers, she was the first, the first, the first.
Swoopes premieres Tuesday July 30 on ESPN at 8 p.m. EST.