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Originally published December 21, 2009 at 10:01 PM | Page modified December 21, 2009 at 11:26 PM

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Steve Kelley

Former WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes stays in the gym by coaching at Mercer Island

Sheryl Swoopes, who was cut by the Storm before the 2009 season, said she hopes to play again in the WNBA.

Seattle Times staff columnist

MERCER ISLAND — The crowd for the high school girls basketball game was slim, mostly family and friends, watching their daughters and sisters and neighbors.

The instructions shouted by the coaches, the squeaks of the sneakers, the officials' whistles and the high-pitched yells from the cheerleaders echoed off the empty bleachers.

It was a long way from the days of the manic thousands who once watched Sheryl Swoopes slash to the basket, and crash to the floor. A long way from the Olympics and the WNBA finals and the NCAA Final Four that used to be her stage.

But it still was basketball. It was a gym. It was another chance for Swoopes to help other young women get better at the game that has shaped her life. She was in the gym, teaching basketball as if it were theology.

"This takes me back to all of the times when I was there and I was playing," Swoopes said after Mercer Island had beaten Interlake last week. "For me, just being out here, the whole environment and the whole atmosphere and seeing the excitement of the girls is exciting for me. And the players on this team, they're great young women.

"For me to be here and being able to give them just a little bit of the knowledge that I have, after playing basketball for so many years, is a great honor for me. I get a lot out of it."

Sheryl Swoopes might be the most decorated woman in her sport. She is a three-time WNBA MVP, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, a three-time WNBA defensive player of the year.

She won four WNBA titles in Houston, an NCAA championship at Texas Tech and was the winner of the 1993 Naismith Award winner, given to the best college player.

She is an icon in her game and cares so much about it that she was there, helping to coach Mercer Island, while its head coach, Jamie Prescott, continued her maternity leave.

"We always compare it to having Michael Jordan on our bench," Mercer Island's senior point guard Hannah Lilly said. "We talk about that all the time. It's amazing. Off the court, she's so much fun. She adds so much to our team. We're really lucky to have her."

The first thing Swoopes did when she came to Mercer Island was conduct personal clinics with each player. She worked especially on defense and aggression.

"It's really amazing because Sheryl fits in really well with our coaching staff," junior guard Hailey Gullstad said, "but then it hits you all of a sudden that, 'Wow, we have a Hall of Famer coaching here.'

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"She's really helped us, and one thing she tells us is that it really kills her to not be playing now and that we should take our opportunities when they come and have a good time with them."

Swoopes, 38, still isn't prepared to announce her retirement. In November, she played with a traveling team in an exhibition game against the University of Montana. She still plays occasionally in leagues around Seattle.

Wearing a black Nike T-shirt over a white long-sleeved shirt and jeans tucked into boots, she looked fit enough to contribute in the WNBA. And she says she feels she has one good run left in her.

"There are some days when I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I definitely want to go back and do it again,' " said Swoopes, who last played in the league with the Seattle Storm in 2008. "Then there are days when I think, 'OK, I'm ready to move on to the next phase of my career.' I haven't totally counted it out and said that I'm done.

"Physically I'm good. I'm ready. For me, it's just a matter of getting another opportunity and, with another team [Sacramento] folding I feel like it kind of limits me. If the opportunity's there and it presents itself, I absolutely want to play another year and then retire the right way. If it's not meant to be then I have to move on."

Swoopes missed the 2001 season after undergoing knee surgery. She played in only three games in 2007, but after successful back surgery, joined the Storm in 2008 and played in 29 games. Last winter, she was cut by the Storm and didn't play last season.

"Having played so many years and even when I was out with an injury, even then I don't think I appreciated how much I enjoyed the game," she said. "But you never know when that opportunity is going to be taken away from you. Now being out of the game has taught me that you have to make the most of every opportunity that you have when you're out there."

Whether she returns to the league for a farewell season, Swoopes almost surely will find a way to stay in the gym. The game always will be part of her life. Her love of basketball, as indicated by her willingness to be an assistant high-school coach, is as ardent as ever.

"Everybody wants to win, but for me, it's just about being out on that floor and enjoying the moment, having fun and leaving everything out there," she said. "When you're young, in high school, or even professionally, you always think you're going to have a chance to come back tomorrow and redeem yourself. You think that there's always going to be tomorrow."

Swoopes stays in the gym. She coaches today, while holding on to the hope for one final tomorrow.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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