by Dan Shapiro / @danshapiro413
The name Sheryl Swoopes is synonymous with women’s basketball. The resume’s long, prolific and unmatched: a not-so-small collection of titles, Olympic Gold(s) and ground-breaking endorsements—including the honor of being the first woman to ever have her own signature shoe.
I caught up with Sheryl at her office in Houston to talk to her about how she came to be one of the iconic athletes of all time.
SLAM: How did you get into the game?
Sheryl Swoopes: I’ve been playing since I was 7 with my two older brothers. We grew up in a very small town so there wasn’t much else to do. I started off as a member of the “Little Dribblers’ sort of like AAU in West Texas. It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I realized I might have something that a lot of other girls didn’t have.
SS: My high school coaches: Dee Bledins. Dickie Faught—these guys told me that I had something special. They were harder on me than the other players because they saw something in me and they didn’t want to see that potential wasted.
That’s really when the light went off that if I wanted to go to college that this was my ticket. Every summer after that, I basically lived in the gym. All day. All night. If you ever needed to find me, I was at the gym. Part of that was that it was the only place my mother allowed me to go.
SLAM: Your mom was strict?
SS: Oh yea. My mom was strict. I mean, back then my mom was mean. Playing basketball with my brothers was basically the only time I could leave the house. Back then, I didn’t understand it. “Why’s she so mean?!” Looking back on it now I realize what she was doing. Some of my closet friends ending up getting pregnant in high school and any given night that could have been me.
SLAM: You initially chose to play college ball at Texas, but never did. What happened there?
SS: Understand that all I heard growing up was that if you wanted to play serious basketball you had to be a Lady Longhorn. It just seemed like the place to go. Honestly though, I just got homesick. I’d never be away from my home and now I was eight hours away. I was literally there a week. I was calling my mom and crying and she’s crying, saying, “I miss you, come home.” And that weekend I went back to visit before the season got going but I never went back to Austin.
SLAM: So you never even got started?
SS: Nope. Nothing. No practice. Nothing, not even one dribble. Texas tried to convince me to come back. But at that point I’d made up my mind.
And then I ended up at South Plains because I would’ve had to sit out a year if I’d gone right to Texas Tech. Lubbock is about 45 minutes away and people were so critical of me, when I didn’t choose to go back to Texas. At the time, if you wanted to win, if you wanted to be an All-American you had to go to Texas. I knew that I could prove them wrong.
SLAM: With no WNBA at the time, what were you thoughts as your collegiate career was winding down?
SS: I knew there was overseas basketball. But I wasn’t really thinking about it. I wanted to finish my degree and, you know, get a job. The ’93 championship opened up opportunity’s to go speak and do camps. I did end up going overseas. I went to Italy and again, after a couple months realized it wasn’t for me and I went back home to finished my degree.
Right around that time they were putting together the USA National Team which was an about a yearlong experience including the Olympics. Shortly after that, the WNBA started. I tell people all the time that God put me in the right place at the right time.
SLAM: Do you remember hearing about the formation of the WNBA?
SS: The National Team had all this hype. We were 60-0 and had toured the US, played in Europe. We’d heard murmurs about a league—actually the ABL, not at the time, the WNBA. Everybody was excited and they all signed for the ABL with the exception of myself and Rebecca Lobo; we held out because we’d heard that the NBA was thinking about starting a women’s league.
SLAM: You think that ’96 team any connection or influence to the start of the League?
SS: Definitely. We were so popular and I really don’t think there would’ve been a league without us. We were good too. That fact that it was good basketball from the start helped everything get going smoothly.
SLAM: That moment was a huge step for both you and women’s athletics in general.
SS: Huge. It was exciting to be able to play in the States. Still frustrating about the opportunities and money that the men have that women don’t but I was fortunate enough to have a lot of things come my way. I had endorsements with Dr, Pepper, Nike. I wasn’t as frustrated personally, but of course I hated it for my fellow teammates and women athletes in general.
At the same time I had to be careful because I was one of the few that didn’t have to go overseas. So my off-season I was busy with speaking, camps and endorsements.
SLAM: Any tension with other players?
SS: Oh, absolutely, That’s life. I think that’s women, and I think that’s life.