How the late, great Kim Perrot keeps the Houston Comets’ legacy alive
The story of the WNBA’s first dynasty continues to be told at a children’s cancer hospital in Houston
When you arrive at the Toyota Center, there’s a sculpture of Houston Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon outside of the arena. Inside, on the upper level, you can learn about the franchise’s history and star players. And when you tilt your head up to the rafters, you’ll find banners honoring the team’s legends.
It’s in these rafters where you’ll also find banners belonging to the Houston Comets, the WNBA’s first dynasty. It’s one of the few places where the next generation of inquisitive Houston basketball fans can learn about the Comets franchise, which sold out arenas and held down the city as the Rockets sank into mediocrity in the late-’90s.
While today’s WNBA fans are locked into the legacies of the league’s active four-championship franchises — the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm, which secured its fourth title Tuesday night after sweeping the Las Vegas Aces – this new generation of fans may be unaware of who first carried the crown.
It’s been 20 years since the Comets electrified the city of Houston by winning their fourth straight and final WNBA championship in 2000. It’s been 12 years since the franchise was dissolved, leaving the Rockets as the only professional basketball team in the area.
In a city that housed the WNBA’s only four-peat champions, which, at its peak, flourished as one of the greatest franchises in professional sports, the Comets’ physical footprint teeters in nonexistence – except for one site housed just 10 minutes away from the arena.
Located on the second floor of the MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston is Kim’s Place, a recreational center named after late Comets point guard Kim Perrot, who died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 32. For more than 15 years, it has served as a safe space for thousands of teen and young adult patients.
It’s through Perrot’s story that the Comets’ legacy continues to be told in Houston.
“There is a possibility our story could go away,” WNBA Hall of Famer and Perrot’s former Comets teammate Tina Thompson said, “but yet Kim’s Place is one of the few places telling a story that should always have the opportunity to be told.”
On a spring weekend in Houston in 1997, a nervous excitement filled the Comets’ practice facility. Hundreds of WNBA hopefuls had packed the gymnasium for a shot at joining the newly formed franchise looking to award a coveted roster spot as it readied for the league’s inaugural season.
The franchise’s foundation had been determined earlier that spring. Thompson, a dominant forward out of the University of Southern California, was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the collegiate draft. Former Naismith college player of the year and recent Olympic gold medal winner Sheryl Swoopes, along with former USC standout Cynthia Cooper, had been allocated to the franchise.
Swoopes, Cooper and Thompson attended the tryout, popping in and out over the course of the weekend as head coach Van Chancellor narrowed the field.
One player, a guard, stuck out. It was Perrot. But the reason wasn’t necessarily due to her on-court play.
“She was helping out other players at the tryout,” Thompson said. “Everyone else was so serious and so competitive and literally trying to knock people off so they could move up the rank. If she’d pass the ball to a player who fumbled it she’d say, ‘It’s all right, you’ll catch the next one.’ The players she was giving positive energy to, they were caught off guard.”
A product of the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Perrot had been one of the top scorers in college basketball. She led the nation in scoring her senior season, averaging 30.1 points per game, and remains the school’s all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals. She played overseas for six seasons in France, Germany, Sweden and Israel. After going undrafted in 1997, she attended the tryout.
Chancellor believed Perrot, who stood just 5-foot-5, to be too small. But Swoopes, Cooper and Thompson all lobbied for Perrot and ultimately convinced Chancellor to select her.
Said Thompson of the Comets’ core trio: “It was a unanimous decision.”
While Perrot made her mark as a scorer early in her professional career, she developed a reputation on the Comets for her tenacity on defense. In 1998, Perrot finished second in the league in steals, fourth in the league in defensive win shares and second behind Teresa Weatherspoon in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Her spirited play made her a favorite among Comets fans.
By the end of the ’98 season, she had become one of the most complete guards in the league, averaging 8.5 points, 4.7 assists, 2.8 steals and 3.1 rebounds per game, all of which were improvements from her inaugural season.
“She just played with so much energy, that’s what I really remember of her — just how hard she played,” said Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, who played against Perrot in 1998 as a member of the Detroit Shock. “She was doing all the little things. Great defensive player. Pushing the tempo. Her competitive spirit and her will to win — that’s what I remember most.
“Everyone always talks about their superstars, but Kim was obviously a vital part in bringing them a championship.”
On a team with four different players (Swoopes, Cooper, Thompson and Janeth Arcain) who would finish their careers with inductions into either the Naismith Hall of Fame, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame or both, it was Perrot who was the glue and floor leader of the team.
Thompson said Perrot had an ability to deliver hard truths to her teammates in a way that showed patience and invoked trust.
“She just had a way of communicating and getting to people in a way where their guards would come down,” Thompson said. “It’s just a gift that she just had.”
But the following year, on Feb. 22, 1999, Perrot announced the unthinkable: She had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Tests done at MD Anderson revealed the lung cancer had also spread to Perrot’s brain.
In a span of weeks, Perrot had gone from overcoming the odds to reach her professional dream to reentering the ring to now fight for her life.
“I’ve always had to battle. And this is just another battle,” Perrot said during her news conference in 1999.
“We didn’t take it well,” said Thompson upon learning of Perrot’s diagnosis. “It’s probably some of the toughest news I ever received in my life.
“We all kind of came from circumstances where our dreams of basketball worked out a lot sooner. Kim had kind of been fighting for this for a really long time. This opportunity for her was life-changing. It kind of being taken away from her when she was just getting started is just for me one of those life things that I don’t understand.”
The Comets dedicated their season to Perrot. Fans created posters, players wore patches with Perrot’s No. 10. Banners and T-shirts served as constant reminders of Perrot’s impact on the franchise.
But the Comets’ 1999 season, Thompson said, was discombobulated and an emotional mess. The team was missing Perrot during integral moments in the season when it would normally rely on her.
Still, Perrot, who watched the Comets’ games from afar, did her best to stay connected to the team, even while undergoing treatment. On one occasion, Perrot saw Thompson not playing like herself on the court and called Thompson while in Mexico undergoing an alternative treatment for her cancer.
“She got on the phone and she was herself,” said Thompson, who distinctly recalls the difficulty in having a conversation with one of her close friends. “Here she was talking to me about expectation, showing up, being the best version of myself, and I’m on the other side holding the phone with one hand and then with the other hand I’m covering my mouth because I’m bawling uncontrollably. …
“I instantly kind of snap out of it because she is calling to help me and support me while fighting for her life. It’s who she is, it’s who she was.”
On Aug. 19, 1999, Perrot would lose her battle with cancer.
Thompson doesn’t remember much about the regular-season game the Comets played the next day. She doesn’t remember who they played. She doesn’t remember the score, or even if the Comets won the game.
“All I can remember is a lot of us crying,” she said.
The Comets would take the floor without Cooper, Perrot’s best friend, who had been by her side. It was the first game Cooper would miss in her WNBA career.
When the Comets celebrated their third straight WNBA title in September, defeating the New York Liberty in a decisive Game 3, Cooper famously stood atop the scorer’s table at Compaq Center and held up Perrot’s No. 10 jersey. On the jumbotron above, a message read: “No. 3 for No. 10.”
“I have to say we really wanted to win it for Kim,” Cooper told the sellout crowd, “This is in memory of Kim; this is in tribute to Kim.”
When Perrot was a patient at MD Anderson, she noticed that while she was in treatment, there was no place within the facility to make connections with others in her age group. There was no place to hang out between treatments, speak to other patients, reestablish a sense of normalcy.
“That age range, 13-30, was the awkward place where they didn’t have a place to fit in,” said Kevin Long, director of pediatric operations at MD Anderson.
In 2004, Kim’s Place, thanks in part to a substantial contribution from the Rockets and the Clutch City Foundation, was built with a mission to fulfill Perrot’s wish and create a safe space to serve the hospital’s adolescent and young adult community. Only patients between the ages of 13 and 30 and their siblings are permitted to use the space.
“The second you walk in, you’re not in the hospital anymore,” said Alexa Jett, whose world was turned upside down in January 2017 when she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer at the age of 25.
Jett would be treated on the adult side of the oncology department of MD Anderson, where she’d travel four hours from East Texas, a week at a time, to undergo tests and treatment. She would be declared cancer-free in December 2017 but was diagnosed with a recurrence two years later.
Oftentimes in waiting rooms, she’d be joined by other patients who were older than her by decades. In search of other patients in her age group, she decided to visit Kim’s Place, which she had previously heard about but never had the opportunity to see.
For the first time in her experience at MD Anderson, Jett was able to converse with other patients that included discussions more common among her peers: celebrities, music and video games.
The space, in need of a modernized update, was recently renovated and reopened in January 2019 on what would have been Perrot’s 51st birthday. The event was attended by patients, faculty as well as members of Perrot’s family, Cooper, Swoopes and Chancellor. According to Long, Kim’s Place is one of the most popular spaces among patients.
As soon as you step foot into the Kim’s Place facility, you’re presented with Perrot’s story. WNBA basketballs flank the entrance, orange-rimmed trash cans mimicking basketball hoops sit against the wall. On the other side of the entrance doors hangs a legacy wall displaying photos of Perrot. On the top right corner, Perrot is pictured cutting the net following a Comets championship. In the left corner, an on-court photo with Swoopes and Cooper. The rest of the wall is covered in quotes from Perrot.
“We’ve done our best to make sure that everyone who walks through those doors knows why it’s called Kim’s Place,” Long said.
Throughout the space are a pool table, air hockey table, arcade games and, of course, a hoops machine. But the space is clearly a tribute to Perrot’s legacy. On one side of the room hangs a framed Perrot No. 10 jersey. Set above an activity space is a nine-window Comets memorabilia case highlighting the team’s heyday. Comet collectibles from a Special K cereal box featuring Thompson, Swoopes and Cooper to a Comets lunch box, bobbleheads to championship hats and mugs adorn the wall, which also includes several signed items by Perrot.
For Jett, Perrot’s story is one of inspiration and serves as an important reminder for young adults that cancer can impact anyone, even the world’s top athletes.
“Young adults who have cancer, we don’t have as big a platform as I think we should. I love that Kim’s Place gets her story to shine and it shows that even you can be with the WNBA and you can still get cancer,” Jett said. “That to me is so helpful because sometimes, and I know a lot of other young adults feel this way too, they think ‘did I do something wrong?’ The fact that her story – that she went through what she did – I find it touching, I find it inspiring, I find it incredible.”
Jett said she hadn’t known much about the WNBA before learning about Perrot. After frequenting Kim’s Place, she went on YouTube to watch old game tapes of Perrot and the Comets.
For most patients who step into Kim’s Place, many were either too young or weren’t born when the Comets made their title run. Long said the space is not only a great place to hang out, but it also doubles as a historical site for the new generation, many of whom come from all over the country to be treated at the hospital.
“It’s amazing when people come in, especially young people, they’ve never heard of the Houston Comets,” Long said. “I’m old enough to remember. I remember all these players. A lot of the younger kids don’t. For them to be able to see it and recognize that a Houston sports team was so successful … is really supercool. It’s an opportunity to share that with people who now will be able to understand the Houston Comets organization and what it meant to the city.”
For Thompson, Kim’s Place remains an overwhelming space, too poignant a reminder of a friendship so abruptly lost. Still, decades after Perrot’s death, ripe emotion overcomes Thompson when speaking about her.
But Thompson finds comfort in knowing that her forever teammate, even decades after she died, has the ability to continue to impact and connect other lives the way she did with the Comets team years ago.
“I think the really cool thing about it is it’s helping people, which is what Kim always and forever did. It’s very true to her person,” Thompson said. “Even with her physically not being present in this world, she’s still very much being exactly who she is. I love that about it.”
And while Perrot continues to help hundreds of patients and families find joy at MD Anderson, she also continues to uplift her teammates by keeping the Comets’ legacy alive through the space.
Perrot, one of the final additions to a team of superstars, was the piece that held it all together.
“Now that our franchise has folded, she is still kind of taking care of us, putting us on her really small shoulders but doing it in such a big way,” Thompson said. “Through her, the story of the Comets and who we are is constant.”