Standing at her locker in Houston's Compaq Center on Sunday evening, a third WNBA championship MVP trophy tucked under her arm and a white THREE-PEAT hat on her head, Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets could finally look on the bright side of the New York Liberty's stunning, elimination-foiling victory in Game 2 the day before. She could be thankful that game will be remembered for its finish- Teresa Weatherspoon's Hail Mary heave from half-court with .4 of a second left improbably banked off the glass and into the basket to give the Liberty a 68-67 win—and not for the fact that it was one of Cooper's worst games as a pro. "We were fortunate we had another game to play," said Cooper, who went 1 for 12 from the field and had only 12 points in the loss. "I wanted a chance to redeem myself."
More than redemption, Cooper wanted to bring a positive conclusion to a crushingly difficult nine months during which she had lost her house to fire, her mother to breast cancer and her best friend and teammate, Kim Perrot, to lung cancer. So, as her team floundered offensively in Game 3 with 28.8% shooting (to New York's 30.9%), Cooper provided a happy ending at the foul line, where she scored 13 of her game-high 24 points to go along with six rebounds and three steals in Houston's 59-47 victory. "Cooper was the only one on their team who hurt us offensively," said New York coach Richie Adubato. "She did exactly what we expected her to do—she rose to her level and up."
At 36, an age when most of her contemporaries have either bowed out of the game or are contemplating retirement, Cooper is still ascending to higher levels of performance. Besides leading the league in scoring this year with a 22.1-point average, she played more minutes (35.5 a game) than anyone in the league except Orlando's 25-year-old Shannon Johnson and continued to embroider her already complex game with new skills. She did all this while shouldering some heavy burdens off the court, and double and triple teams on it. "She is the most focused basketball player I have ever seen," says Houston coach Van Chancellor. "She practices, she plays and she lets nothing bother her. She plays at a top level night in and night out. How she does it physically is a mystery to me."
"No question, she is the Michael Jordan of this league," says Adubato, who got his first taste of Cooper's playoff intensity when she ambushed his team with 29 points, four steals and six assists in Houston's 73-60 victory last Thursday in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden. "She has the total package. She can make the three, drive by you and finish. She can find the open people when she breaks down the defense. She has tremendous vision and is a pinpoint passer. The biggest thing is, you can't foul her. When people are great players, [sometimes] you say, 'Send them to the line.' You can't do that with her."
Unfortunately for Adubato, that's about all New York did in the finals. In addition to her 13-for-15 performance from the line on Sunday, Cooper was 10 for 10 in Game 1 and 10 for 12 in Game 2. What makes her such a foul magnet? "She has a great last step to the basket," says Adubato. "She just explodes. She also has a move where she will slip by defenses that try to pick up charges, which is an excellent talent."
That and most of Cooper's other excellent talents are recent additions to her game. "When I came out of college, I only penetrated, and I only penetrated to the right," says Cooper, who played at Southern Cal in the mid-'80s with Cheryl Miller. Since then she has developed a jumper, a three-point shot, a surer left hand and an array of jump hooks.
New this year, according to opponents, is her ability to pass. "It used to be everyone knew that when Coop penetrated, she wasn't giving up the ball," says New York's Sophia Witherspoon. "Now she's faking out a lot of people because she's also looking to find the open players and distribute the ball." Cooper's assists increased from 4.4 last year to 5.2 this season, fourth best in the league.
For many opponents, though, the most confounding thing about Cooper is not her new stuff, but how she executes her old stuff. "I don't know how many tapes I've seen of Cynthia," says New York's Crystal Robinson. "I've studied her favorite moves, when she likes to spin, what she likes to do. The toughest thing about guarding her is that most of the time you know exactly what she's going to do, but you still can't stop her. She's incredible."
"I want to be a complete player," says Cooper. "I don't want anyone to say, 'Let's play Cynthia this way because she can't do it.' I want to be the best. I want my team to be the best. I will do whatever it takes to help my team win."
Now that the Comets have won three straight titles and established themselves as the league's first dynasty, can they make it four in a row? That's not hard to imagine, considering that next year's expansion from 12 to 16 franchises will probably leave some teams altered beyond recognition. Not so the Comets, who can protect their core group, the Big Three: Cooper; defensive stopper Sheryl Swoopes, who was the leading vote-getter in the All- WNBA balloting; and second-team All- WNBA forward Tina Thompson. Swoopes and Thompson are still in their 20s, and Cooper envisions playing until she's 40. "I'm not going to retire anytime soon, because I feel good and still have the love for the game and the drive and determination to be the best," she says. "As long as I still have that in me, I'll compete in the WNBA."