I Want My Damn Respect, Too
(1) Do me a favor — go on and look up all the big dynasties in professional sports over these last 25 years.
Michael and Scottie and the Bulls. Brady with the Patriots. Jeter’s Yankees. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers. Duncan’s Spurs. Steph’s Warriors. LeBron and D-Wade and the Heat. All the big ones. Look them up.
O.K. — now here’s something that’s interesting about those dynasties:
They never won four in a row.
All of those teams, as great (and I mean great) as they were….. they never went back to back to back to back.
Now: Three in a row? That’s been done.
Five, or six, or however many, over however many years? Also been done.
But four in a row??
See, four in a row — that would be something legendary. You figure that if a dynasty ever won four straight? You’d be watching movies about them. They’d be airing TV specials and writing books about it and whatnot. You figure, four in a row….. that’s something truly special. That’s immortality right there.
Here’s the thing about it, though.
I won four.
We won four.
From 1997 to 2000, the Houston Comets won four consecutive WNBA championships.
And I wonder how many of y’all reading this even know our story.
I wonder how many of y’all out there actually know who I am.
(2) I was the Michael Jordan of women’s hoops.
That’s real!! Trust me.
It’s real and I’ll tell you why.
The similarities between me and Michael? Man, they were crazy…….
First of all, I’m the same age as Michael. Same exact age, no kidding. Michael was born only two months before me in 1963. And from there, if you go back and look at it, it’s like we were on these kind of parallel paths. Michael was the top high school player in his state. I was the top high school player in my state. Michael could have played college hoops anywhere, but he chose to stay at home in Carolina. I could have played college hoops anywhere, but I chose to stay at home in L.A.
Michael won a national title with UNC in ’82.
I won a national title with USC in ’83 (and ’84 — but who’s counting).
We both established ourselves as elite scoring guard prospects.
You see what I’m saying? It’s these parallel paths.
After that, though, our paths diverged.
Because when it came time for Michael to go pro?? Well, you know the deal. Third overall in the ’84 Draft — and the rest is history.
By ’98 he’s the GOAT.
My history, on the other hand……. it reads a little bit different.
(3) I was one of the best young women's basketball players in America — and America had nothing for me.
No professional women’s league to play for. No draft. Had to go to Europe to make any money — and by any money I mean any money. I signed with an agent, hoping to get a spot in the Italian league, but not many teams in Europe were looking for guards at the time. So the only offer I got was from this small team in Valencia, Spain.
One year for $20k — that’s what being one of the most promising young talents in the game got me, coming out of college: a minimum salary contract overseas.
Did it sting? Yeah, it stung.
But at the same time, I accepted my one-year deal for what it was: an opportunity. A “show me” contract. And I set out to do just that. I got my butt over to Spain and I said, You know what — let’s see what I can show this league. Let’s just play it out and see what happens. Let’s see what I’ve got.
Rookie year I think I averaged 37 points per game.
No lie, 37 per. That’s not a misprint. I mean, I’m pretty sure I had a 67-point game somewhere in there….. I had a 50-point game in there….. I had a few nights. I was that L.A. bucket bucket. It was a good season, and it put me on the map with some of the teams in Italia.
(That means Italy, by the way. I speak fluent Italian.)
(4) I ran the Italian league for about a decade.
After my season in Valencia, I ended up signing with Parma — you know, where they make Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and all of that?? — and that was big. That was prime time. Like I said, Italy was the premier league. All the great players were wanting to play in that league. Which meant two things: One, yeah, they had more money to throw around. But also, two, they weren’t just handing out long-term contracts left and right. Everyone was fighting for those paydays, for that security. You really had to turn some heads to last in Italy for more than a minute.
And so again, I’m just like — man, on one hand, does it sting a little? I average 37 my first year as a pro and I’m still scrapping?! Yeah, it stings. But I took it on as just another opportunity.
Or maybe even more than an opportunity, I took it on as a challenge: Do I belong here with the best of the best? Or am I about to be back in L.A. running pickup? Only one way to find out.
First season in Parma, I think I almost averaged 40.
Second season, I averaged 40 and won league MVP.
All total, I ended up spending 10 seasons in Spain and Italy, and won eight scoring titles.
I was runner-up the other two.
(5) I won’t say I had mixed emotions about playing overseas — because I didn’t.
I loved my time in Europe. Those were amazing years. You really have to understand — I’m a kid from Watts. And I’d have these moments where it was just, like.….. alright hold up…... how did I get here?? How’d I end up on this CANAL in VENICE, taking a damn BOAT from one arena to the next, for my JOB of hooping??? How’d I make it from the inner city to the Duomo??
That still blows me away. So as far as my career overseas goes, it’s all love.
But love is complicated, you know what I mean??
And I think I felt some of that over the course of my run in Europe. I think there were times where maybe I’d be coming off a 50-point game or something, or I’d hit two free throws in OT with zeros on the clock for the win, or I’d dominate a big rival, and it would just kind of hit me, like….. damn, I have to admit, it would have been nice to do that with 20,000 people chanting my name. Or it would have been nice to be on SportsCenter for some highlights, or in the sports section of the L.A. Times the next morning with a write-up. Or it would have been nice to know that any of my people back home had really any idea at all about the levels I was reaching on this other side of the world.
And so I wouldn’t say I felt cheated out of anything, necessarily — but I still definitely had these moments where I was aware of what I was missing out on, just by virtue of being a female player instead of a male player, and where I’d think to myself, you know….. wouldn’t that be nice.
Like I said, it was complicated. It was bittersweet.
(6) In 1996, an American women’s professional league started up called the ABL.
As soon as I heard about it, I reached out to them about joining — and I figured my chances had to be good. I’d just spent almost a decade leading the top league on the entire planet in scoring.
They passed, though.
Yup — they just straight-up passed on me. Told me thanks but no thanks. Said they already had “enough guards.”
That one hurt, I won’t lie.
But it was also a helpful reality check: I was 33 years old by then — I was at the end of my prime. And I think the ABL not wanting me….. that really forced me to get right with the idea that, as far as my playing professionally in the States was concerned? That probably was never going to happen. And as far as American hoop fans were concerned? My career was pretty much destined to go un-remembered.
It just was what it was — the opportunity had passed me by.
I accepted that.
And then a funny thing happened.
(7) Summer of ’96, I started hearing some whispers.
Started hearing some loud whispers. I was still out in Italy, playing what would end up being my last season there — and I started hearing these rumors about “another league.” Another American women’s league.
And then after a while, they started to become more than rumors.
Now it was: This league is real, Coop. This league is happening.
Now it was: The NBA is part of this.
So you know how I was saying before how I’d accepted that I wasn’t going to play professionally in the States?? Alright well nevermind all of that. Once I heard the NBA was getting involved, it was like — Nah that’s it. I’m in.
I put together my stats, my film, plus a cover letter and a résumé, and I called the league office — my contact was this woman named Renee Brown.
I said, “Hi, Renee, my name is Cynthia Cooper. I’m playing overseas right now. Playing in a city called Alcamo. I’d really love to be a member of your league. I'm going to ship you off a box with my numbers, my video, et cetera, et cetera.”
And she's like, “Wait. Cynthia? Cynthia Cooper who plays in Italy?” I said, “That’s me, yeah.”
And she goes, “Girl we've been LOOKING for you. You're in our top eight! Where do we send the contract?”
Now — on the outside, listen, I’m an adult. So I’m keeping my composure, telling her my mailing address, staying nice and calm. But on the inside? Man I’m like a little kid in there. I’m behaving like a child!! I’m screaming. I’m out of my MIND.
We finish talking logistics, and I thank her for her time. “No, thank you,” she says.
“Welcome to the WNBA.”
(8) One thing I’m proud of, about my journey, is that I never got bitter.
It was tempting to, at times, believe me — even during the best of times.
Honestly, in a lot of ways, it was even more tempting during the best of times.
Like take this WNBA launch in 1997. On one hand I couldn’t be happier. I’d wanted something like the W to happen so bad. And then it happened!! So I should be ecstatic, right??? And mostly I was. But there was still that sting.
There was still that old sting, that I’d felt so many times before.
There was still that moment where I’m thinking, Wait……. hold up. Y’all are launching a league now?! As in: NOW now??? As in, when I’ll be 34?!? You couldn’t have launched this during my prime, over these last 10 years?? While I was giving them Michael numbers in Italy?? While I had a whole career to look forward to?
There’s still that sting of living out your dreams on somebody else’s terms.
It’s a sting that I think is pretty universal for women in the world of sports, and frankly for Black women in the world, period.
But like I said: While it might have stung….. it never made me bitter.
And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of how I’ve never let myself get bitter about — or feel entitled to — anything that’s come my way in this game, or in this life.
I’m proud of how, instead of worrying about being the oldest damn rookie that anyone had ever heard of?
I went ahead and was the best damn rookie that anyone had ever seen.
(9) People knew, but they didn’t know, you know?
Look – there were people in the W who knew I could play.
I’m not going to exaggerate here. We didn’t have social media at the time, and obviously they weren’t broadcasting my games on ESPN or what have you — but if you were paying a decent amount of attention, you probably knew who I was. Real heads knew I wasn’t some scrub.
Still, though — realistically, there were two ways that most people in the States had gotten any of their women’s hoops information: One, by watching college. Or two, by watching Team USA in the ’96 Olympics. And I wasn’t on that Olympic squad... and I definitely wasn’t in college. So just off that alone, I was relatively anonymous.
And then the other thing I had going against me, if we’re really keeping it honest here, is my age. Folks saw that 34 number next to my age and — even if they knew I could play a little bit — they just figured: Sheryl was the franchise player. Tina was the stud rookie. And I was the veteran brought in to help our team jell. To guide some of these younger players along. To lend a steadying hand.
What’s ironic is — I actually did all of those things! I was 34. I was that steady vet. I did help our group jell. I did guide those young guns along.
I also just happened to do one other thing.
And I happened to do it really, really, really well.
I got buckets.
(10) As well as I was playing that first year — I still felt like I was having a “slow start.”
I mean, I was hooping.
O.K., I was more than hooping — people were picking me as midseason MVP of the whole league.
But in my mind I was still kind of holding something back.
I guess the way I looked at it was: Coach Chancellor still didn’t know me. Tina was still trying to spread her wings coming out of USC. The offense was still really structured around Sheryl — and with Sheryl’s pregnancy and her being out for a while, I wanted to make sure everyone knew that I was team-first. So it was this very new, not exactly permanent situation…... and I didn’t want it to seem like I was power hungry or anything. I made a point to try not to ruffle any feathers, and to just play within the flow.
I tried to get my buckets naturally as they came.
But I’ll never apologize for my talent. And the thing of it is, even naturally, even within the flow of the offense, even with me being Deferential Coop, by around midseason I was still averaging near 20.
And then what happened next I’ll never forget.
We were playing the Sparks at the Forum, and they whupped us pretty good. I think we lost by like 25 — our fourth loss in seven games. I had 17, but it might as well have been 7.
And for whatever reason, something just snapped in place that night. I realized two big things. 1. Like it or not, this was my team. I was our leader and our best player. And our losses were now a reflection on me in a way that I needed to learn to accept. 2. My Deferential Coop thing might’ve made sense in the beginning of the season, when we were all figuring stuff out — but the truth is? I had another gear in me. Man, I probably had another two or three gears in me.
And after that Sparks game, I let Coach Chancellor know it. I went right up to him in the locker room and I said, “Coach, straight up, I can give you more.”
At first I could tell he was a little confused. He goes to me, “More? What do you mean more? They’re already saying you’re MVP.” But I just held firm. I was like, “I don’t care what they’re saying about me. I know I can give you more. If you let me go, I’m telling you, I can give you more.”
And Coach just looks at me for a few seconds, still all quizzical, and finally he says, “Well..... alright, then. Alright, Cupper.” (He never pronounced my name right. Still doesn’t to this day.)
The next two games I went for 30 (W) and 32 (W) — and then I gave Sacramento a 44-piece to close out the road trip. (Another W.)
And that’s about when it all changed for me. That’s when my mentality went from not wanting to ruffle any feathers, to ruffling whatever feathers I deemed necessary in order to help our team win. That’s when I went from being a 34-year-old rookie with a chip on her shoulder, to being a superstar player with a team on her back.
Honestly? That’s when I became Cynthia Cooper again.
(11) Alright, quick story time here.
It’s 1998 and I’m on top of the world.
1997, the W’s first season, that was a Triple Crown year: MVP, finals MVP, championship.
And it’s hard to even express the emotions I was feeling from all of that. Satisfaction. Elation. Vindication. Thankfulness. Swagger. Hunger for more.
But now it’s the spring of ’98, and we’re at this gym in Italy, and there’s one emotion that I can feel coming on in particular: pride.
O.K., actually, hold up — let me give you some context first. Remember the ABL? The league that had told me they had “enough guards,” didn’t need me, didn’t want me, thanks but no thanks? Turns out they might have needed me after all, because they folded after two seasons. After they folded, we absorbed some of their best players into the W…. one of those players being their first-ever MVP, Nikki McCray.
So now like I said it’s the spring of ’98, right before our second season is about to tip, and the W has a bunch of its stars over in Italy for an exhibition game — promote the league and so on and so forth. Nikki is one of those stars. And of course me being the reigning MVP, I’m also one of those stars.
So anyway we play the exhibition, it’s a normal exhibition atmosphere, not too serious — we’re doing our thing. Then after the game we stick around and sign some autographs.
Alright now here’s what happens.
We’re signing autographs, and I get handed this basketball to sign — and I sign it, “MVP.”
Nikki, just seeing my signature, she says, “Hey….. maybe I’ll sign it MVP, too.”
And I love Nikki, by the way, let me establish up front.
But yeah, she said that. Maybe I’ll sign it MVP, too.
And I just….. I can’t even describe it to y’all. I just give her this look, man. This look.
And then I shoot back and I say, “O.K. — you do that. Just don’t put WNBA MVP on it.”
That’s how it was back then, I am telling you!! If you’re judging me from that story, all I can say is….. you’re right. I had 10 years taken from me, in the dead center of my prime, just by virtue of the W not existing yet. And I knew that at 34 (now 35), my time left in the league was limited. But as long as I was in the league?? I was going to make that limited time count.
And that was just my attitude about it. Not about attention, or publicity, or endorsements or any of those things. But about greatness? About winning?
Once I found my gear — whew boy. I was an apex predator.
And like I said: I was proud.
(12) Let’s talk about The Dynasty now.
I’ll keep it straightforward for y’all.
Here’s what you need to know about the greatest basketball team of all time — the 1997–2000 Houston Comets.
Four years. Four rings.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS:
Coach was a player’s coach, if you know what I mean. Wasn’t exactly about drawing up the old X’s and O’s. Wasn’t about these big long practices, either. But he was a gentleman through and through — a brilliant manager of people.
So famous that she only went by Janeth.
The young gunner. Tina had that unique ability to line up at the four and the five — to be very, very physical and play against the Lisa Leslies of the world — while also having the finesse to step out and knock down threes with NBA range. I know a lot of W players do that now, but please recognize…. at the time, that was unique to Tina. Every stretch big since then is just following the Tina Thompson blueprint. And let me say one more thing about TT: there’s not another kid I’ve EVER met who, fresh out of college, could have handled what we asked of Tina during that very first run. The fact that she went on to become an all-time player, I mean, that didn’t shock me at all. Tina was different from the jump.
You know something? I’ll just leave it at this: She was my best friend.
She had her own shoe!! It’s hard to explain how big of a deal that was. Man…. it’s hard to explain how big of a deal Sheryl was. And that’s not even the first thing that comes to mind when I think of her. First thing that comes to mind is — well, I call it a miracle: the way that Sheryl came back after having a baby, let me repeat, after having a baby, to help us win that first championship. I think it’s cute how other athletes still go on thinking they’ve done something special, after Sheryl did that.
THE EXPERT ANALYSIS:
Here’s how I look at it.
There are other W teams that have been truly great — there are other W teams that have won two, three, even four championships.
But none of them won a chip while we were around.
No one else won a damn thing while the Comets were on.
(13) And now this is the part that it really pains me to write about.
This is where we have to discuss the fact that the Houston Comets don’t exist anymore.
I remember it was such a normal day when I found out. You know those days?? Where it’s so normal you almost can’t even remember what you were doing? It was like that. I was at home, I’m pretty sure. And then all of a sudden my phone started blowing up. Had people calling me, texting me, Coop, you alright?! — people hitting me up every which way. Friends, teammates, media…... everyone.
And the first person I actually spoke to, I think it was one of our local reporters here in Houston, a guy named Mark Berman. I called him back. And he was like, “Coop, what do you think about the Comets folding?”
I said, “What — I’m sorry, what??”
I was in a state of shock.
And it’s not like he had to explain it to me, either. I knew all about the realities of this business. I knew all about the history of women’s sports franchises folding. I know money makes the world go round.
But that didn’t mean it shocked me any less.
And I guess I also always believed in my heart that there were some things more important than money. I guess I always felt like, O.K., with all due respect, there are different levels of franchises. There are different types of situations. Like if you need to move the San Antonio team to Vegas, because that’s financially viable?? I don’t love it, and I feel for those fans in San Antonio….. but maybe I can understand it. Maybe I can learn to see a move like that as a cost of doing business.
But you’re going to FOLD — fold — the HOUSTON COMETS??!?!?!??
You’re going to fold the franchise that won your league’s first four championships?????
Like, to me, when you do something like that, it’s beyond dollars and cents. A franchise like the Comets, that’s history — and not just my own history, or the WNBA’s history, or anything like that. The Comets….. that’s sports history. It’s women’s history. It’s Black history.
And I think it’s dangerous to treat our history like that.
A franchise like the Comets, that’s history ….. that’s sports history. It’s women’s history. It’s Black history.
After I got off the phone with Berman, I spoke with Tina and Sheryl — and it was just surreal. It was like we’d lost this part of us. It was like….. I mean, you have to understand something.
You have to understand how it all comes back to pride.
You have to understand how proud we were of what we accomplished together, winning the W’s first four chips. Proud for ourselves? I mean, yeah, sure, on some level — we were proud of what we’d built for ourselves, and for our team. But it was so much more than that.
We were proud of what we’d built for the Comets as a franchise.
We were proud of what we’d built for Houston as a city.
We were proud of how, as far as history was concerned, the Comets were now the WNBA Celtics. Or they were the WNBA Lakers. Or they were the WNBA Bulls, or Spurs, or — you pick.
The Comets were a living, breathing part of what happened.
For four years we stitched ourselves into the fabric of this league.
And in one press release they ripped us right out.
(14) Before I finish, let’s talk about these GOAT conversations for a second.
Because I think they’re pretty interesting.
To me, what’s been going on over this last year with Michael, Kobe and LeBron, it’s beautiful. Just with how we had The Last Dance earlier in the year, and everyone reminiscing about all of Michael’s accomplishments, and how he capped it off with that final ring. And then we had 8/24 Day in the summer, and I was so moved by everyone sharing all their stories about Kobe, sharing their memories of what made him such an assassin, such a model of toughness, such an amazing champion. And then of course you had everything that transpired in the bubble, toward the end of the year, with LeBron winning his FOURTH ring — on his third team! — and being named Finals MVP.
That’s been so beautiful to me.
Those three moments….... I feel like they’ve combined to create something very special. And I feel like they’ve almost been this reminder, in some type of way, of the kinds of conversations we actually should be having, when we’re talking about things like “the GOAT” — when we’re talking about players at the level of LeBron, or Kobe, or Michael, or Magic Johnson or Bill Russell or whoever else.
I feel like it’s been this reminder of how — it’s not about there being one GOAT to rule them all, you know what I’m saying? It’s not about there being one GOAT and we have to choose.
Ain’t never been about that.
It’s more about there being a whole lineage of GOATs.
That’s how I look at it.
So, for me? It’s like — man, of course LeBron is the GOAT. Look at that man’s career!! Look at all that he’s been able to accomplish.
I felt the same way about Michael in his time, and Kobe in his time.
It’s a lineage.
And just like the mantle is now being passed on to LeBron, eventually LeBron will pass the mantle on to some player who comes after him. And by then, as a matter of fact — we’ll probably be watching some documentary about LeBron’s “last dance.”
That makes me so happy. I love that about this game.
But if I’m being honest?
I also wish we were seeing some more of that on the women’s side.
Because I take nothing away from Diana. I take nothing away from her ever. Everything LBJ has done for his generation in men’s basketball, DT has done for hers in women’s.
I’m the first in line to call Diana Taurasi the GOAT.
But it’s still a little disappointing to me, I guess, how with Diana — everyone just started doing it almost out of thin air. You know what I’m saying??
I hope that makes sense.
Again: Diana’s earned it. She is that great. She is that GOAT. But it’s just never felt like anyone has cared enough to trace a lineage to Diana as GOAT — to show any context for it, or to have any fun with it, or to nurture any healthy debate about it. It’s almost felt like, for most people in the media and whatnot, women’s basketball has only recently started to exist.
I haven’t seen a Diana vs. Sheryl conversation, or Diana vs. Lisa, or Diana vs. Tamika.
Or yeah, I’ll say it: Diana vs. Cynthia.
I haven’t seen much understanding of what it means to call Diana the GOAT.
And I know it’s not that serious — I know it’s not that deep.
I know it’s just talk.
But I also think it’s too bad. Because in a lot of ways, that talk, those conversations….. they’re really what make a title like GOAT mean something in the first place.
Women’s basketball deserves to have those conversations.
Women’s basketball deserves a history.
(15) I still wonder a lot about what my place is in this game.
Am I one of the greats….. or was I just a table-setter for greatness to come?
Did my career matter….. or am I fading away?
Will the name “Cynthia Cooper” mean something five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty years from now? Fifty years from now?
Does it even mean something NOW?
It’s probably not healthy for me, but I don’t know — I can’t really help but ask myself these types of questions. I can’t really help but wonder.
There’s a part of me, I’ll be honest, that stays a little bit heartbroken sometimes: When I think of my decade in Europe that people probably don’t remember. Or when I think of my four years in Houston that people might start to forget.
There’s also a part of me that stays hopeful: When I think about the amazing influx of new fans the W has been seeing, and the amazing progress the league is making in all kinds of directions. And when I think about the ways that that progress could eventually manifest — whether it’s in preserving league history, or improving alumni relations, or, who knows….. maybe even bringing an old franchise back.
And then there’s also this third part of me.
The simple part of me.
It’s the part of me where, when I go out for coffee in the morning, and maybe once a month or so a stranger comes over and says, “Coop! Hey, Coop!” — that right there, it’s enough.
It’s the part of me where, when I visit the Rockets training facility, and James Harden is getting stretched out and he looks my way and he says, “OK..… they brought the GOAT in today I see” — that’s enough.
And it’s the part of me where, when I sit down to write an article like this one, when I just sort of consider what my basketball legacy will end up being — and I feel proud, I feel alright, I feel like, you know what….. maybe I was pretty good?
That’s enough, too.
Yeah. It’s enough for sure.