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Big-Time Player : Small-Town Swoopes Stays Close to Home, Leads Texas Tech

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s Swoopes . . . as in hoops.

That’s today, now that she’s in the NCAA Final Four.

But four years ago, it was Swoopes . . . as in oops.

Sheryl Swoopes was a small-town girl, but a big-time college basketball prospect, out of Brownfield, Tex. Finally, yielding more to those offering free advice than to her own wishes, she decided to attend the University of Texas.

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So, in September of 1989, the All-American high school star went to Austin, 400 miles away. Four days later, she was back in Brownfield.

“ ‘Mama, I just don’t want to go back there,’ ” her mother, Louise, quoted Sheryl as saying when she returned home for the weekend.

“Well then, you don’t have to,” her mother told her.

“You blew it, you could’ve been an All-American there,” one of her friends told Swoopes.

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“You what ?” another friend said when Swoopes told her she had left the school.

Swoopes could have made something up. She could have said she didn’t like the coach. She could have said Austin was too big. She could have said she didn’t like the other players.

But this was a small-town girl who was taught never to lie. So she said she missed her mother too much. Because that was the truth.

At the time, Texas was a nationally ranked women’s basketball power, so her decision was met with astonishment by those who follow the sport.

Swoopes went to South Plains Junior College, 30 miles from home. In 1991, she transferred to Texas Tech, at Lubbock, 38 miles away.

She’s a senior now, having turned 22 on March 25, the night Texas Tech knocked USC out of the NCAA tournament, and she laughs readily about her four days at Texas.

But she said she is still a small-town homebody for whom distance from home is a more important statistic than her field-goal percentage, which happens to be 54.7%.

To this athlete, being away from home--even on basketball trips--is an unnatural state of affairs.

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But lately, she seems right at home at banquet tables, accepting national player-of-the-year honors, such as the Champion Award she received Thursday.

When a reporter asked afterward if she intends to play professionally in Europe next year, she indicated that she did. Then, because she knew what the next question would be, she began laughing in advance.

“Do you know how far Europe is from Brownfield?” she was asked.

She laughed again, then replied: “Yes, but I’ll be making money by then, so I can bring Mom over for lots of visits.”

“When I went off to Texas, I’d never been away from home,” added Swoopes, whose parents are divorced.

“I’d never even been out of Texas. At Austin, Brownfield seemed too far away to me, especially since I didn’t know anyone. They put me in a dorm room at Texas, and I just sat there, There was no one to talk to.”

Plenty of people want to talk to her now.

“Yeah, you and 40 other people,” Walt McAlexander, Texas Tech’s sports information director, said when a reporter said he wanted an interview with Swoopes.

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A group of 15 or so reporters crowded around her Thursday after she had been given her latest award.

How did she develop her game to the point where she is now mentioned in the same class with former stars Ann Meyers, Cheryl Miller and Nancy Lieberman?

“I have three brothers, and they helped me a lot,” Swoopes said.

“At first, they didn’t like playing with me. Then when they did, they wouldn’t play hard. But eventually one brother, James, played ball at Murray State. He’s 6-4.

“He wouldn’t play hard until he saw how good I was getting, when I beat him a couple of times. I used to beat him once in a while in one-on-one games, but now he beats me all the time. And he blocks a lot of my shots.”

James, 26, and remaining brothers Earl, 24, and Brandon, 9, and mother Louise made the 19-hour drive to Atlanta this week.

Swoopes said she never knew she was the homesick type until she got to Texas.

“Texas was the only school I really considered out of high school,” she said. “It was a big national basketball power, and I thought they could take my game to another level. But once I got there . . . well, I just didn’t realize how far it was from home.”

One thing is certain: Sheryl Denise Swoopes has never been homesick on a basketball court.

In her last four games, the 6-foot forward has scored 53, 30, 33 and 36 points. The 53-point effort came against Texas in the Southwest Conference tournament’s championship game. Nine times this season and 14 times in her two seasons at Texas Tech, she has scored 30 or more. She averaged 27.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in leading Tech to a 29-3 record and a semifinal matchup against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

She can take the ball the length of the court and is a tough rebounder, an outstanding passer and a complete offensive player.

At the West Regional tournament last weekend in Missoula, Mont., Colorado Coach Ceal Barry was asked about matchups with Swoopes, before Texas Tech beat Colorado, 79-54.

” No one matches up with Sheryl Swoopes,” Barry said.

Swoopes made 10 of 21 shots from the field and 15 of 16 free-throw attempts for her 36 points. She also had 10 rebounds, two blocks, six steals and two assists.

Her favorite play is taking her dribble cross-court to the vicinity of the free-throw line, then abruptly pulling up for her jump shot.

Against full-court pressure, she has often gone all the way for layups on teams that underestimated her speed. Watching her smooth stride, many have wondered how she would do on the track.

And according to her coach, Marsha Sharp, Swoopes is the players’ favorite, too.

“We used to call Sheryl the Michael Jordan of women’s basketball,” Texas Tech point guard Noel Johnson said. “Now we call Michael Jordan the Sheryl Swoopes of men’s basketball.”

And Krista Kirkland, a 5-10 senior guard, expressed a special feeling that Swoopes’ teammates hold for her: “We made a commitment that Sheryl is such a great player, she deserves to play in the Final Four. We feel it’s an honor for her to have been in our program.”

Jody Conradt of Texas, whose team went 22-7 this season, said Swoopes is the perfect offensive player, adding: “She has that perfect blend of size, speed and quickness. “She’s so effective offensively because she doesn’t need any help, once she has the ball. She just creates shots. “

USC Coach Marianne Stanley said: "(Swoopes) has that mental toughness great offensive players need. “She sees all kinds of tough defenses, but she has the mental toughness to overcome them. She’s a pure shooter, too. You can do a lot of things right against her--put a great defense on her, force her to pick up the dribble . . . but she can still get off that great shot.”

But another perspective was provided by Swoopes’ little brother, Brandon, who was asked if he missed his sister during her four-day sojourn at the University of Texas.

“No, I didn’t,” he said.


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