The Seattle Storm drops Sheryl Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes, three-time WNBA MVP and three-time Olympic gold medalist, was waived by the Seattle Storm yesterday — one day before her contract would have been guaranteed for the 2009 season. Storm coach Brian Agler offered little explanation, other than saying the move would free up space under the salary cap.

“I’m very hurt, absolutely,” Swoopes told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “I’m very disappointed. I don’t think this is right. I really feel like I could contribute and help the team next year.”

Swoopes has been plagued with injuries for the last few years, averaging less than half the points she was able to put up during earlier seasons of her career. Still, when she arrived in Seattle, the Storm quickly made her the face of the team. She spent time over Christmas ringing Salvation Army bells with Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren and Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar in front of downtown department stores.

Unlike Houston, where Swoopes had become increasingly dissatisfied playing for the Comets, she seemed a perfect fit in Seattle. She rejoined Olympic teammate Sue Bird and long-time pal Swin Cash. Swoopes even began coaching a middle school girls’ basketball team with her partner, Alisa Scott.

That last part, the part where she lays aside her accolades and becomes a woman who just loves the game of basketball, will be part of her great legacy.

I first met Sheryl Swoopes outside a Foot Locker in the Mall of America. It was 1995, the weekend of the women’s NCAA Final Four, and Nike had flown her in to Minneapolis for the hype. In a year she’d have an Olympic gold medal and the first-ever WNBA contract, but no one could know that yet. The Tennessee/UCONN rivalry had ushered in a new era of women’s basketball media coverage, and there were whispers that the time was ripe for a women’s professional league. So Swoopes came and sat by a rickety card table for three days, autographing posters and posing for pictures with thousands of young girls.

In 2005, she became only the second openly gay player in the WNBA. The league has never forced players to stay in the closet, but there has always been plenty of behind-the-scenes pressure. The world of women’s professional athletics is a shockingly homophobic place.

Because she was such a high profile player, Swoopes coming out was national news. Who knows how many young high school athletes were freed up by Swoopes’ declaration.

The next few days will determine whether or not another team will pick up her contract. The salary cap will factor greatly into the decision. Where the NBA’s cap sits at $58 million, WNBA teams have to wrestle themselves down to $803,000 per year.

Even if no one picks her up, I’m confident she will continue to contribute to the game. She could join a WNBA or NCAA coaching staff. (She’d make a great recruiter.) Or she’s often said she like to become a full-time mom, and coach her son, Jordan’s, AAU team.

Eleven years ago, when her son was born, journalists questioned whether or not a kid could live up to a name like Jordan. I’ve always thought the harder name to follow would be Swoopes.

Tags: , ,