When the Houston Comets won the WNBA’s inaugural championship
Cooper’s MVP performance fueled Comets to first of four consecutive championships
When the final horn rang, Cynthia Cooper jumped on top of the scorer’s table as red, white and blue confetti poured from the rafters of The Summit.
Cooper, who spent more than a decade playing professional basketball in Europe, willed the Houston Comets to victory in the WNBA’s inaugural championship. Houston would win the first four WNBA championships from 1997-2000.
Cooper scored 14 of her game-high 25 points in the second half to help the host Comets defeat the New York Liberty, 65-51, in the one-game championship in front of a sellout crowd of 16,285 on Aug. 30, 1997.
The win was even more significant for Cooper, the regular-season MVP and the league’s top scorer (22.2 points per game), because her mother attended the game. Mary Cobbs had been battling breast cancer and was in a wheelchair.
“Goodness gracious, this is a dream come true,” Cooper told The Washington Post after being named the Championship MVP. “I have been tucked away in Europe for 11 years, and my mom hasn’t been able to share any special moments with me.
“The fact I won two MVP awards, the All-WNBA first team and now a championship in the inaugural season … I could not have imagined we would be so successful and it would be such a special moment for me and my mom. She gets a chance to concentrate on something good and positive, and it means the world to me that she can come and see me play.”
Little was expected of the Comets, who played most of their season without star guard Sheryl Swoopes, who was recovering from her pregnancy. But the team had the best record in the league (18-10) and had Swoopes in the rotation by season’s end.
”I’m sure it helped them to be on their home court,” Liberty forward Rebecca Lobo told The New York Times. ”If we are in a position to win the conference next year, I’m sure we will remember this.”
Houston welcomed a Liberty team that had beaten the Comets in three of their four regular-season matchups by a combined 12 points.
“This has been a thrill of a summertime,” Houston coach Van Chancellor told the Post. “I’m about as happy today as I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t want to say it’s better than the day I got married 25 years ago, because I have my wife with me, but it’s darn close. You can get married a lot of days, but you can’t win a championship every day.
“She’ll kill me tomorrow.”
The winner-take-all championship was a battle of two of the best defensive units in the league: Houston’s second-best team defense vs. New York’s third-best. The Comets converted just 40.7 percent of their field-goal attempts, with New York making just 38.3 percent.
Cooper was unstoppable from the start. In one drive in the lane, she managed to switch hands midair to kickstart a 7-2 run that gave the Comets a 15-7 advantage.
Vickie Johnson, who scored 12 points, countered Cooper’s fantastic drives with precision shooting in her midrange game and helped New York climb back from a nine-point deficit to within four, 28-24, going into the break.
”We felt that if we could come out in the second half and play tough in the first five minutes, that we would control the game,” Cooper told the New York Times.
Kym Hampton, who dropped 13 points and hauled in 13 rebounds, led the Liberty. At the start of the second half, Hampton cut Houston’s lead to two points with a layup to make it 28-26.
But Cooper and rookie forward Tina Thompson wanted no part of a close game, fueling an 8-0 run that gave the Comets a 40-28 lead. New York gave Houston more breathing room by scoring four points over a nine-minute, 24-second stretch in the second half.
Thompson scored 18 points and had six rebounds, and forward Tammy Jackson collected 11 boards and scored seven points.
”We have always talked about the first five minutes of games and the first five minutes of halves,” Chancellor, the WNBA Coach of the Year, told the Times. ”If you can take care of those first five minutes, you won’t have to worry about the last five minutes. We came out in the second half with a four-point lead, and I just wanted to play tough, and we did.”