What a week for women’s sports in Chicago.
We found out that two big names in basketball will now be settling here ... and trying to win here, too.
WNBA and Olympic legend Sheryl Swoopes held a news conference in Rogers Park on Monday to announce that she is the new women’s basketball coach at Loyola University.
Later that day, the Chicago Sky made Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne, one of the most talked about college players in years, the second pick in the WNBA draft.
Delle Donne is expected to immediately help the Sky, which is still in search of its first playoff berth. She is 6-feet-5, can shoot from the outside and handle the ball just as effectively as she can score and battle for rebounds in the paint.
She has often been called the female Dirk Nowitzki, the versatile 7-foot forward of the Dallas Mavericks.
“She’s the missing piece. She really complements the other players we already have and she fills our biggest need,” Sky head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman said about Delle Donne. “I had my mind made up about Elena a couple of months ago. You do your homework about it early because this is one of the most important picks in franchise history.
“We’ve been watching Elena since she was a teenager. She’s a special player with a special skills set that isn’t really duplicated in the women’s game. Even over in Europe, I haven’t seen anyone like her. She’s different. She’s unique.”
And she could be a game-changer, as could her draft mates.
Delle Donne, Baylor’s Brittney Griner (taken by the Phoenix Mercury with the No. 1 pick) and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock, No. 3), head up what is widely considered the best draft class in WNBA history. The “Big Three” are being counted on to take the WNBA to the next level, both on and off the court.
“This has been a dream ever since I started playing basketball. I wanted to play it professionally and I’ve had my eye on the WNBA,” Delle Donne said on draft night. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a league to go play in after college. That’s a big thank you to the women before me who made this possible.”
Women such as Swoopes.
Part of the old guard that put the WNBA on the map in the first place, Swoopes was the very first player signed by the WNBA — and among the first three “charter” or “centerpiece” players to be placed on WNBA teams. She was allocated to the Houston Comets, while Lisa Leslie was sent to the Los Angeles Sparks and Rebecca Lobo was sent to the New York Liberty.
Swoopes went on to win four WNBA championships with the Comets, including the first in league history in 1997. She is a six-time WNBA all-star and won the league’s most valuable player award three times. She also is a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
A household name in the world of women’s basketball, Swoopes says she is going to use her fame to her advantage in her new job.
“I think it helps a lot with recruiting, I really do,” Swoopes said. “I will have opportunities to walk into parents’ homes that a lot of other people couldn’t do. To be able to recruit those types of players is huge. I know I have to get on the road and work, but I want to do that. If I didn’t, I would have never applied for the job. I know that recruiting is the biggest part of this game, and I think it (Swoopes’ famous name) will help.”
Swoopes is also hoping that her name will raise awareness of the Loyola program within the community and with potential fans.
“I think it’s sad that this team averages 500 fans a game,” Swoopes said. “I have an agenda to get out there in the community more and promote the program and raise the attendance. I want people to understand who we are and what we’re about and what we’re representing. We’re going to do more things with little kids and with volunteering and with community service.
“All of those things are important in building the type of program that you want to be successful.”
Two of the biggest predraft concerns about Delle Donne were her Lyme Disease and her potential reluctance to leave home, even for professional basketball.
Delle Donne, who missed some games this season when her Lyme Disease flared up, originally signed with Connecticut out of high school, but left campus after only one day because she missed her family, particularly her disabled sister.
That’s how the Delaware native wound up playing for a Blue Hens basketball program that was far removed from the national radar before her arrival.
Many have wondered if Delle Donne would again have trouble moving away from home, even for a WNBA opportunity. Sky general manager and head coach Pokey Chatman isn’t worried about that, or the Lyme Disease.
“We’ve been able to talk to her doctors and she is controlling (the Lyme Disease) now with medication,” Chatman said. “We’ve also talked to all the people who have coached Elena and we’ve heard all good things about how she’s grown as a person over the years and about how serious she is about basketball, about her work ethic and her focus.
“We got really good feedback and just felt really comfortable with her.”
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