By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
Sheryl Swoopes is finally happy again.
It’s no surprise that her joy comes at a time when she’s back on the basketball court — a place where she’s always felt comfortable. Only this time it’s as a coach and not a player.
The former WNBA great, who was one of the first stars in the sport, became the head coach at Loyola of Chicago in April. It’s her first coaching job at any level.
“Even when I was younger, I did some interviews and said, ‘Someday I know I’m going to coach,’” Swoopes said in a phone interview. “I’ve always had a passion for basketball and playing the game. Now I’m in a position to give back and can stay involved in the game from a teaching standpoint.”
Swoopes acknowledged she was a little nervous when she took over the program. Now she’s getting more comfortable. The team has started practice and will be headed to Italy in a few weeks for a foreign tour.
This new opportunity has provided a high from what Swoopes concedes was the lowest point in her life four years ago. She had just been cut by the Seattle Storm and was having financial problems, which came to light when she failed to pay rent on a West Texas storage unit. Swoopes lost years of memorabilia from her celebrated basketball career, including awards, jerseys, fan mail and her college diploma.
“I was just mad at everyone,” Swoopes said. “Mad at the WNBA, mad at life. I’d say a lot of it was my immaturity, my stubbornness — my mom says my hardheadedness. I wasn’t responsible in taking care of my things. You shouldn’t believe everything you read. A headline somewhere said I lost $50 million. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. It’s a big difference to say Sheryl blew $50 million and Sheryl went through $5 million.”
Swoopes’ struggles with life, money and love are chronicled in a documentary by Hannah Storm as part of the ESPN Films Nine for IX documentary series that will air Tuesday night. Swoopes was tired of reading about her life story. She wanted to tell it herself.
“You can find everything on Google, but none of it was in my voice. It’s totally different when it’s coming from you,” Swoopes said. “My biggest thing was, yes, I want to do it. I want to have an opportunity for people to hear my words and not someone else’s. It was time. I get emotional thinking about it, talking about it.”
Storm knew Swoopes and her story well, having spent years in Houston.
“What I admired most about Sheryl during this process was that she took ownership of everything that has happened to her, and that is a very hard thing to do, to be so honest,” Storm said. “I wanted the film to be about Sheryl telling her side of the story, and I think that everyone who watches will take something different away from it.”
Swoopes talks candidly in the film about her private life, recounting how at the pinnacle of her WNBA career, she divorced her husband and very publicly came out by confirming a relationship with then-Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott. At the time, she was the most recognizable athlete, male or female, to come out in a team sport.
Swoopes eventually broke up with Scott and is currently engaged to Chris Unclesho, a man she’s known for a long time.
“I can honestly say I’m not confused,” Swoopes says in the film. “I am loving and being loved by who I’m supposed to love and who gives me that love back.”
After spending the last few years away from the league, Swoopes was invited by the WNBA this past April to speak at rookie orientation. She left an impression with Brittney Griner, a Houston native who grew up watching the Comets.
“Having a team in Houston you could turn to was always amazing. I liked her and she had the courage to come out when she came out and I really admired that,” Griner said. “Hearing her story at rookie orientation made me gain even more respect for her. She was an awesome player.”
Now as a coach, Swoopes hopes that she can inspire her team to new levels.
“We will compete every time we step on the floor,” she said. “We’re not going to lose every game. We’re trying to teach them and they are learning. I’m accepting a lot of advice from those I trust. I had a lot of people who are in my corner and I’m happy.”