Super Cooper

A profile of basketball player Cynthia Cooper.

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• A pair of national titles in college.
• An Olympic gold medal.
• Nine scoring titles.
• A professional world championship.
• League Most Valuable Player.

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And there’s another title the 5’10” Comet guard holds that none of the NBA stars can match: proud mother of Tyquon, her four-year-old son. She’s a regular working mom who just happens to be one of the best professional basketball players in the world.

Cooper, 35, joined the Comets last year in the debut season of the Women’s National Basketball Association. After playing overseas for a decade, Cooper returned to America where she became the league’s best player. She played in Europe for so long because there hadn’t previously been a domestic women’s professional league. That changed in 1996, when not one, but two leagues, the WNBA and the American Basketball League (ABL), were formed.

Starting off virtually unknown in the WNBA, Cooper slowly rose to domination and led her Houston Comets to their first championship title. It was a dream come true last August for Cooper to experience the thrill of playing in front of over 16,000 fans in a sold-out Compaq Center with the WNBA championship at stake. And the win was especially poignant for Cooper since the person she admires most—her mother Mary Cobb—was in the stands for one of the first times since battling breast cancer. Winning the game and leaving with her MVP title was almost secondary to the joy she felt at her mother’s presence. “This kind of takes it all away from her, and she gets a chance to concentrate on something good and positive, and it means the world to me that she can come and see me play and be successful.”

This year the Comets have started the season undefeated, and with star forward Sheryl Swoopes back in the game after giving birth to a son, the role Cooper established last year may be changing. But after initial rumors of possible tension between the two players, it’s looking like they’re functioning just fine as a team. Cooper isn’t about to let anything get in the way of playing the game she loves, and the chance at leading her team to another Championship victory.

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Cynthia Cooper was born in Chicago and grew up there and in Los Angeles. She didn’t start playing basketball until the age of sixteen.At the University of Southern California, where she majored in physical education, she helped the Lady Trojans win national championships in 1983 and 1984, and made three NCAA Final Four appearances during her college career. She was also named to the 1986 NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team the year she graduated.

Before the WNBA, a graduating college player had two choices: either give up the sport altogether, or continue play overseas in the long-established Women’s European League. Each country has its own set of teams, and the champion of the regular season goes on to compete in a Europe-wide post-season tournament. Cooper began her impressive international career in 1986 by playing in Segovia, Spain. She then played for ten years in Italy, and as a result, is fluent in Italian. From 1987-94 she played for Parma, moving over to Alcamo from 1994-6. For the 1996-7 season she returned to Parma before joining the Comets in 1997. She led the league in scoring for eight of the ten seasons she played in Europe and won a host of awards. Cooper averaged an incredible 37.5 points per game, the highest tournament average, during the 1996 European Cup, and was named MVP of the 1987 European All-Star game. Although Cooper had not played a lot of basketball in America, she represented her country in international competition often. In 1988 and in 1992 she was a member of the United States Olympic basketball teams. As a result, she holds a bronze medal from the ‘92 Games and a gold medal from the ‘88 Games. She has also been a member of U.S. teams in the Goodwill Games (1986 and 1990), the World Championships (1986 and 1990), and the Pan-Am Games (1990).

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Playing in Europe may have been difficult from a personal standpoint, but the years of experience did great things for Cooper’s game. She now possesses a complete all-around talent that makes her almost impossible to stop. Last year Cooper accomplished the difficult task of leading the league in scoring (22.2 points per game), while also carrying her team in assists (4.7 per game). And she averaged four rebounds a game for good measure. “Playing in Europe definitely helped prepare me for the WNBA,” says Cooper, who contends that the WNBA is more physical than the European League. Maybe that is due in part to the fact that the WNBA is mostly a young women’s league: there aren’t many players Cooper’s age who have stuck it out long enough to be able to take advantage of it; most gave up the dream and got on with their lives. But Cooper’s versatility and perseverance paid off in the end, and she was able to realize her dream of playing women’s basketball on home turf.

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While she is serious about her playing career, there’s no denying the challenge of raising her son Tyquon.In addition, Cooper has taken on the responsibility, along with her mother, of helping bring up her six nieces and nephews. It certainly brings a fresh perspective to the world of professional sports, and these dual roles provide unique challenges for Cooper, who is proving she has the desire and the ability to meet them all.

If it’s not enough that Cooper functions as a model player and a model mother, she has also become a role model for young female sports fans. “I am definitely a role model, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I am only a star player because people make me one. It is very important for us to be positive role models to the girls who dream of being professional basketball players,” she says. One way this is being accomplished is by making the WNBA players much more accessible than those in other professional leagues. A great deal of emphasis is placed on crowd interaction and family entertainment during the games. During time-outs the Comet dancers pull fans out of the stands to dance on the court. The Comets also sponsor several community projects such as the Comets-Nike Girls Basketball League that will play at area YMCAs and is open for girls eight to 18 years old. Comet players and coaches also conduct four basketball clinics during the season for youth in the community.

Cooper learned about setting the right example from her mother who raised eight children on her own and taught her how to overcome obstacles. “She taught me how to persevere through tough times and how not to give up on your dreams,” Cooper says. Now she’s sharing that maxim with her family and her fans.

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While WNBA games are billed as a place for families to have fun, once the whistle blows the players know it’s time to go to work.The games are played at a faster pace and are much more physical than most people expect. Make no mistake about it, the players of the WNBA are serious athletes whose skill will impress even the most skeptical viewers. In fact, it has been said that WNBA embodies a purer form of basketball, a throwback to the way the game was played before the current men’s game moved so far above the rim and into its media fairgrounds.

Although there were some doubts as to whether two women’s leagues could survive at the same time, by all accounts the inaugural year of the WNBA was a success. (So much so, in fact, that it is predicted that the ABL—a nine-team league with a longer season— will merge with the WNBA at some point down the road.) One of the most frequently asked questions prior to last year concerned the talent level in each league. Many people thought the talent pool from which the WNBA could choose would be thin since the ABL signed many top players. The timing of the WNBA’s season, which is played during the summer—not a traditional <!– –> basketball season—was also a concern. Those potential obstacles appear minimal now, however. The WNBA signed almost all of the top players available for this year’s draft in addition to former ABL Most Valuable Player Nikki McCray. Those additions, along with Cooper and league icons such as Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Comet teammate Sheryl Swoopes have provided the WNBA with talent to spare. And playing in the summer turned out to be a smart marketing move. The only other major sport operating at that time is baseball, so the WNBA was able to sign national television contracts with Lifetime, NBC, and ESPN, which provide the exposure needed for the league to flourish. The ABL, meanwhile, operates during the traditional basketball season of fall and winter, which forces it to compete with industry giants like the NFL and the NBA for television time and attendance. The timing of the seasons may be one reason why the WNBA’s average attendance was over twice that of the ABL.

The crowds at Comets games are larger than what the league had anticipated in its first year. An average attendance of 10,227 per game is slightly higher than the league average, but it’s the enthusiasm of these fans that represent “the best thing about the WNBA,” according to Cooper. The fans at Comets games seem to cheer as much for the gameplay as the win. Perhaps their cheers are celebratory in part that women are finally allowed to compete in this traditional male sport on a professional level, to run the court, to dive head first onto the floor for a loose ball, or even to throw an occasional elbow while chasing a rebound. Not only do the fans make noise when their favorite player scores from outside or makes a great defensive play, but also because it is exciting to see women basketball players compete in America —an opportunity long overdue.

The WNBA is owned and operated by the NBA, which gives the new league a great start in the marketing department. Thanks in part to the infrastructure established by the NBA, such as arenas and promotional experience, the WNBA was able to attract big name corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, American Express, Lady Foot Locker, General Motors, McDonald’s, Reebok and Nike. Those advertisers, combined with the attendance figures and television contracts, place the league’s future on solid ground—at least as a business. In 1999 the WNBA will expand for the second consecutive season, adding franchises in Orlando and Minnesota. If the second-year league continues its run of success, more expansion is sure to follow.

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WNBA success is good news for Cooper, since she would like to play basketball for four or five more years. Cooper is a consummate professional whose play reflects ten years of world-wide experience.She can penetrate past anyone in the league or pull up to drain a three-pointer at any time. She is capable of driving with either hand, and she has perfected the look-away pass. She also has a keen sense of timing that comes from studying basketball’s finer points for years. In a never-ending effort to learn more about the game, she often looks to Comets coach Van Chancellor for advice about the best direction to set a screen in or from which angle to make a pass. Her superior tactical knowledge of the game gives her another advantage over the competition, which, combined with her athletic ability, allows her to almost score at will. She does not abuse that ability, however—despite playing shooting guard, she led the Comets in assists last year.

In the beginning of her inaugural season Cooper was overlooked by most league observers, yet she finished the year winning the league scoring title, being named the regular season MVP, Finals MVP, and leading the Comets to the WNBA championship. During one amazing stretch last July she set the WNBA’s single game scoring record on three consecutive nights, which concluded with a 44-point performance. During that run, she shot an incredible 79 percent from three-point territory.

One would think these honors would bring heaps of notoriety, but Cooper shares top billing with Sheryl Swoopes, the former Texas Tech star who many consider to be the greatest woman’s player ever. Swoopes missed most of last season, and made only a minimal contribution to the Comets’ championship run because of the birth of her new son. This year she is back to full speed and ready to make her mark on the team and the league. Swoopes’ emergence as one of the league’s best players will present new challenges for Cooper, but if the situation is handled correctly the Comets will be well on their way to a repeat performance in the championship game.

While Swoopes gets most of the publicity, Cooper remains focused on the task at hand. She knows that as league MVP and defending champion, the rest of the league will be looking to make a statement each time they face the Comets.

She is ready for the challenge. “I’m working even harder this year so that we can enjoy the same type of success as last year,” she said. The WNBA certainly noticed her play from last year and this year the league began featuring her in promotional advertisements. She does not get overly excited about the increased exposure, however. Cooper carries herself with a quiet confidence that suggests she prefers to let her play speak for itself.

It is rare, if not unheard of, to find an MVP who does not insist on having a set role as the team leader. Cooper seems to know that the combination of herself and Swoopes could form an unstoppable union, but she is reluctant to commit to a set part. “I don’t know right now what my role on this team is,” Cooper says. “We’ll have to find out as the season goes along.” Although that can be a humbling experience for a player of Cooper’s stature, it is probably best for the team in the long run. Since she doesn’t know what her role is, the opposition will not know either. But it doesn’t change the fact that in Swoopes’ absence last season, Cooper became the undisputed leader of the team. She was the one the other players looked to when a crucial basket was needed. It is a position that carries much responsibility, but it is the most cherished role on a team. Every great player wants that status, but few handle it as well as Cooper did last year.

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