Originally created 05/17/03

Former MVP, scoring champ returns to Comets



HOUSTON -- There's a buzz at Houston Comets training camp that's familiar to some of the veterans.

Cynthia Cooper is back, joking on the sidelines and popping in jumpers in practice.

Cooper retired from the WNBA as a player two years ago with three scoring titles, two MVP trophies and four championship rings with the Houston Comets.

She coached the Phoenix Mercury for a season before resigning to return to Houston to be a regular mom to 10-month-old twins Brian Jr. and Cyan. Now, inspired by a pickup game in July in the Virgin Islands, she's attempting a comeback with the Comets.

But at age 40, health could be an issue in her return. She's already suffered a hamstring injury trying to get back in shape to face players half her age.

Why, with nothing left to prove, is she doing it?

"I missed being one of the girls," Cooper said. "I missed hanging out in the locker room with the girls and talking. The coaching staff, they're off to the side and the players kick you off the curb and they don't let you in that little group.

"I missed that."

Her return reunites the Comets' Big Three of Cooper, Tina Thompson and two-time MVP Sheryl Swoopes, who combined to lead the team to four straight WNBA championships.

Along with the acquisitions of guards Dominique Canty and Ukari Figgs, the Comets should be among the title contenders - along with two-time champion Los Angeles Sparks - when the season begins Thursday.

It's a season that almost didn't get off the ground. The league and its players' union reached agreement last month after weeks of negotiations and only hours before the WNBA draft.

The four-year deal, with a league option for a fifth, establishes free agency - the first in women's pro sports - and a hard salary cap.

In the first year, minimum salaries for veterans will increase 5 percent, from $40,000 to $42,000, and the rookie minimum remains at $30,000. The players had asked for a $48,000 minimum, and the league's original offer was $41,200 with rookie salaries cut to $25,000.

The deal also capped a troubled offseason that saw the Miami and Portland franchises fold and two others move - the Utah team to San Antonio, and Orlando to a casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Cooper's return has rekindled the talk of a feud between her and Swoopes that both players deny ever existed.

"I don't think two years away has changed my perspective of Sheryl and myself that we're both professionals," Cooper said. "That's what people refuse to focus on. They want to focus on everything else. The reality is we've won four championships together and we're pretty doggone good together."

Swoopes was the WNBA's MVP and defensive player of the year last season. She led the Comets in points, assists, steals and minutes played. She, too, is tired of the feud talk.

"What people tend to forget is I get along with every single person on this team," Swoopes said. "I don't pick up the phone and call Cynthia and say 'let's go shopping, let's go hang out.' But I don't do that with anybody on the team.

"You don't hear 'why aren't you and Tina close?"'

Cooper was the WNBA's most valuable player in 1997 and 1998. She won scoring titles in 1997, 1998 and 1999. She was the first WNBA player to reach 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 points. She is the Comets' all-time scoring leader (21.1) and also the leader in free throw percentage (87.1) and assists per game (4.8).

"To me that's great to have a player coming in you used to idolize and now get a chance to play with them," second-year center Michelle Snow said. "We've got the Big Three and some veteran players and that's going to help younger players like myself play smarter."

Cooper hadn't played much since her retirement.

"I didn't miss playing basketball until that time I played in the Virgin Islands. Maybe that's why subconsciously I didn't play because I was afraid of missing it," she said "I don't regret retiring when I did or any of the decisions I've made the last two years."

Cooper expects to play at high efficiency again but she hurt her hamstring in the first week of workouts and has been slowed. The injury scared Cooper at first.

"Since I've never had a hamstring injury before, when I felt the hamstring I thought I was gone," Cooper said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'll have to retire again and I haven't even started.' That was my fear, I'll have to admit. But after the first day of treatment I knew it wasn't torn.

"I want to help the Comets win a championship, that's my No. 1 goal. I want to be the player I was when I left, and I hope that helps the team be at the level we were when I left."

Coach Van Chancellor is bringing Cooper along slowly, although it's been tough because she is eager to perform.

"This deal of keeping her healthy will be fine," Chancellor said. "Maybe this injury is a blessing in disguise. It makes her realize she can't do everything she wants to do."

Cooper's family has grown since she last played, and that's going to be a concern for her.

"My babies are young and I hate leaving them," Cooper said. "I hate being away from them any extended time, and I'm talking hours. I can't even think about days or a week. That's going to be tough juggling that, and hopefully sometimes they can come on the road with me."

For Los Angeles, Lisa Leslie will be joined by Jennifer Gillom, giving the Sparks the top two scorers in league history. Leslie, the MVP of the WNBA finals and All-Star game last season, has signed a new contract with the Sparks that reportedly will keep her with the team for four more years.

But Sparks guard Jackie Stiles, the WNBA's rookie of the year in 2001 who was acquired in the dispersal draft from Portland, won't play this season because of surgery to correct bursitis in her right heel.

The New York Liberty, which tied Charlotte for the top spot in the Eastern Conference last year, has improved its position with the addition of Elena Baranova, obtained from the dispersal draft. The Liberty also added depth with the additions of Molly Creamer and Sonja Mallory.