With help from son, Swoopes still on top of game

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- A little guy tugs on Sheryl Swoopes' shorts after the West All-Star team's practice Friday and asks for her autograph. He's not getting it for himself, though.

No, Swoopes' son, Jordan, is doing a favor for someone else at the Mohegan Sun Arena. But make no mistake: Jordan, 8, is his mom's No. 1 fan. The last few weeks, he was keeping close track on the Internet of the WNBA All-Star voting.

"He was saying, 'Mama, you're leading! Mama, You're leading! You're going to the All-Star Game! You're going to start!' " Swoopes said, laughing. "So he's keeping me filled in on everything that's going on."

Swoopes has been the leading vote-getter in five of the six WNBA All-Star Games -- the only one she missed was in 2001, when she was out for the season with a knee injury. Athletes sometimes talk about having done "all there is to do" in their sport, and in Swoopes' case that's absolutely true. She has won an NCAA title, four WNBA titles and three Olympic gold medals.

And Swoopes, who turned 34 in March, acknowledged that the idea of stepping away from playing basketball had crossed her mind in the past year. But what keeps motivating her isn't a "chase" for something she has never experienced before. Instead, it's a renewed love for the game, which has been spurred by a far greater love: that for her son.

"Every day he tells me 'Mama, you're great. You're my idol,' " Swoopes said. "I talked to him (in March) about retiring. He said, 'Why mom? You're still good.' "

Out of the mouths of babes, huh? Jordan's right: His mom is still one of the best in women's basketball. Earlier this week, I gave the nod for midseason MVP to Connecticut's Taj McWilliams-Franklin, also 34, but it could just as easily have gone to Swoopes.

And both women are here; they are two of the six players over age 30 who are among the 22 who'll compete in the league's All-Star Game (ABC, 4 p.m. ET) on Saturday. Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith, who turned 35 on March 1, is the oldest. Charlotte's Dawn Staley was 35 on May 4. The other two are Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie, 33, and Minnesota's Katie Smith, 31.

McWilliams-Franklin referred to herself as being part of the "all-Geritol team." Asked how she's still going strong at her "age," McWilliams-Franklin joked, "I try to avoid falling as much as possible."

But seriously, she said, "For me, this is what I do, and I always want to get better at it. For now, I think I've still got a few good games in me."

The over-30 group here has a lot to be proud of, particularly with how aches and pains can take a toll on a professional athlete.

Staley has always battled knee problems, but she endures. This year, what bothers her most is that Charlotte is faring so poorly. Griffith has had various injuries the past few years to her neck and shoulder, yet she's still one of the best post players in the league. Smith missed the end of last season with a knee injury, but has come back well this year and is just
11 points from reaching the 5,000-point plateau for her pro career. And Leslie has been playing despite a groin injury.

"It's been difficult," Leslie said Friday. "I just started feeling better the last week."

Swoopes and Leslie have been part of the WNBA since its inaugural season in 1997. You know who else has been "around" since the WNBA began? Jordan. He was born during that 1997 season, when Swoopes returned and played in
nine games.

"When I found out I was pregnant, I thought, 'How am I going to be able to come back and play in the WNBA?' " Swoopes said. "It makes me proud that I was able to come back and be successful, and still be a good parent."

Swoopes takes her son with her on the road most of the time, and that has been a benefit for both of them.

"Now he's at an age where he understands what his mom does," she said. "He's a great kid, a great traveler. And he helped me get the love back for the game. Last year, I went through a period where I said, 'I don't know if I want to do this anymore; I'm not enjoying it, it's not fun.'

"But being around him, and him loving the game as much as he does, helped me. He knows all the players in the league and appreciates the talent we have. And I think that helped me find the passion for the game again."

Swoopes was aware of the offseason chatter about whether the Comets would trade her. If she was, as she put it, "on my way out the door." But the first half of the WNBA season, in which she ranked second in the league in scoring (18.0 ppg) to L.A.'s Chamique Holdsclaw (19.4), has shown that Swoopes is nowhere close to leaving the building.

"I do still have it," Swoopes said, smiling. "I want to play this game, and now I'm enjoying it all over again."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.