There are famous
people, and then there are stars. Sheryl Swoopes is a
star. Widely considered the greatest female basketball
player in the history of the sport, Swoopes has
augmented her great natural gifts with a drive that
has led her Women’s National Basketball Association
team, the Houston Comets, to the never-equaled feat of
a “four-peat”—four national
championships in a row.
Houston’s number 22 is taking the ball into new
territory: Swoopes came out as a lesbian on Good
Morning America in late October. She’s
also joining Martina Navratilova and Rosie Jones as
spokeswomen for America’s most prominent
lesbian-centered business, Olivia Cruises and Resorts.
What persuaded her to come aboard? It’s best
expressed in Olivia’s slogan, she says: “Feel
In a gay-press
exclusive interview, Swoopes is forthright about the
journey that led her here: “I don’t want to
say I’ve been living a lie, but for the past
seven, eight years I haven’t been able to be
comfortable in my own skin, around my own friends and
Swoopes is truly
a first: No major athlete, man or woman, has ever come
out at the pinnacle of a career in pro team sports.
Navratilova is justly celebrated for coming out while
still on top, but tennis is essentially solitary.
Swoopes, on the other hand, is the key talent on whom the
WNBA was built. From day one—along with fellow
Olympian Lisa Leslie—Swoopes was the WNBA star
the cameras loved, the upbeat wife and mom who proved
that basketball players could also be ladies who like their
that’s how she really is. “On the court
I’m all about business,” she laughs.
“But I want to look good while I’m doing
it!” No problem there. Her personal stats are
legend. She is the first female player to have a Nike
shoe named for her, and she is confident that Nike
will continue to endorse her now.
Her drive is
unstoppable. After she suffered what could have been a
career-ending knee injury in 2001, she came back fighting
and was named the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player
of 2002, having previously won the title in 2000. She
was named MVP again this year, becoming the first player to
win the honor three times.
On the day we
meet, at a public basketball court in Las Vegas,
Swoopes’s grace under pressure is on abundant
display. Thanks to Hurricane Rita, her family’s
trip here began with 15 hours in gridlocked traffic north of
their Houston home. In three days they leave for Europe,
where, like many WNBA players, Swoopes will play
basketball during the off-season.
As we talk,
Swoopes keeps a watchful eye on her handsome son, Jordan.
(She divorced Jordan’s football-player father, Eric
Jackson, in 1999.) Occasionally she takes an aside
with her affable partner, Alisa “Scotty”
Scott, herself an ex–basketball player and former
assistant coach of the Comets. Scotty’s rapport
with Jordan is plain to see. They shoot hoops to pass
the time; Swoopes shouts encouragement across the court. Now
and again she joins in. At 8 years old, Jordan can
outplay all the grown-ups but his two moms.
As word spreads
on the other courts that she is here,
worshipful pairs of eyes begin to peek around the canvas
partition. Finally a shy group of too-tall teenage girls in
uniforms brave the trip across the floor to meet the
star. Swoopes takes time with each. With the tallest
she puts her own six-foot frame on tiptoe in
comparison, pretending to be annoyed: “You’re
not supposed to be taller than me!” Swoopes
flashes that smile, and the girl surrenders to a grin
that beautifies a mouthful of braces.
she’s nervous about coming out -- but she’s
not scared. She has made her decision. She’s
always been this way: shooting high, breaking out,
What you’re doing is going to mean a great deal
to many people.
I’m nervous. I’m anxious.
I’m excited. I’m relieved. For so long
now I just feel like I’ve been in this little
shell, and there’s only a few people that I’m
OK with, that I’ll talk to. But there are more
people that know than not. And I’m at a point
where I’m tired of having to say,
“Don’t tell this person or don’t
tell that person.” Actually, when I spoke with my
agent, he was like, “I admire you. Go for
it.” I feel like there’s a huge weight
that’s been taken off my shoulders, and I can inhale,
I can exhale. I know it’s not going to be easy.
I know there’re gonna be lots of things that I
have to overcome, but you know what? All my life I’ve
had to do that, with being a single parent, being
pregnant, going through a divorce, being a girl
playing basketball. Hopefully many other people out
there will look at this and say “No way!” And
“If she’s doing it, why can’t
You are very decisive. Does your decision to come
out reflect the same mind-set that’s made you a
champion in your sport?
I think so. My mom kind of instilled that in me, that
when you make your mind up to do something and you do
it, never second-guess yourself. You’re the
only one who’s going to have to live with that
decision that you make.
What’s it like to be evaluated as the greatest
female basketball player ever?
It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve had a lot of
people say to me, “You’re the female
Michael Jordan.” I’ve been playing basketball
since I was 7 years old, and Michael Jordan’s
always been my role model. So when people pay me that
compliment, I take it just as that -- a compliment. And I
always try to improve on my game. There’s so many
great players out there. I try to do what I can to
make people appreciate female athletes just for who we
are on the floor, for our talent. I don’t like saying
“men’s basketball” or
“women’s basketball.” It’s
Looking at your career highlights, you’ve just
dominated your sport.
I’ve always been successful, as far as my team.
When I went to Texas Tech in ’93 we won the
championship, which had never been done before [by the
school]. And then to have three Olympic gold medals,
that’s pretty special to me. [Swoopes played
for the U.S. in 1996, 2000, and 2004.] And then going
to the Comets and winning four championships and three MVPs
-- I think everything that I ever set out to
accomplish in basketball, I’ve accomplished
that and then some. People ask me all the time,
“You’re 34 -- why are you still
playing?” I don’t do it for the money; I
don’t think any of the women in the WNBA do it
for the money, obviously. I still play today
’cause I still enjoy it. I love entertaining people.
I love the fans. Every time I think it can’t
get any better than this, it always gets better.
How’d you get started with Olivia?
[Laughs] Believe it or not, I have for at
least three, four years been wanting to go on a gay cruise!
I just couldn’t do it -- wasn’t
comfortable doing it, wasn’t the right timing,
didn’t know where to go or how to do it. A friend of
mine said, “There’s an Olivia cruise --
you guys wanna come?” I was like, “I want to,
but I can’t.” “No, you guys
should come!” I finally said, “All right,
we’re gonna do it.” She talked to me
about possibly doing an appearance, an
autograph-signing or something, on the cruise. At the time I
told her, “I don’t know if that’s
something I want to do, just because I want a little
bit of privacy. I want to enjoy the cruise without feeling
like I have to work.”
“Why don’t you just talk to [Olivia CEO] Amy
Errett and see what she has in mind?” So I
called Amy up, and we went and had a drink and dinner,
and we just sat and talked. The relationship right then and
there was incredible. I just felt so refreshed or relieved
or just comfortable talking to her. We talked about
Olivia, talked about us possibly working together. She
made me aware that Martina and Rosie Jones were
endorsing Olivia. I love Martina -- love Martina -- and now
I love Rosie too! I said, “Amy, what does
Olivia do? What do you guys try to accomplish in the
community?” Those things are very important to me, to
be able to do different things and be comfortable.
I’ve never been able to be comfortable for lots
of reasons—being gay, being a professional
basketball player. Typically, it’s not supposed to
What’s not supposed to happen?
Well, you know, being gay, being a lesbian --
it’s not accepted in the world, unfortunately.
Because of who I am and playing in the WNBA --
“This is Sheryl Swoopes, and what are people going to
think?” -- that’s what I was worried
about for so long. For at least nine years now. I’m
just at a point in my life right now where I’m tired
of hiding who I am; I’m tired of hiding my true
feelings; I’m tired of having to pretend to be
somebody I’m not. I want people to accept me for who
I am. I want people to know that I’m still the
same person, I’m still a great basketball
player and a great person. I’m so excited about it. I
want to educate people about what Olivia stands for,
what it means to be in love with another woman or
another man, or whatever. I can’t make people
accept that, but hopefully I can make them understand that
We’ve talked about how good it feels to be free,
but how’d you get in this situation? Did you
always know you liked girls?
Uh…no. I’ve had, and I still have,
friends, girls and guys, who were gay. And it never
really bothered me. I don’t know if you’d call
it a stereotype, but some people are afraid to even
know guys that are gay, girls that are lesbians. They
think, It’s gonna rub off on me.
I’d always had friends I’d hang out with, and
it was cool. But I was like, No, not me! It would
never be me! It just sort of happened. I was
married, had a child -- which is probably the best
thing that ever came out of my marriage. My 8-year-old
son, he’s my life. I’d do anything
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how
you look at it, my marriage was just falling apart. It
had nothing to do with me wanting to be with a woman
or wanting to be with anyone else. At the time, Scotty
was assistant coach for the Comets, and we became friends. I
was going through things, so I talked to her. And
that’s really all it was—a friendship.
She gave me advice as far as “Have you tried
everything? Have you guys gone to marriage
counseling?” Stuff like that. [But] it was at a
point where I felt like it was over with. And the rest is
history, basically! [Laughs]
What actually happened?
It was a tough situation for the two of us when
it got to the point to where I had feelings that I
didn’t really understand—because I’d
never had those feelings before, I didn’t know
what I was going through.
Scotty knew she was gay already?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But at the time I thought it
was just a phase I was going through. A lot of people
say that -- “It’s just a phase.”
I didn’t think anything of it. When we’d see
each other and go to a movie or go to dinner or
whatever, that was it. And then, I guess…
You started having feelings.
Well, yeah. But it was a tough situation because
she was an assistant coach and I was a player.
Obviously, that wasn’t gonna work. But no
matter how hard I tried to say, “This is not the
person I want to be with or the person I should be
with,” my feelings -- I think our feelings,
both of us -- grew stronger and stronger and stronger for
each other. It got to the point where I had to say,
“Why am I fighting this? Why am I continuing to
fight this?” We just both fell in love with each
Who said something first?
I think I did! [Laughs] I’m not sure! She
probably has a different story than me. You know how things
happen—the more we saw each other, the more we
were around each other, the more I wanted to be with
her, the more she wanted to be with me. We just kind of
went with it.
You don’t work in the same place anymore?
No. She’s no longer with the Comets, and
obviously I’m still there. This year was
probably the easiest year for both of us, just for the fact
that she’s not there anymore. [We] don’t have
to hide. She went on every road trip with us, and we
were able to…we still couldn’t quite be
ourselves, but it just made my job a lot easier, made her
job a lot easier.
How long ago did you two get together?
Oh…seven years ago?
You and Scotty and Jordan look like a very settled family.
Thank you. That’s how I feel about it. I
used to hear people talk about “You know,
it’s just families, whether it’s a child
having two dads or two moms,” and I would
always say, “How is that possible?” Because
obviously—I felt—that child is missing
something. But I’ve been doing this for seven
years now, maybe eight, and I can’t tell the
difference in my son. His friends who have a mom and a
dad—there’s no difference, because he
has all the love in the world. [Scotty] loves him like
he’s her own child; he loves her.
When you see them together, that’s clear.
That was my toughest decision when I was deciding on
whether I wanted to come out or whether I wanted do
this or not: “How’s it gonna affect my
child?” Because people, period, can be so cruel and
mean and ugly, and just say things to a child that the
child doesn’t really understand. I wanted to be
prepared to handle situations that are going to arise with
him. And I know it’s gonna happen, but I feel very
comfortable in being able to address the issue and
help him deal with it.
Do you consider yourself gay or lesbian? Bisexual?
Does it matter?
[Sighs] I just consider myself a person.
[Laughs] You know what? I don’t consider
myself bisexual. And I know a lot of people -- I even
have friends—some days they go out with girls,
some days they go out with guys. That’s just not
me, you know? I don’t know if there’s a phase
where you say, “Well, right now I’m
gay.” I don’t know if that’s a phase,
but I don’t picture myself being with a man,
period. And I don’t picture myself being with another
woman. The relationship I’m in right now, I hope, is
the relationship I’ll be in for the rest of my
In the WNBA, have you dealt with other players who
are afraid to come out?
You know what? I think there’s a misconception
that this is a discussion among each other all the
time. I mean, no, it’s not a surprise. We all
know who’s gay and who’s not -- but we
don’t talk about it. Those of us who are, we
talk to each other because we know that we can find
the support that we’re not gonna get from a lot of
other people. But I also think there are a lot of
players in the WNBA that would love to come out, but
for lots of reasons they’re scared. And that’s
one word that I probably have not used, in me doing
what I’m doing, is “scared.”
I’ve used “anxious,”
I haven’t used “scared.”
I’m not scared anymore, but I’m probably all
of those other things. But me doing what I’m
doing has nothing to do with me trying to shove it in
anybody’s face or say that this is what the WNBA is
about—it’s not about anybody else but
I’ve heard that the WNBA goes to some lengths to
have it appear there’s not a big lesbian presence
among the fans or the players.
I’d probably say I agree with that to a certain
degree, and then I also have to say that I
don’t agree with it. First of all, the WNBA, they
know about me. They’ve known for the past five years.
[When] I was in Sacramento to receive my MVP trophy,
Donna Orender, the president of the league, came up to
me and said, “When am I going to meet Scotty? I want
to meet Scotty.” I was surprised that she asked, but
I was like, “OK.” They talked, and it
was great. I think everybody in the WNBA, they’re OK
with it -- I just don’t know if they know how to
market it, where other people would be OK with it. I
hate it, because I don’t think [the mix is] a
bad thing. There’re lesbians in the league,
there’re straight women, but you have that
everywhere. In football, NBA, track and field…in
Why do you think people need us to hide? In sports,
why should it be a problem if players are lesbians?
Hopefully, me doing what I’m doing -- I’m
sure I’m going to hear it from both sides. But
I hope [my coming-out] is gonna make a difference to a
lot of people out there who want to come out and
don’t know how to do it or are afraid,
“If I do this, what will the consequences be? Am I
gonna lose this or that?” Because trust me,
I’ve gone through every possible scenario in my
mind, and I think that’s why it’s taken me
this long. There have been [times] where I said,
“I can’t do it. I might lose
endorsements. What are people going to think?” Well,
I’m at a point right now in my life to where
I’m tired of having to hide and I’m tired of
not being able to be who I am. To feel free. And right
now I feel so good about it. There are lots of people
-- at least in the WNBA, my team, and players
throughout the league -- they know about me. I don’t
think we have to make a big deal about it, because you
know what? We’re still who we are.
That’s a big concern of mine: I want people, and
especially parents if they pick up The Advocate
or they see me doing these ads -- I don’t want
them to go to their daughters and say, “Honey,
she cannot be your role model anymore.” I want them
to say, “You see what this woman is doing?
She’s strong, she’s powerful, and she is
who she is. And you can be OK with that.”
Do you hope that your action now will make it
easier for other players to come out in the future?
Well, if it’s something they want to do, I hope
that they can look at me and say, “Well, Sheryl
did it, and if she did it, then I can do it.”
But everybody’s different -- maybe it’s not
something they’re ready to do. There are much
bigger issues than Sheryl Swoopes coming out right
now. I look at the news and see the earthquake in Asia, the
landslides in Guatemala, and every day there’s
something going on that’s so much bigger and so
much more important than having conversations about
who’s gay, who’s not, in the WNBA -- it
shouldn’t even be a topic anymore. It
shouldn’t even be up for discussion anymore.
You’re from Brownfield, Texas -- is that a little town?
Very little. The only thing to do was play basketball.
Who taught you?
I grew up playing with my brothers and my
brothers’ friends and their friends. I was
usually the only girl.
Did anybody else grow up to be in the pros like you?
No. I am the lone star hero! From the state of Texas!
Rightly or wrongly, the African-American community
is said to be very homophobic, perhaps more homophobic
than America at large. Why do you think that is,
and do you hope to change it?
I guess if I had to say why, I think overall the
African-American community is probably more religious
than any other community. That’s probably why.
And I said to somebody the other day, “I know
it’s not accepted in the African-American
community at all.” There’s just a few.
And that was another thing I thought about: You have your
Rosie O’Donnells, your Ellen DeGenereses, whom
I totally idolize -- I absolutely love Ellen -- and I
was trying to figure out what gay African-American
woman has come out and can represent the gay
African-American community. And I can’t really think
No, I think you might be it.
And you know, I’m proud of that, that I am doing
it -- not just for the African-American community, but
for me, for my peace of mind. But I know it’s
going to be hard -- I know I’m going to take a lot of
flak from a lot of different people, but probably
especially the African-American community. But you
know what? The one thing that I hope doesn’t change,
though, are all the parents out there -- the moms or dads
who have daughters, maybe even sons -- that look up to
Sheryl Swoopes as a great person and a great athlete.
Coming out isn’t going to make me a different
person; I’m not a bad person. I’m still the
same Sheryl that I was before they knew.
You told me that you’d always been a mama’s
girl. Is your dad living?
My mom and my dad divorced when I was 3 months old.
He’s never been a part of my life.
What was it like to tell your mom about the
relationship you’re in now, and how has that
affected your relationship with her?
It was hard. When I first told her, I don’t think
she was surprised. She was probably shocked,
disappointed…you know, wondered why and what
did she do wrong. Just the typical questions that a mom
would ask. And I think she was hurt. And I was hurt
because she was hurting, but I told her,
“It’s nothing you did wrong -- I’d
never do anything to hurt you. But right now, this is
the person that I love, this is the person I want to
be with. And it’s not to hurt you, but I’m
happy.” And I asked her, “Would you
rather I was in a relationship where I’m miserable or
a relationship that I’m happy in?” And
she just said, “I want you to be happy.”
But my mom is…I consider myself a Christian, and my
mom is a Christian and she’s really into the
[Baptist] church and the Bible, so of course she says
that’s not right and the Bible says this and that, so
we had that talk. I think it’s really hard on
her because she doesn’t do a lot—she
goes to church a lot. So having to talk to her
friends or see her friends and see how her friends are going
to react to it, that’s the hardest part for me in
coming out—she’s going to have a hard
time dealing with it. But she knows I love her, and I know
she loves me regardless. I’m happy -- I just want her
to be happy for me. And I’ve told her,
“I know you’ll probably never accept it or be
OK with it, but…” Our relationship is
different. We don’t do a lot of things that we
used to do because I don’t want to put her in an
uncomfortable position, but at the same time, I have a
family. I have a life to life. So it’s
difficult that she doesn’t want to come over because
she doesn’t want to be uncomfortable, and I
don’t want to make her uncomfortable. I do
things with her -- we’ll go get our nails and beauty
things done, but it’s hard, because our
relationship has definitely changed.
I’m really sorry to hear that. I hope it’ll
change back one day.
Well, I do too. It’s hard, because I’m
happy, and then I see her and I can see that
she’s not. Hopefully it will.
You were raised Baptist. Do you still feel like
you’re a Baptist? Do you go to church?
You know what? I’m ashamed to say that I
don’t go to church as much as I should and as
much as I want to, but that’s just because I’m
never home. But no, I grew up in the church. I went to
church twice on Sundays, once on Wednesdays, was in
the choir. I absolutely love church, and I feel like
my life is not complete if I don’t get at least one
You’ve read the Bible -- do you think
homosexuality is a sin? Do you feel like you’re
living in sin right now?
You know what? That’s a tough one for me.
It really, really, really is. I’ve gone to
every bookstore and bought every book that said what the
Bible really says about homosexuality. I don’t know.
And I say, “Do you mean to tell me that God
wants us to love one another, love each other, but
God’s gonna send me to hell because I love another
woman?” I don’t know. I don’t
know. It’s a tough, tough topic for me.
Jordan’s really good with a basketball. Would you
like to see him follow in his mom’s footsteps?
Jordan has aspirations to be lots of things. As much as
I would love to see him play basketball, if
that’s not something he wants to do, I’m
not going to push him. I think he has some God-given
abilities that even impress me lots of times.
He’s playing football right now, and he’s
great at that—this is his first year.
He’s smart, he’s intelligent, and I told
him, “You can be anything you want to be, but
you’re going to have to work hard. It’s
not going to be easy.” He said, “I know. But
Mom, I want to be famous like you.” [Anne
laughs] I said, “Why do you think
Mommy’s famous?” He said, “Because
people always ask you to take pictures and they always
want your autograph!” [Both laugh] I said,
“But you know what? Mommy had to work really,
really, really hard so that people want to take
pictures with me.” I think he understands what that
means, and he understands what his mommy does. I think
he’s pretty proud of his mom.
You have a tattoo just above your ankle: a
basketball with wings, then your number, 22, and then—
“J.J.”, for Jordan Jackson.
It was Jordan who talked you into coming back after
you suffered a major knee injury. You were thinking
Oh, yeah -- he told me, “Mommy,
you’re still good. If you retire, who am I
gonna watch?” Jordan loves it, though -- he loves
watching all the different players. He said to me,
“Mom, you’re still great, you’re good,
I love watching you play.” Jordan is my number 1 fan.
Not Scotty, not my mom, not my brothers -- my son is
my number 1 fan. He really is.
Your young fans love you. Is there one encounter
that stands out?
Oh, gosh -- I’ve had a lot of them. The one that
probably touched me -- and I don’t want to say
that meeting one person is more special than the
others -- I was doing an appearance for Sears or JCPenney or
somebody, and this girl hugged me and she was boo-hooing,
telling me how much she wanted to meet me and how much
I’ve done for her…she plays basketball,
her mom and dad divorced, and it was a tough time for her.
But she met me, and that did it for her. That just really
touched me. All I do is play basketball because I love
it and God blessed me with some talent, so to see the
effect that I had on her and that I have on other
people’s lives -- not just little girls but little
boys, men, women -- that makes me appreciate what I
do. I tell Jordan all the time, “You never know
who’s watching you, and you never know how
you’re going to affect somebody, whether
it’s in a positive or negative way.” I love
kids, and I love being able to spend time with them and
influence them in a positive way. That means a lot to
You said that you want to do broadcast journalism
or commentary after you play in basketball.
Yeah, I don’t know if that’ll happen now!
I wouldn’t ever bet against you for any reason.
Is that still an ambition of yours?
Absolutely. You know who my idol is? Cheryl
Miller. I love Cheryl Miller. She does a great job
with TNT. But one of the younger ones? Rebecca Lobo.
She’s fairly new at it, but I think she has her
stuff together. I also like Nancy Lieberman.
She’s not too bad either. [Laughs] There are
a few out there that when games are on I’ll try to
pick up little bits and pieces from all of them. All
three of them have their own style, but they’re
all three very good.
You were always held up as someone who proved you
could be a feminine woman and still play basketball. Are
people going to see you differently after this?
I hope not, because I am just as feminine as
I’ve ever been. [Anne laughs] That’s
just who I am. When the game is over I’m gonna
go put my heels on, get my makeup and my hair done --
and Jordan will say, “Mom, you’re such a girly