Her Airness even winning over Jordan Swoopes: She has the smile, the moves, even the shoes. And now she and the U.S. women's basketball team are working on the gold medal

Atlanta Olympics

July 24, 1996|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

To those who know women's basketball, the comparison between Sheryl Swoopes and Michael Jordan is on the money.

They're both spectacular players, capable of dominating -- even humiliating -- opponents, with a host of dazzling offensive moves. Both carried their teams to national championships in college and won Player of the Year.

Both Jordan and Swoopes have flashy smiles and a line of athletic shoes named after them, from the same company, Nike, no less.

The analogy makes sense to everyone except Swoopes, and she told Jordan so a couple of years ago when they played a game of one-on-one.

"When we played, he said, 'A lot of people say you're the female Michael Jordan. Get out here and show me what you've got.' I said, 'Michael, I didn't say that. I had nothing to do with that,' " Swoopes said with a laugh recently.

"The first thing he told me [after the game] was, 'Girl, you can play.' He said, 'I watched you play and you did some things that kind of reminded me of myself.' I was going, 'Thank you' [in a timid voice]."

Another layer will be added to the analogy if Swoopes, like Jordan in 1992, can help a talented band of all-stars capture a basketball gold medal for the United States.

The U.S. Olympic team, considered by many the greatest collection of women's talent ever assembled, is 2-0 in Atlanta after yesterday's 98-65 victory over Ukraine. Swoopes contributed 11 points, seven assists and six rebounds to the win, and Ruthie Bolton led the scoring with 21 points on 7-for-10 shooting.

The squad brought a 52-0 record into the Games, culled from a year of play against the best college and foreign competition.

The unbeaten mark only added to the pressure that Swoopes and her 11 teammates carried into the competition, in which they are not only expected to breeze to the gold, but also to boost the profile of their sport in this country.

"The public, when they see that record, they think, 'We know you're definitely going to win the gold,' " Swoopes said during a break in a practice in Chicago last month. "They think that simply because we've played some of the teams that we're going to play in Atlanta, that means we're going to roll over them."

The fact that the competition takes place in Atlanta brings things full circle for Swoopes, who carried her 1993 Texas Tech team to the NCAA championship at the Omni, across the street from the Georgia Dome, where the gold-medal game will be played.

On that April day in 1993, Swoopes turned in the most electrifying performance in women's Final Four history, scoring 47 points -- a championship-game record for men or women -- as the Red Raiders defeated Ohio State, 84-82.

Nancy Darsch, one of three assistant coaches on the 1996 U.S. team, had a front-row seat for Swoopes' performance as the Buckeyes' coach. Darsch said she designed a special zone defense to attempt to trap the 6-foot Swoopes with two players any time she touched the ball.

It didn't work.

"I remember trying everything we knew to do. Nothing was affecting her that day. We put bigger people on her, we put smaller people on her, we trapped her. She was just in the zone," said Darsch. "That's a rare performance and she hit it on the day it counted the most."

Swoopes was a member of the 1994 U.S. Goodwill Games gold-medal team, and signed on to play professionally with an Italian team, but left after three months when the team failed to live up to the terms of the contract, especially the part about paying her.

Because of her experience in Italy, Swoopes decided to stay home in order to prepare for the 1996 Olympic team, rather than play in Europe or Japan. She trained in Brownfield, Texas, and worked out with the Texas Tech team.

Swoopes was in condition, but her development as a player was behind other prominent players.

"There was a lot of pressure on her in a lot of eyes, you know, being the hot player coming out of college," said Tara VanDerveer, the head coach of this year's Olympic team and Swoopes' coach on the 1994 Goodwill Games team.

"She was way behind, but she kind of learned that summer what she needed to work on and just how physical the games were."

Then came the national team concept, in which Swoopes and 10 of her Olympic teammates -- Venus Lacey joined them in June -- spent the past year touring the country and the world. The tour took Swoopes away from her new husband -- they've been married a little more than a year -- but sharpened her skills.

"The reason for that is the players I'm around. I'm surrounded by [11] other women who are just as good as I am, if not better," said Swoopes. "That means every time I step out on the court I've got to take my game to a different level."

Besides honing her game, the national team tour also boosted Swoopes' profile, and made her one of the most recognized female athletes in the country.

She has done guest shots with both David Letterman and Jay Leno, appeared in two commercials and on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated with the other Olympic starters and VanDerveer, and her shoe, the Air Swoopes -- the first sneaker to be named for a woman -- sold out in its first two model years.

Swoopes has also become a role model, a responsibility she has discussed with Jordan.

"He said, 'I know people are watching me and I know they consider me to be a role model, but I don't try to be different than anybody else.'

"After he told me that, it made me approach things in that same manner. When little girls look at me, I try to talk to them and say, 'Look, I was in your shoes. I had dreams of playing in the Olympics. I had dreams of playing like Michael Jordan and now you can have those same dreams, too.' "

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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