To see Houston Comets guard Cynthia Cooper yell out some comical
boast in the locker room or enliven the team's shootaround
before Sunday's big game against the New York Liberty by
expertly mimicking the herky-jerky moves of the Liberty's
halftime dancers was to see no hint of the sobering story that
has been unfolding in Cooper's life away from basketball, out of
public view. Those clues surface in subtle ways.
Sometimes it's the pink ribbon that Cooper wears on her uniform
to signify her support for a group advocating more funding for
breast-cancer research. Other times it's the way she hurries
into the Houston locker room after each road game to call her
mom, Mary Cobbs, who suffers from the disease. Every once in a
while, Comets coach Van Chancellor quietly moves back practice
by half an hour because Cooper has asked for time to take Mary
for chemotherapy or another battery of tests. Point guard Kim
Perrot, Cooper's close friend and her roommate on the road, says
that every so often the two of them stay up late talking about
faith, about holding on to hope, about why bad things sometimes
happen to good people. Perrot says, "The thing I always tell her
is, 'Coop, when I put myself in your place, I don't know how you
do it all.'"
It has almost been a relief for the 34-year-old Cooper to be on
the court, where she is a stone-cold scorer who exudes the
cocksure attitude, You can't stop me. Opposing teams rarely do.
At week's end she was the WNBA's leading scorer, averaging 22.4
points for the Comets, who on Sunday took over first place in
the Eastern Conference from New York with a 70-55 win. Cooper,
who had a game-high 17 points, has emerged as the top contender
to win the fledgling league's first MVP award, to be announced
on Aug. 27.
Although she is loquacious around her teammates, Cooper can be
reticent about herself and her off-the-court burdens. Unless you
ask her, you might never know that she has escorted her mom
through every stage of her cancer treatment this year, just as
you might never know that Cooper has helped raise a niece and
nephew and is in the process of adopting another nephew.
In Cooper's mind, playing through the thigh bruise that has
bothered her for the past few weeks or returning to play on the
right ankle she sprained badly late in Sunday's game pales next
to what her mother has endured. Cobbs, 60, learned she had
breast cancer in March, just weeks after she and Cooper were
overjoyed to hear that the WNBA had assigned Cooper to play in
Houston, their adopted hometown. At least Cooper would be home
enough to help care for her mother. Says Cooper, "It was
unbelievable how it's all worked out."
In more ways than one. As the WNBA's inaugural season began,
better known players such as the Los Angeles Sparks' Lisa
Leslie, the Liberty's Rebecca Lobo and the Sacramento Monarchs'
Ruthie Bolton-Holifield were expected to become the league's
brightest stars. But the 5'10" Cooper has unleashed a do-it-all
game and outstripped her rivals. At week's end Cooper not only
led the league in scoring but was also in the WNBA's top 10 in
five other categories, ranking second in three-point shooting
(43.7%); third in foul shooting (87.9%); fourth in assists
(4.5); and fifth in steals (2.28 per game) and minutes played
Beginning on July 18--just 24 hours after she and Chancellor had
a motivational conversation in which he told her he was making
her the Comets' undisputed go-to player--Cooper set the WNBA
single-game scoring record three games in succession, with a
30-point night against Sacramento, a 32-point effort against the
Phoenix Mercury and a 44-point barrage in a rematch with the
Monarchs. All told, Cooper scored 30 or more points in seven of
the 13 games Houston played after her chat with Chancellor. "And
we won all seven," Chancellor notes. The surge helped slingshot
the Comets (17-8) past fading New York (16-8) for the best
record in the WNBA heading into the last week of the regular
"She's the best all-around player I've ever faced," Liberty
guard Vickie Johnson said on Sunday, after Cooper had rebounded
from a desultory two-point first half with 15 points in the
second. "She can go left if you stop her from going right, and
she goes right if you stop her from going left. She can shoot
the three, she can drive and score or pass off. After seeing her
for four games now, nothing she does surprises me. She always
seems to have something up her sleeve."
Chancellor adds, "I'm not usually the sort of guy who campaigns
for my own players. But if Cynthia doesn't get MVP this year,
they might as well not give out the award."
With an exaggerated look of horror, Cooper says she doesn't want
to talk about the MVP, lest she jinx herself or the Comets. More
than individual glory, she says, the nearly concluded WNBA
season has given her reason to reflect on her individual story:
the teenage years she spent in a crime-ridden neighborhood in
the Watts section of Los Angeles; the sacrifices her mother made
to raise her and her seven siblings; the fact that her
basketball career didn't begin until she was 16, and then only
accidentally. "I just happened to be in the gym at my junior
high school one day and saw this older girl come down the court,
put the ball behind her back from her left to her right hand and
then make a layup," Cooper says. "Up until then I had run track.
But just like that I said, 'Oooh. Wow. I want to play like that
By her senior year Cooper was good enough to land a scholarship
to Southern Cal, where she played a supporting role on the '83
and '84 NCAA title teams that featured Cheryl Miller and the
McGee twins, Pam and Paula. Cooper played on two U.S. Olympic
teams, too, picking up a gold medal at the '88 Seoul Games and a
bronze at the '92 Barcelona Games. But, Cooper says, "I never
felt like I had given all I was capable of giving to one of my
teams. I was always the sort of player who was asked to pass the
ball to the marquee players and set picks, run the fast break.
My role might be to come into the game to be a defensive
stopper, or a spark plug. But all along, I told myself, This is
not my game. This is not who I am as a basketball player. And
this is not all I can do."
As a pro in Europe beginning in 1986 she changed her game. "I
wanted to be one of those people who took the clutch shots and
carried teams on their shoulders," she says. With the Italian
teams Parma and Alcamo, Cooper became that type of player. In
the 1995-96 season she averaged 35.5 points for Alcamo.
Cooper arrived in the WNBA as a scorer. She had an early-season
shooting slump, but she fired up 300 to 500 shots a day in
practice until her release felt right. She can see now how that
mid-July vote of confidence from Chancellor helped make her
stellar season possible. Cooper says, "It was something I needed
to hear from him and the rest of the coaching staff."
If all the predictions are right and Cooper wins the MVP award,
she says it would make up for all those years that "I gave up a
lot to win. It'd make up for all the hard work, the sweat, the
elbows received." Perrot says Cooper has told her she knows what
she will do should WNBA officials present her with the award. If
she gets to step up to the microphone, Cooper will say, "I
dedicate this to my mom."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN The driven Cooper (left) got past Johnson and led Houston into first place. [Cynthia Cooper and Vickie Johnson in game]