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She is Our

She is Our


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.

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.

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 it's OK.

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? 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 for him.

Understood. 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... [Pauses]

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 other.

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? 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 life.

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," "nervous," "excited"...but 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 me.

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 corporate America.

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 right. 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! [Laughs]

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 of one.

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, 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 service in.

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 about retiring. 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 me.

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 girl!"

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