Swoopes sees growth, and room for improvement in the WNBA

Sheryl Swoopes and Ruthie Bolton at the 2019 WNBA All-Star fan fest with MGM Resorts International chairman and CEO Jim Murren. MGM Resorts International photo.
Sheryl Swoopes and Ruthie Bolton at the 2019 WNBA All-Star fan fest with MGM Resorts International chairman and CEO Jim Murren. MGM Resorts International photo.

Basketball legend Sheryl Swoopes said she is pleased to see the growth of the WNBA, which she helped pioneer. At the same time, she recognizes there is room for improvement.

Swoopes was on hand for All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, where she helped conduct a fit clinic for youth and made an appearance at fan fest, among other engagements. She said the depth of the event reflects the fact that the 23-year-old league continues to grow.

“I’ve been a part of All-Star weekends through the years, but this is the first All-Star weekend that has felt like a true All-Star weekend (because of the number of events),” she said.

“It’s in Vegas, which is such a great place to be; there’s so much entertainment. To finally be a part of an All-Star weekend with all these activities going on, and to be a part of this, it feels good to see that the league is still around and that it continues to grow every day.”

Swoopes and Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields ran a station together at a fit clinic, putting youth through their paces in some basketball drills. Swoopes described herself as “a huge Diamond DeShields fan,” and the feeling was mutual.

“They didn’t even put us together, they just told all of us to match up as a player and a legend, and Diamond said ‘I want to go with you,’ and I said, ‘I want to go with you,'” Swoopes said. “I said this to her: ‘It’s nice to see her finally healthy and finally playing the way some people expected her to from the beginning.'”

The WNBA game is moving towards “position-less” basketball, where athletes are multi-skilled. Swoopes said she likes the evolution.

“I enjoy seeing (Connecticut Sun center) Jonquel Jones spot up from the three-point line,” she said. “Now I would like to see her get on the block a little bit more, but that is where the game is headed, and it’s nice to see.”

One area in which Swoopes would like the league to improve is in getting former players involved with teams, whether in a coaching or front office role. The NBA has done that for many years, hiring player alumni for various tasks, from operations to player development.

Swoopes said that if there were more such opportunities in the WNBA, there might be less migration of some of the game’s best and brightest women to the men’s side, as has been the case this year.

“I’m excited for every single (former) player who’s gotten an opportunity in the NBA, but why can’t we get some of those opportunities in the WNBA,” Swoopes said. “If you want to continue to make the game grow…….former players can relate to current players on a lot of different things besides being on the court.”

Swoopes said she’s tried to be vocal about the need for former player involvement, because it ties the league’s past and present together.

“It’s not to take away anything from the current players, but when I look at the overall fan base of the league, there are a lot of fans there who have been there since day one,” she said. “There’s a connection from the fans of day one to the former players, and it makes sense to try and engage former players more. I would love to see it get to a point where there’s more of it.”

Among those who have made it a practice to hire former players as assistant coaches is Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer. Vickie Johnson is his assistant now, and Rushia Brown does Aces color commentary. When he coached the New York Liberty, Laimbeer hired Katie Smith, who became head coach when he left. Swoopes appreciates it.

“Here’s what I love about Bill: he keeps former players in involved,” she said. “But personally, I would like to see every WNBA team have a former player on staff in some capacity.”

Laimbeer said having former players on his staff is a no-brainer.

“The players have played the game,” he said. “They’re the ones who know what happens on the court. We try to pick the best of the best – intelligent basketball players – and give them opportunities to grow not only as coaches, but in the front office.”

“I’ve always hired former players across the board. I’ll give players a chance. They deserve a chance, it’s their sport, and I’ll act accordingly.”

Liberty legend Theresa Weatherspoon has been the organization’s director of player and franchise development for the last several years – one of several former players to work in the team’s executive capacities. Weatherspoon said this involvement has been a priority.

“It’s important to have former players involved with the current team because we are able to provide firsthand insight into the history and culture of the league and the organization. Especially in a city like New York City, it’s imperative that current players know the expectations of not only the fans but also the greater community.”

Another area Swoopes targets for the WNBA’s improvement is its marketing. She said the league was marketed better when it first started, in 1997.

“Maybe because it was brand new and we were trying to grow it and get it out there, but yes, it was marketed better,” Swoopes said. “And it bothers me that a lot of people still don’t know the WNBA is still around. But that is due to lack of marketing.”

“I remember when we played, when the league first started, we did marketing year-round – not just the summer. It was the off-season and you had players such as myself, Rebecca (Lobo) and Lisa (Leslie). More year-round marketing would help.”