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 AllWNBA
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."
Next on her agenda is her third stint on the U.S. Olympic team,
which will gather later this month to begin preparations for the
2000 Games. (She won a gold medal with the '88 team, a bronze in
'92 and was not a member of the '96 team.) But as the
nonalcoholic champagne flowed in the Compaq Center locker room,
Cooper, wearing Perrot's jersey between her own and a
championship T-shirt, wasn't ready to leave this season behind.
"This championship was tough because we had to win it with
broken hearts," she said, "but I think Kim is proud."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Trey Bon! The New York Liberty won Game 2 of the WNBA Finals on this last-second, half-court shot by guard Teresa Weatherspoon, but the Houston Comets, led by Cynthia Cooper, three-peated by winning the title in Game 3 (page 56). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Comin' through Even when Sue Wicks and Witherspoon ganged up, they couldn't stop Cooper.