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Sheryl Swoopes: first athlete signed to the WNBA

Swoopes’ career is the stuff of legend, to the extent that her legacy resonates to this very day. It’s hard to think about what women’s basketball would look like without her; she paved the way for women in basketball.

In 1997, Swoopes was the first player to be signed by the WNBA. She is still the only player to score 47 points in an NCAA championship basketball game.

College

Swoopes played college basketball for two years at South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas. After her two years at South Plains, she transferred to Texas Tech University, where she was voted National Junior College Player of the Year. She had 30 or more points in 14 games during her two years at Texas Tech.

In 1993, her senior year, she led the Lady Raiders to an NCAA basketball championship, winning 84-82 against the highly favoured Ohio State. She was named Most Outstanding Player in part due to her 47 points setting a single-game championship scoring performance. That same year, she won a number of awards including Collegiate Player of the Year, Naismith College Player of the Year, and Sportswoman of the Year. In the entirety of the 1992-1993 season, she scored 955 points.

Sheryl Swoopes
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Olympics

In order to prepare for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Swoopes was part of the USA Women’s National Team that took part in 52 exhibition games around the world against collegiate and international teams. At the 1996 Olympics, Swoopes went on to win gold with Team USA, scoring 16 points against Brazil, 111-86. Swoopes had an average of 13.0 points at the Olympics and started all eight games.

She won another gold with Team USA in the 2000 Sydney Olympics against Australia, with Swoopes scoring 14 in the final game. Her final Olympic appearance was in 2004 where she once again earned gold against Australia.

WNBA Career

Swoopes’ career in the WNBA is extensive. On Aug. 7, 1997 she made her WNBA debut after giving birth to her son Jordan. She played in the last nine games of the season, with an average of 7.1 points per game.

The next season, her average increased to 15.6 points per game. She won her first (and the first-ever) WNBA championship against the New York Liberty in 1997, 65-51, going on to win four straight championships with the Houston Comets.

In the WNBA’s first All-Star game, Swoopes was a starter for the Western Conference; the West won against the East with Swoopes’ eight points and eight rebounds.

During a WNBA game against Detroit, she recorded the first triple-double in the history of the league, finishing with 14 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, winning 85-46 in the process. She won her first Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year award in the 2000 season, going on to win both awards on two further occasions. She finished the 2000 season as the league leader with 20.7 in points and 6.8 for rebounds. After a two-year break, Swoopes returned to the court in 2011 with the Tulsa Shock.

Air Swoopes

Swoopes was the second athlete and the first female athlete to have their own signature shoe with sportswear giant Nike, the Air Swoopes in 1995. After releasing Michael Jordan’s line starting with 1985’s Air Jordan I, Nike had already established themselves as a major company for sportswear endorsements.  

In 1993, Swoopes got the news that Nike executives wanted to design a shoe for women. Swoopes couldn’t afford Nike shoes growing up, and could never have imagined she would be making history with the shoe brand.

She was named to the WNBA’s all-decade team, and during the 2011 WNBA All-Star Game was recognized as one of the 15 greatest players in league history.

In 2016, Swoopes was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 2017, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Swoopes is truly a sports icon and an inspiration to many.

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