She is Our Champion

She has logged every superlative in the basketball record books. Now WNBA Houston Comets superstar Sheryl Swoopes makes history again, by coming out about her happy family life with her long-term lesbian love -- and signing with Olivia. And she’s only just begun.

BY Anne Stockwell

November 07 2005 1:00 AM ET

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.

Now
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
free.”

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
family.”

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
pedicures.

Swoopes says
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.

Swoopes says
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,
making history.

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
I?”

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
simply basketball.

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.”

She said,
“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
happen.

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