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Swoopes Breaking New Ground: It's OK to be Mom, Play Ball

August 17, 1997|JOHN JEANSONNE | NEWSDAY

Will we see women's basketball in a different light now? Because of Sheryl Swoopes, will we have a new take on working moms? On minorities? On working moms who are minorities who can score 18 points in a professional game seven weeks after giving birth to a son named Jordan?

Swoopes' agent, Joel Bell, said that Swoopes is "a symbol. A huge symbol of what a woman can do after doing the most womanly thing you can do, which is to give birth. ... It says: Just because you have a baby doesn't mean you have to drop out of school, leave your job. It's about: Look what I can do; look what can do. So many women, when a baby happens, they close their minds to what can be out there for them."

"She is a role model to black mothers and to working mothers, regardless of race," said Tom George, a marketing vice president for Advantage International and one of Swoopes' several handlers. George is straightforward about his company's involvement in the most individual and personal of human matters -- childbirth: "It's marketing," he said. "Sheryl can use this for her career, to do good while she's doing well. She can use it in the commercial sense and in the social sense. She wants to do this."

Swoopes will make her professional New York basketball debut Sunday when her Houston Comets play the Liberty at Madison Square Garden. Comets officials said that, on Wednesday alone, there were 91 calls for interviews with Swoopes the day after her "breakout" return from maternity leave. Swoopes scored 18 points in just 21 minutes Tuesday night against Utah, making herself a major player in lifting Houston past the Liberty to the top of the fledgling WNBA Eastern Conference standings.

Long ago, Swoopes, 26, made it clear that she was comfortable being an ambassador for working mothers, posing in her Houston game jersey when she was six months pregnant for the cover of the premiere issue of Sports Illustrated for Women. Since her son's birth on June 25, Swoopes has declared a new outlook on life: Winning a national college basketball championship, then a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, had seemed at the time to be "as good as it gets"; now she feels being a mother is better. And more important.

Jacqueline Kennedy once said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much." And former Beatle Paul McCartney, asked how he wanted to be remembered, recently said, "For my kids. That's the only thing that's real."

Bell calls Swoopes "brave," an elite athlete with a reputation willing to "display herself in public when she is not at the top of her game and say, 'Here I am. I'm not what I was, I've put on some weight, but here I am.' "

Yet the combination of her basketball skill, her wonderfully descriptive name and her working-mom status, featured so prominently in the intense marketing focus of the WNBA and women's sports in general, has gathered into an enormous windfall.

George said a major deal will be announced in a week, tying Swoopes to a major prenatal care charity, and that Swoopes' marketability is (with emphasis) Personalized basketball shoes, a personalized basketball, a cereal deal, credit card deal, soft drink deal, and endorsements of ankle braces and women's sports bras already are earning Swoopes more than $1 million a year, beyond her $50,000 WNBA salary.

George admitted that, when Swoopes first informed Advantage in January that she was pregnant, "there were about two hours of gnashing of teeth. There were going to be calls to Nike (which markets a shoe with Swoopes' name) and to the WNBA (which made Swoopes, along with the Liberty's Rebecca Lobo, its first signees and spokeswomen) that were not going to be good news.

"But after talking about it for a couple of hours, everybody realized: There's nothing bad about it. It might be a really good thing, it might be pretty cool."

What seemed risky at first, from a basketball/marketing standpoint, has turned into a personally fulfilling and profitable situation. Swoopes insisted on returning for the last month of the WNBA's first season -- "as long as it didn't jeopardize her baby's health or her own," George said. Meanwhile, she also insisted on breast-feeding her son, so he and her husband are traveling to every game.

Slightly ahead of her own, and doctors', expectations, she began working out two weeks after Jordan Eric Jackson's birth. (Swoopes keeps her professional name though she has been married to Eric Jackson for two years.) She was back to formal practices with the Comets after five weeks and, roughly 20 pounds above her previous playing weight, she played in her first game Aug. 7.

Brief appearances of five, eight and three minutes in her first three games -- she attempted only two shots and missed both -- were followed by Tuesday's big night, when Swoopes made 7 of 13 field goals (2 of 4 from three-point range) and 2 of 2 free throws, took six rebounds and had two assists.

Compared to having been national player of the year her senior season at Texas Tech, in 1993, and scoring 47 points in the NCAA title game that year, Swoopes' performance Tuesday was fairly ordinary. Compared to virtually every other player, and given the circumstances, it was stunning, even to Swoopes. Relieved and thrilled, she told the Houston Chronicle after the game, "I wanted to stop playing and start clapping myself. I thought it would be enough just to be out there, but it wasn't; I had to score again to prove I could."

For those who tuned in late, by the way, Swoopes in the past has been referred to as "the Michael Jordan of women's basketball," and her son indeed was named for the NBA superstar. Marketing executive George couldn't help adding a sly comment: "There is no truth to the rumor we've already signed the kid."

Because of Sheryl Swoopes, can we see further into the basketball future?

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