On August 26, 2000, the Houston Comets won the WNBA title. This was no surprise; four seasons into the league’s existence, the Comets were the only champions it had known. But the game, the second in a best-of-three Finals against the New York Liberty, was nevertheless the purest form of sports spectacle: virtuosic, tense, and saturated with emotional subtext.
The Comets were nearing the end of their league-defining run. Kim Perrot, the team’s beloved original starting point guard, had died the year before of cancer, and Cynthia Cooper, the Comets’ best player, had announced plans to retire after the season. Houston’s “Big Three”—future Hall of Famers Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson—seemed motivated as much by a duty of remembrance as by competitive fire. They wanted to play like themselves one last time. Doing so, at the turn of the twenty-first century, meant being the best women’s pro basketball team anyone had ever seen.
The game was one of those that seem made entirely out of highlights. Cooper sped past defenders in either direction and flicked in jumpers from all angles. Swoopes connected on three of four three-point attempts. Thompson, the Comets’ frontcourt stalwart, had a poor shooting night but led the team in rebounds and blocked two shots. That Houston trailed late was a matter of narrative convenience; Cooper’s game-tying three-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation felt ordained.
The Comets won in overtime, and Cooper and her teammates hugged and cried together at center court, with more than 16,000 fans doing the same in the stands. “This is a great moment in women’s basketball and a great moment for the Houston Comets,” Cooper told the press. Since the Women’s National Basketball Association’s inaugural season in the summer of 1997, it had sourced much of its hype from Houston. The league’s ambition, underwritten by the NBA and its commissioner, David Stern, was to give women’s basketball a foothold it had never enjoyed in the United States. The bet was that a combination of access and recognizable pro-sports pomp could unite world-class athletes with the audience they deserved. An arena stuffed with proud and rowdy Houstonians asserted that the WNBA was on its way.
As the league begins its twenty-fifth season, the conversation around the WNBA has long since moved past survival. Rosters are now laden with players who, in the way of athletic evolution, can dunk with ease and rain off-the-dribble threes in ways their predecessors only dreamed of. Those same players are also among the most influential activist-athletes in North America, advocating for pay equity and organizing against police violence and systemic racism. The Comets are no more (the team disbanded in 2008), but a quarter century after their heyday, the WNBA’s first legends remain its foundation, its statement of purpose: They showed the sports world what it had been missing before it made room for them.
Great teams, historically, get a jolt of luck. This can come from the friendly bounce of a ping-pong ball, the sudden blooming of an under-regarded player, or, most often, someone not knowing exactly what’s what.
In the lead-up to the inaugural 1997 season, the WNBA wanted parity. The order for the draft of college players was decided via an equal-weighted lottery, and the allotment of overseas pros took regional ties and competitive balance into consideration. The Comets won the right to pick first in the draft, but even so, they weren’t sure that the player they coveted would be available until days before the draft. USC’s Thompson, their top choice, had been planning to enroll in law school rather than pursue a basketball career. “I’m a researcher, and I knew that the success of professional women’s leagues in America had not been very good,” Thompson told me. “I was not at all thinking about growing the women’s game, all of those things. The WNBA was a start-up. The history of USC Law was set in stone.”
Between rounds of LSAT prep, Thompson fielded calls from WNBA president Val Ackerman and her chief lieutenant, Renee Brown, who worked to bring Thompson aboard. They increased their salary offers—“I would have had to be on public assistance,” Thompson said of their initial bid—and drew distinctions between the WNBA and the American Basketball League, a competing women’s organization. The ABL offered higher wages but barred its players from participating in other leagues. Its business model, Ackerman argued, was unsustainable and deserving of Thompson’s suspicion, but the WNBA had a chance to last. The involvement of Stern, Thompson said, convinced her to enter the draft. “He had committed to making the WNBA a viable league, and he did not stop until success was being had.”
The Comets were granted Swoopes by way of local connection; she had led Texas Tech to a national title in 1993 before helping Team USA to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. Cooper, who, like Thompson, had played at USC, had spent the last decade in Spain and Italy, throttling the competition out of view of the WNBA’s decision-makers. Cooper’s mother was living in Texas and battling breast cancer, so the league assigned her to the Comets, considering the move little more than a favor to a 34-year-old complementary player. “We just had no idea how good she was,” Ackerman told me.
Analysts, and even some figures within the league, suspected the WNBA wanted to engineer a coastal rivalry. “I think it started out with Los Angeles and New York as the major markets,” original Comets coach Van Chancellor said, citing the allotment of A-listers from the ’96 Olympic Team. “They got Lisa Leslie; they got Rebecca Lobo.” Chancellor, a Mississippi native who had spent the past two decades coaching at Ole Miss, had applied for six of the eight WNBA head coaching jobs, figuring he’d have little shot at the premier locales. He counted himself lucky when the Comets hired him, but when he got his first look at Cooper during practice at Houston Baptist University, he considered himself blessed. “I think I’m going to be a pretty good coach,” he said to an assistant. “She’s doggone special.”
I asked Thompson whether she sensed the team’s potential during that first training camp. “Right away,” she said. She knew of Cooper, her fellow Trojan legend, but the others—Brazilian Olympian Janeth Arcain; Perrot, who made the roster through an open tryout against dozens of other top-flight amateurs—were largely or wholly unknown to her. (Swoopes was pregnant during those initial sessions and joined the team late in the season.) Thompson described training camp the way people describe meeting their soul mates. Cooper hadn’t lost a step, and through her years of winning scoring titles in European pro leagues she’d developed a kind of omnidirectional awareness; she had a snap of a jump shot, the full catalog of moves to shake defenders off the dribble, and a pool hustler’s sense of spin and space. In scrimmages, Thompson floated into open areas on the floor, whether beneath the basket or beyond the three-point line, and Cooper found her for easy buckets. “The most surprising thing was how well and how quickly we meshed as a group,” Thompson said. “Everybody took on a role, everybody understood the special nature of what was happening.”
The WNBA could have chosen easier towns, on paper. The Monarchs and Starzz, in Sacramento and Salt Lake City, had only the local NBA clubs to compete with, but Houston already tested the committed fans’ attention. From the Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley to the Astros’ Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, the city was stacked with icons, even with the departure of the Oilers months before the Comets’ arrival.
But the WNBA needed a foothold in Texas, and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander bought in, selling the league on both his and his city’s enthusiasm. “Les stepped up,” Ackerman said. “He was one of the strongest NBA owners, one of the ones most loyal to David, and he was very proud of the team, very proud to be sitting in the front row.”
Weeks before the start of the regular season in June, the Comets played their first exhibition game at Rice University. As the team bus pulled into the arena, the sight of people lined up outside made the players think the school had double-booked its venue. “I assumed there was an event going on,” Thompson said. “I didn’t realize that all these people were there for us.” The WNBA had released little in the way of team gear, so the crowd—the fans, their fans—shared no identifying marks besides handmade signs and a mounting grassroots enthusiasm. “People are going crazy, screaming our names,” Thompson said. “It was a surreal moment, because it was not the expectation. Definitely not for me, it wasn’t.”
In scheduling its games in the summer, basketball’s traditional off-season, the WNBA had hoped to capitalize on what seemed its readiest market—hoops junkies in need of a fix. In Houston as elsewhere, though, the league found that its audience bore little resemblance to the NBA crowd. “The NBA fan was a corporate fan, in many ways, because of the pricing,” Ackerman said. “The WNBA fan was 75 to 80 percent female, in-arena, with young kids and families. The low ticket price brought almost a collegiate audience, with everybody wearing team colors.”
The Comets’ early success, and the ways in which they achieved it, amplified the effect. Cooper and Thompson were skilled enough to work over their defenders individually, but they rarely relied on isolation-style basketball. The team won four of its first five games in 1997, the last of those a tight victory over the Sparks in Houston’s Compaq Center, which had already become a postcard for the fledgling league. Fans—now draped in the finest late-nineties team-branding chic, the central design principle being Space Jam—stuffed the 16,000-seat stadium well before games, with young girls reaching for autographs that the players unfailingly granted. “We understood the responsibility we were taking on,” Thompson said.
“You were always glad to see those young eyes in the stands, hoping and praying that the game would continue to grow,” said Ann Roubique, the girls’ basketball coach at Cy-Fair High School outside Houston, which produced 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike and her all-star sister Chiney. “It seemed like the girls’ basketball at the high school level got a little bit better and a little bit better, because they had somewhere to look to—‘Maybe I’ll have that chance one day.’” Collegiate players in Texas made pilgrimages to the Compaq Center. “If they could go to a Comets game, that was just a huge thing,” said Marsha Sharp, who coached Swoopes at Texas Tech. Before the WNBA came along, the state’s greats would disappear overseas after their amateur careers, with only the very best of them popping up again for the Olympics. Now, the Lady Raiders were decked out in “Air Swoopes” Nikes.
That first year, the Comets drew nearly 10,000 fans per game. In 1998, coming off the team’s first championship, the number climbed north of 12,000. “It got to a point where it was difficult to get tickets,” Thompson said. Pro athletes from across sports—Shaquille O’Neal, Rockets guard Steve Francis, NFL players who made their off-season home in Houston—called her with requests. “I was like, ‘How did you get my number?’” Thompson said. Among the WNBA’s leaders, who tempered their fervent belief in the league’s mission with boardroom-scented pessimism, the blooming of Houston’s rabid fan base came as a shock. “We didn’t see it coming,” Ackerman said. “But, you know, people love winners.”
According to the patterns of sports mythology, becoming a winner requires a little adversity. The Comets got their first dose during a practice in the middle of the ’97 season. The hot start had cooled; points were coming less easily than they should have. The players felt their natural communication somehow jammed.
“He was overcoaching us,” Thompson said of Chancellor, who favored carefully scripted offensive sets. He wanted the ball to move in rigid patterns and grew angry when Thompson stepped out to shoot threes. (“But I’m making them!” she pleaded). That day, Cooper and Thompson demanded a change. Thompson set ball screens for Cooper on the perimeter—one of the simplest actions in basketball—and their teammates could do nothing to stop them. Cooper burst into open space for a jumper, sidled to the rim for a layup, or, if the defense overcommitted, whipped the ball back to Thompson for a triple. When extra defenders rotated to help, open shooters stood ready on the floor’s opposite side. (Swoopes, when she joined the team, would provide the Comets with a particularly lethal weak-side threat.) “We ran it over and over and over again,” Thompson said. “It was unstoppable.”
The season—like the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that—became a set of variations on the theme of unstoppability. In ’97, the Comets tallied a league-best 18–10 record and won the league’s Final Four–style single elimination postseason tournament, taking their two games (including a championship matchup with Lobo’s Liberty) by a combined thirty points. In 1998, with Swoopes fully integrated, they posted a regular-season record of 27–3, still the highest winning percentage in WNBA or NBA history. After losing game one in the now–best of three Finals to the Phoenix Mercury, the Comets gutted out an elimination-saving overtime win in game two before taking the clincher by way of 57 combined points from the Big Three. “We didn’t panic,” Cooper said. “We didn’t get down on ourselves, we didn’t argue amongst ourselves.”
In February of 1999, Perrot was diagnosed with lung cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy, the Comets played in her honor and under the weight of her absence. “We were driven by her spirit,” Thompson said. “But to be honest, I don’t remember much about that season.” Perrot died on August 19, and two and a half weeks later, after the Comets had won another championship, they held her jersey up to the crowd. It remains, in Houston, the indelible image of the dynasty—basketball as a mission, and as a bond.
With their last championship, in 2000, the Comets accomplished something not done in top-level North American sports since the Boston Celtics’ run in the 1960s. Not even Jordan’s Bulls had pulled off a four-peat. Among the many irritations female athletes have to deal with is the habit some observers have of dismissing dominance as something other than what it is—diminishing accomplishments by claiming inadequate challenges. In anticipation of the hackneyed debates that would trail the University of Connecticut Huskies in years to come, critics—primarily those without much interest in women’s basketball—wondered if Houston’s reign signaled a damaging lack of competitiveness in the league.
The players still chafe at the reading. The Comets’ title run, they maintain, had nothing to do with weak opposition. “There are other [WNBA] teams that have been truly great—there are other W teams that have won two, three, even four championships,” Cooper, now Cooper-Dyke, wrote last year in the Players’ Tribune. “But none of them won a chip while we were around. No one else won a damn thing while the Comets were on.”
When Cooper retired, things changed. The team stayed solid, making the playoffs each of the next three seasons, but the days of dominance were over. Swoopes stepped into the lead role, working the pick-your-poison game with Thompson. For a good while, the Comets received a champion’s coda, playing fine basketball for appreciative fans as the players aged with the club.
The initial rush of excitement around the league waned, though, and when the Comets followed the Rockets to the new Toyota Center, the familial atmosphere dissipated. “They started charging for parking, and it was downtown,” Chancellor said. “Our older fans didn’t want to go there.”
One afternoon in 2007, when he was visiting his brother in Mississippi, Chancellor got a call: Alexander had sold the team. Chancellor retired soon thereafter. After two tumultuous years under Hilton Koch, a Houston furniture dealer, the team folded, unable to find a buyer at Koch’s asking price of $10 million. “I sat in my car and cried that day,” Chancellor said.
Today, the jerseys of Perrot and Cooper hang in the Toyota Center rafters; because the team dissolved before Swoopes and Thompson retired, their numbers are absent. It’s a common enough outcome for WNBA franchises. Six teams in total, and four of the original eight, have shuttered over the league’s lifespan, even as the league has expanded overall. But no absence is felt as deeply as that of the Comets.
“As far as history was concerned, the Comets were now the WNBA Celtics,” Cooper-Dyke wrote. “Or they were the WNBA Lakers. Or they were the WNBA Bulls, or Spurs, or—you pick . . . For four years we stitched ourselves into the fabric of this league. And in one press release they ripped us right out.”
Permanence remains a luxury in a league whose athletes still spend winters playing overseas to supplement their WNBA income. But if the Comets’ end emblematizes the ongoing struggle—for support, respect, stability—then the franchise’s beginning shows why the struggle is worth it. When Shereka Wright, now 39, was a high school freshman in Copperas Cove—and a day-one Comets fan—her father surprised her with a trip to Houston to watch the ’97 title game. “It was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself talking,” Wright recalled. Throughout the game, her eyes stayed glued to Houston’s Big Three, their individual assertiveness and collective cohesion a model for how she aspired to play. Three years later, Wright would win a national high school player of the year award; four years after that, she would be a first-round pick of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock following a distinguished career at Purdue. She now coaches the UT-Arlington women’s team, and she credits the Comets, in large part, for a life tied to Texas basketball. “You wanted to follow in their footsteps,” Wright said. “You wanted to do the thing that they were doing.”
The current WNBA landscape is shot through with Texans. Six-time All-Star center Brittney Griner, 2021’s top overall draft pick Charli Collier, the Ogwumike sisters—the list goes on. But the Comets’ influence is also felt more generally. Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time champion with the Phoenix Mercury, seems to share Cooper’s connection to the basketball firmament, her sense of the floor as pure interconnection. A’ja Wilson, the Las Vegas Aces’ reigning league MVP, plays an inside-out style descended from Thompson’s game. The Seattle Storm, winners of two of the last three titles, still have a legacy to chase. The Comets aren’t in Houston; they’re everywhere.
“Our early years were defined by the Comets,” Ackerman said. “It was a dark day when they had to close their doors, but the Big Three—those players—helped usher women’s pro basketball into the modern age. There’s no question: Their legacy is secure.”