HOUSTON COMETS

Grant Haney
Cynthia Cooper and Trophy.
Guard Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets raises the trophy as the WNBA's inaugural champions. The Houston Comets were one of the original eight teams of the Women's National Basketball Association. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

HOUSTON COMETS. The Houston Comets were one of eight teams created to compete in the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) inaugural season in 1997. Even though the team existed only a little more than a decade (1997–2008), the Comets were a dominating presence during the WNBA’s first few years and took home four consecutive championship trophies right from the start due in large part to powerhouse players like Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson. After four years of dominance in the league, the Comets began their descent and battled ownership change and financial losses. Though the Comets were disbanded after the 2008 season, the team has been credited with helping to lay the foundation for women in professional basketball.

In April 1996 the National Basketball Association’s board of governors approved the concept of a women’s league. In August 1996 Val Ackerman was named the first president of the WNBA, and two months later Sheryl Swoopes became the first player signed by the WNBA. In late October the WNBA announced the eight teams that would compete in the inaugural season: Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Utah. Since these teams were affiliated with their NBA counterparts, Leslie Alexander (owner of the Houston Rockets from 1993 to 2017) became the Comets’ first proprietor.

In January 1997 the WNBA began populating their teams in the form of an initial player allocation. Prior to the draft, the WNBA dispersed sixteen exceptional female athletes to the eight teams across the nation. As a result of the player allocation, the Comets were given Texas Tech All-American Sheryl Swoopes and former University of Southern California guard Cynthia Cooper. The WNBA intended to evenly distribute talent to allow for a competitive inaugural season. Val Ackerman later admitted, “None of us realized how good Cynthia Cooper was, because if we had, she would not have been assigned to the Comets.” To complete what became known as “The Big Three,” the Comets selected University of Southern California forward Tina Thompson as the number one overall draft pick which Houston was granted through a lottery system. As the team prepared for its first season, owner Leslie Alexander announced the hiring of former University of Mississippi girls’ basketball coach Van Chancellor to lead the team. 

Coach Van Chancellor.
Head Coach Van Chancellor led the Houston Comets from 1997 through 2006. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In an effort to avoid competing with the NBA’s viewership, the WNBA tipped off its season in June 1997 and spanned the summer months, ending in September. In the league’s debut season, the Comets, who played in Houston’s Compaq Center, managed the conference’s best record (18–10). Following an easy playoff victory against the Charlotte Sting, the Houston Comets beat the New York Liberty in the Final on August 30, 1997, to become WNBA Champions of the inaugural year.  

The 1998 season brought expansion to the league with the addition of two more teams. The Comets were dedicated to defending their title and keeping the trophy in Houston. That year, the team’s 27–3 record was not only the best in the WNBA that season, but as of 2018 remained the best winning percentage (at .900) of a professional basketball team in both the NBA and WNBA. Cynthia Cooper earned her second straight regular season Most Valuable Player Award (MVP), and Head Coach Van Chancellor was named WNBA Coach of the Year for the second time. Houston came out on top for a second year and beat the Phoenix Mercury for the championship, 2–1 in a three-game series. The championship success of the Comets generated fan interest in the Houston area. According to WNBA President Val Ackerman, “We gave them a head start on the initial assignment, but we did the best we could to spread things around, and I think it was a combination of a good initial assignment and then good fortune. They completely energized the city of Houston. The games were largely sellouts. They captivated the imagination of the city. There was great pride from ownership.”  

The 1999 season brought emotional challenges. In early February guard Kim Perrot was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite her absence on the court, she quickly became the team’s spiritual boost. Unfortunately, during the summer of 1999 her condition worsened, and on August 19, Perrot succumbed to her cancer. Following the death of their teammate, the women united as they prepared for the playoffs. Motivated by Cooper’s and Swoopes’s desire to win their third straight championship for Perrot, the Comets defeated the New York Liberty in Game 3 of the WNBA Championship series. According to Coach Chancellor, “After all this team has gone through, I don’t know any group of players that deserves this more. If you don’t think the spirit of Kim Perrot is not pulling this team through, you’re dead wrong.”

In May 2000 the Comets became the first-ever WNBA team invited to the White House. President Bill Clinton, who congratulated the team for their remarkable three-peat championship performance despite the gut-wrenching loss of Perrot, stated, “Adversity breaks some people. It caused you break records.” Following the 1999 season, Nike unveiled a shoe, known as the “Nike Air C14” or “Air Cooper,” personally designed for two-time MVP Comets guard Cynthia Cooper. Her teammate Sheryl Swoopes had previously become the first woman to obtain a Nike basketball shoe deal in 1995 during her time playing for Team USA in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics. 

Houston Comets Big Three.
The Big Three of the Houston Comets—Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson—celebrate their third of four consecutive WNBA Championships. All three were eventually inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

After surviving the emotional roller coaster of the 1999 season, the Comets secured their fourth consecutive WNBA Championship for the 2000 season in a series win (2–0) over the New York Liberty. In earning a record fourth consecutive championship as well as laying claim to the title of WNBA’s first-ever dynasty, the Comets became part of another piece of WNBA history. They were the first in league history to go undefeated (6–0) throughout the entire WNBA playoffs. Once again, the team was invited to the White House, this time by former Texas governor, President George W. Bush.      

The 2001 season held much promise but fell short of expectations. The team was devastated when Cynthia Cooper announced her retirement. The Comets suffered another blow when Sheryl Swoopes tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. Despite the team’s less than stellar regular season, Houston managed to secure its fifth consecutive trip to the WNBA playoffs. However, the Los Angeles Sparks defeated the Comets in the semifinal round and ended the streak of championship domination. 

In 2002 Sheryl Swoopes returned from her knee injury, and the team hoped to erase the memories of the prior season. During the 2002 season, several players enjoyed individual success, including Sheryl Swoopes, who won the WNBA’s MVP Award in 2002. Unfortunately, the Comets fell to the Utah Starzz in the first round of the playoffs.

Hopes were restored once again when Cynthia Cooper came out of retirement and returned for the 2003 season. The team set out to reclaim their throne as the most superior team in the WNBA but came up short in the conference playoffs against the Sacramento Monarchs. In the offseason Cooper retired from the WNBA for good. 

With a 13–21 record, in 2004 the Comets produced their first losing season and failed to qualify for the playoffs. They bounced back in the 2005 season with a 19–15 record and earned a return trip to the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference; Swoopes won her third MVP Award. However, the Sacramento Monarchs were the victors in the conference finals and went on to win the 2005 championship. The Comets reached the playoffs for the final time in 2006.

In October 2006 Comets owner Leslie Alexander confirmed that he was putting the WNBA’s most accomplished franchise up for sale. Houston furniture salesman, Hilton Koch, purchased the team for $10 million, and the sale was formally approved by the WNBA board of governors in late January 2007. Coach Van Chancellor resigned in early January 2007 before the new ownership officially took over. Assistant Coach Karleen Thompson was promoted to head coach for the 2007 season. 

Koch believed the acquisition of the Comets was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and felt strongly that the team would bounce back. Unfortunately, for only the second time in franchise history, the Comets missed the playoffs and posted a losing record of 13–21. As the 2007 season ended, Koch notified the team of his intentions to relocate the team’s home court from the spacious and luxurious Toyota Center, where they had played since the 2004 season, to the smaller and lesser-known Reliant Arena. By August 2008 the owner informed the league of his intention to place the team back on the market. WNBA President Donna Orender informed the Comets that the league would manage the team for the rest of the 2008 season. Yet, Orender made it clear to the team that if no buyer came forward, the league would have no other choice but to disband the Houston Comets following the 2008 season.

The Comets 2008 season did little to rectify the struggling franchise. On December 1, 2008, Donna Orender announced that the Comets would be disbanded, and existing players would be allotted to the league’s other franchises. News of the team’s end sent shock waves around the league and the city of Houston. Former player Cynthia Cooper commented, “This is disturbing news. This is a team that was an integral part of the WNBA. It is a team that helped establish the league, helped the league grow roots.” She added, “Houston and Texas in general are huge areas for basketball, and it is important that young women playing here have someone to look up to and know they have a league to play in.’ Three-time coach of the year and former head coach Van Chancellor echoed Cooper’s sentiments and said, “It’s a sad, sad, sad day for me.  I just feel bad for everybody.  I hate to see the city lose such a great franchise. I have so many memories.” He later added, “Houston is losing a big piece of its history.  The Houston Comets’ four championships will always be a big piece of WNBA history and a big piece of the city’s history.” To many of the Houston sports faithful, the disbanding of the Comets struck a nerve and seemed painstakingly familiar to the departure of the Houston Oilers for Nashville, Tennessee, in 1997.

For the Houston Comets, the team hit the ground running and made an eternal impact in women’s professional basketball between 1997 and 2000. Amidst the team’s championship run, the franchise’s attendance exceeded 9,500 and eclipsed well past 12,000 during their four year stint as WNBA champion. After winning their four consecutive championships, the Comets became only the fifth team in professional sports history to accomplish such a feat. In doing so, the team joined other sports royalty—the Boston Celtics (1959–66), New York Islanders (1980–83), New York Yankees (1936–39 and 1949–1953), and the Montreal Canadiens (1956–60 and 1976–79). As of 2018 the Comets were only one of two teams (the other was the Seattle Storm in 2010) in league history that went undefeated in the WNBA playoffs. The team’s four WNBA championships were tied with the Minnesota Lynx for most titles in WNBA history. Several members of the Comets have been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of fame: Coach Van Chancellor (2007), Cynthia Cooper (2010), Sheryl Swoopes (2016), and Tina Thompson (2018). 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Basketball-Reference.com: Houston Comets (https://www.basketball-reference.com/wnba/teams/HOU/), accessed March 7, 2019. History of the WNBA, WNBA.com (https://www.wnba.com/news/history-of-the-wnba-2002/). Accessed March 7, 2019. Houston Chronicle, July 15, 2004; February 1, 2007; August 8, 2008; December 1, 2008; September 14, 2013. Houston Comets Draft History (https://www.wnba.com/archive/wnba/history/comets_draft_history.html), accessed October 22, 2018). Joe Lemire, “Comets Flame Out,” Sports Illustrated, December 15, 2008. Rhiannon Walker, “Houston’s Comets, The Rise and Fall of theWNBA’s First Dynasty,” The Undefeated, October 18, 2016 (https://theundefeated.com/features/houstons-comets-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-wnbas-first-dynasty/), accessed October 23, 2018. WNBA History/Timeline (http://www.wnba.com/archive/wnba/about_us/wnba_history_timeline_2012_04_30.html), accessed October 21, 2018.

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Handbook of Texas Online, Grant Haney, "HOUSTON COMETS," accessed July 21, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/xocom.

Uploaded on March 12, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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