Cooper says Gotham Goodbye

Thursday, August 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Cynthia Cooper can't help but think about her impending retirement these days. When she walked into the Great Western Forum, where she led the Houston Comets to a sweep over Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals, it crossed her mind. And she'll think about it again on Thursday.



REGULAR SEASON: Houston finished second in the Western Conference. New York won the Eastern Conference.

Houston swept Sacramento and the Western Conference champion Los Angeles Sparks. New York swept the Washington Mystics then came back from a 1-0 deficit to defeat Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals.

OVERVIEW: Houston and New York are familiar opponents. This is the third time in the league's four-year history they will meet for the WNBA championship. Last season's finals matchup went three games before Houston pulled off its third straight crown. New York is one of the most physical teams in the league, and point guard Teresa Weatherspoon is an emotional leader on the floor. Cynthia Cooper has stepped up her play in her final playoffs for the Comets. But Houston has received help from several role players, including center Tammy Jackson and guard Coquese Washington.

The Liberty has won 13 straight games at home, and it will have to take Game 1 in New York. The Comets know how to win a championship and aren't easily rattled. The bigger the game, the more they step up.

Cooper will lead the Comets into Madison Square Garden for Game 1 of the WNBA Championship Series against the New York Liberty. With the best-of-3 series moving to Houston this weekend, Thursday is expected to be Cooper's final performance in New York.

The 37-year-old Cooper announced in July that she is retiring from the WNBA at the end of the season. Cooper said she will pursue other things and is interested in broadcasting. Still, she has left the door open for a possible return, saying she has until training camp in May to make a final decision.

"I think about [retirement] wherever I play," said Cooper, a 5-10 guard. "This could be my last time playing in Madison Square Garden, and this weekend could be my last game. I've tried to savor every moment, but I think I've done that all season and my whole career."

There have been plenty of moments the past four years. Cooper hopes to add one more. This week, Houston will attempt to be the first professional basketball team since the Boston Celtics to win four straight league championships. The Celtics won eight in a row from 1959 to 1966.

Cooper's post-season play has been key to the Comets' first three title runs. Each year, she was named the championship series MVP. She has continued to raise her level of play during this year's playoff run.

After averaging 17.7 points a game in the regular season, Cooper has upped her scoring to 22.8 in four playoff games. Teammate Sheryl Swoopes, this year's league MVP, led the Comets in scoring for the first time in the regular season, averaging 20.7 points. Swoopes has scored 17.5 a game in the playoffs so far.

"[Cooper] just has that mentality of wanting to be on top," said Comets teammate Tammy Jackson. "She knows every player that is going to defend her and she knows their weaknesses, maybe better than they do."

Jackson said that comes from experience. And Cooper has plenty of that, with a career that started at Southern California, where she helped the Lady Trojans to national titles in 1983 and '84. Cooper then went to Europe, where she played for 10 years. During that stint, she led her league in scoring eight times.

But it wasn't until the WNBA started a year later that Cooper made her mark among basketball fans in the United States.

"I was young, and I didn't really know who she was," said Temecka Dixon of the Los Angeles Sparks. "I didn't know about her at all, but she came in and took the league by storm."

Cooper made a name for herself in the new league, leading the WNBA in scoring the first three years. In 1997 and 1998, she was named the league's MVP. She also was voted as a starter in both of the league's All-Star Games.

In this year's season-opening win against the Liberty, Cooper scored 19 points en route to becoming the first player in league history to break the 2,000-point mark.

"I expect that the WNBA will have many superstars, but Cynthia was truly the first," said WNBA president Val Ackerman. "Her success has been ours, and vice versa. She has made an incredible contribution to the WNBA, to women's basketball, and ultimately, women's sports."

Ackerman said it is a competitive fire and tough mentality that has drawn fans to Cooper. They are also traits that helped Cooper through tough times.

In 1999, Cooper had to cope with the loss of her mother, who died of breast cancer just before the start of the season.

She suffered another loss months later when her best friend and teammate Kim Perrot died of cancer. Cooper missed one game before returning to lead the Comets to their third title.

"I don't think the fans truly understand the emotional stress she has been under the last couple of years," Ackerman said. "It is really amazing that Cynthia and the Comets were able to battle all the off-court distractions. She probably deserves a break."

Maybe so. But Cooper won't get one just yet. This is the Liberty's third trip to the WNBA championship, and it is looking to change history against the only champion the league has known. New York forced a third game in last season's finals when Teresa Weatherspoon hit a 50-foot buzzer-beater at Houston's Compaq Center in Game 2. This year, the teams split their regular-season meetings.

The Comets, however, have shown the regular season means little. Los Angeles swept Houston in the regular season, but the Comets won the Western Conference finals in two games. With that type of success, many find it hard to understand why Cooper wants to quit playing the game.

"You look at her, and she has so much potential left in her," Dixon said. "She loves the game, and you think it would be really hard for her to hang up her shoes."