Work in Sports
The WNBA's biggest star retires at the top of her game
By Kelli Anderson
As Cynthia Cooper took her final stroll down the confetti-littered hallways of Houston's Compaq Center last Saturday, she carried a bottle of Gatorade, a ball signed by her Comets teammates and a pair of conflicting emotions. In leading Houston to its fourth title in the WNBA's four-year history with a 79-73 overtime win over the New York Liberty, and in winning her fourth finals MVP trophy, she had ended a glorious career in dream fashion. All that was left for her to do was walk out the door. "I'm feeling pure, awesome joy," said Cooper, "but I'm starting to feel sadness, too. When I was running through the fans, high-fiving and hugging them, I realized this is going to be my last time doing this."
For Cooper, 37, who announced in July that she would retire after this season, Saturday was the last time to do a number of exceptional things she had made routine. Before she danced on the scorer's table in a shower of confetti for the last time, she made her last game-saving shot, a 24-foot three-pointer with 21.5 seconds left that tied the score at 64 and sent the game into overtime. For the last time, she broke the hearts of the Liberty, playoff runner-up three times. Said New York forward Sue Wicks, "In a couple of days we'll feel as if we had a good season, and in a couple of years we'll say, Wow, Houston had something special."
That's a perfect description of Cooper, a 5'10" shooting guard with a knack for shredding defenses and making clutch plays. Though she spent all but the last four years of it in obscurity, her career has been one of the most decorated in sports: two NCAA titles (with USC), two Olympic medals (a gold and a bronze), four WNBA championships and two regular-season MVP awards. Among other pursuits, Cooper plans to spend more time on the charity she named for her late mother, the Mary Cobb Building Dreams Foundation.
As for the WNBA, the departure of its marquee name is a big blow. Although the league has doubled in size, from the eight teams it started with in 1997 to 16 this season, average attendance declined this year and TV ratings slipped to alltime lows. But, says New York coach Richie Adubato, the league will survive: "It's like when Jordan left the NBA. New stars will take her place. New stars always take your place."
Watching Cooper as she made her way through the still-crowded bowels of the Compaq Center nearly two hours after the game, however, it was hard to picture a player who could fill her signature Nikes. "Say 'WNBA,' and the first name out of anybody's mouth is Cynthia Cooper," says Liberty forward Crystal Robinson.
As she headed for the door, Cooper bid farewell to the league in the same way she announced her arrival four years ago: weaving through traffic with a ball in her hand.
Issue date: September 4, 2000
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