Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WNBA Team Capsules: 1997 Houston Comets

1997 Houston Comets

W/L: 18-10, first in Eastern Conference
Pythagorean W/L: 22-6
Points Scored Per Game: 71.8
Points Allowed Per Game: 65.5


PG: Kim Perrot
SG: Cynthia Cooper
SF: Janeth Arcain
PF: Tina Thompson
C: Wanda Guyton

Last of the 1997 Comets to leave: Tina Thompson remained with the Comets until it was disbanded after the 2008 season. She was the only Comets player to play in each of the 12 seasons of the Houston Comets.

Last survivor: Tina Thompson is still playing in the WNBA, to begin playing with the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2009 season.

The Comets were the very first WNBA champions, and not only that, the Comets defined the WNBA from 1997 to 2000, where they won four straight championships. Fran Harris, a player on the 1997 Comets team, went to to write a book called "Summer Madness" about that first WNBA season.

I suspect - strongly - that David Stern and the WNBA would like to promote the myth that the WNBA was the first women's professional league, that before the WNBA came along there was nothing but desert and tumbleweed as far as women's pro basketball was concerned. (For example, the WNBA has an opportunity to honor the All-American Red Heads at the All Star Game in 2009, but the WNBA comes off as if it doesn't care about the history of the game before they were there.) What many don't realize is that there was already a pro league in existence - the ABL - and players were being forced to choose one league or the other, with agents trying to convince players not to sign with the ABL and sign with the new WNBA instead.

Finding out about the old Comets is an interesting task. Most newspaper articles about the Comets are either

a) Wow, isn't it amazing that women are playing basketball in Houston? God bless the WNBA, or
b) The Comets have won the first WNBA championship.

There really isn't much in between. So we have no idea as to how the 1997 season progressed for the Comets, or what were its highs or lows.

As it turns out, it was the New York Liberty that got the jumpstart in the season, starting off with winning its first seven games and 10 of its first 12 games. Houston at least kept a winning record, with Charlotte and Cleveland sinking below .500 initially - they would catch up. It turned out that every single team in the East would have a .500 or better record, and three of those teams would go to the playoffs, which were reserved for the two conference winners and the two best remaining teams.

Part of the problem was that Sheryl Swoopes of the Comets had given birth that year and that Houston initially struggled without her. She didn't come back until August 7 and after her first three games in a Comets uniform she had nothing to show for it. She would finally score 21 points against the Utah Starzz on August 13 to bring the Comets record to 16-7 and finally bump them ahead of the Liberty.

The Comets still had some work to do. In 1997, the semifinals and finals would be one game apiece. They found themselves playing against the Charlotte Sting in the first semifinal, and Wanda Guyton was injured. However, Cooper had 31 points for the Comets as they rolled over the Sting 70-54 at home.

This set up a Comets-Liberty final, as New York defeated Western Conference champion Phoenix in the other semifinal game. New York, which had struggled at the end of the year, found themselves in Houston to take on their rivals. New York had won three of the four games that year against Houston, and had reason to feel confident. Unfortunately, the 1997 WNBA Title Game mirrored New York's season - start out strong, and stumble at the end.

By the second half, Liberty C Rebecca Lobo was being checked by a dentist after she received an elbow in the mouth from Tina Thompson. The Comets won 65-51 and celebrated the first of their four championships.

Interesting Fact: The first president of the WNBA, Val Ackerman, predicted (so she says) that she thought attendance for WNBA games would be about 4,000 per year. If so, that prediction has been well exceed in each of the years of the WNBA's existence.


pilight said...

You need to read Cynthia Cooper's book "She Got Game" if you want some insight on the early Comets.

Rebecca said...

And Kelly Whiteside's WNBA: A Celebration. I think she also discusses the legend of "Coop, play your game." VanChan finally finding a point guard he liked might have had more to do with the surge, though.

You might also want to ask around the boards about specific teams in specific years.