(Mary Kate Ridgway/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sheryl Swoopes loves to garden. And not in the stereotypical, retiree sense. She’s the real deal. A Hall of Farmer, if you will. She and her husband have their own homestead. If they eat it, they grew it. Scarlet kale, buttercrunch lettuce, broccoli, onions, peppers, collard greens, green beans — and that’s just the salad bar.

“It never was something I thought I could do,” Swoopes tells Just Women’s Sports. “But to be able to walk out my back door every morning, walk to my garden and see what a tiny little seed has produced…”

She hesitated, letting out a deep breath.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment, honestly, that I’ve never felt through playing basketball.”

The basketball court used to be the safe haven for the three-time Olympic gold medalist. But now, at 51, Swoopes has traded in her Nikes for rain boots and yellow-daisy Crocs. Her hands that used to whip the ball back and forth for a killer crosser, now house gardening gloves so the thorns won’t prick during harvest.

“It kind of takes me back to my childhood,” Swoopes says. The vast acres of land in her hometown of Brownsfield, Texas, with a population of less than 10,000, seem to stretch on endlessly. Deliveries come via tractors. The nearest Target is a 40-minute drive away. Swoopes originally dreamed of being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader or even a flight attendant. But growing up hooping with her brothers outside, basketball ended up being her ticket out of Terry County.

And yet, she came back home.

“I’ve lived in the big city,” Swoopes says, listing the places she resided during her pro career. “Houston, Chicago, Seattle — I’ve done that.”

But this Texas gal is quick to remind you that she’s a farm girl at heart. Brownfield planted the seed from which the Sheryl Swoopes that we know and love sprouted. Air Swoopes. The Female Michael Jordan. The first-ever player signed to the WNBA.

The city’s center has roots that touch a number of milestones in Swoopes’ career. It’s less than a mile away from Brownfield High School, where Swoopes won the 1988 state title. It’s 29 miles away from South Plains College, the JUCO where Swoopes still holds the record for the most points scored in a season (1,620). It’s 37 miles away from Texas Tech University, where she won the 1993 NCAA championship and her record of 47 points in the title game still holds strong. And it’s 500 miles away from Compaq Center, the former Houston Comets’ arena, where she celebrated six All-Star selections, four consecutive WNBA championships from 1997 to 2000 and three MVP awards.

Swoopes in Game 3 of the 1999 WNBA Finals, leading to the third of her four titles with the Houston Comets. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Being back home in Brownfield, tending to her garden, is right where Swoopes wants to be.

“I get excited when I talk about it,” she says. Her smile is so big, you can hear it in her voice over the phone. “But the real thing is,” Swoopes adds, “now, it’s not just about me.” Gardening and homesteading are things she and her husband, Chris Tellison, enjoy doing together.

“It’s prideful,” says Tellison, who grew up in inner-city Houston. “When you sit down, eating greens and you grew them, there’s a sense of pride. There’s a sense of fulfillment.”

Neither of them has prior experience, but throughout this process, they’re learning together. “It’s a passion we both have,” Swoopes says, “to continue to educate ourselves as much as trying to educate everybody else.”

And they’re not keeping the newfound knowledge to themselves. Swoopes has turned their passion into a nonprofit. They cooked up the name “Back to Our Roots,” and their YouTube channel serves as a hub of vlog content. The logo shows Swoopes spinning an egg on her index finger like a basketball, and the catchy auto-tuned theme song rhymes the line “We’re getting back to our roots” with “Come farm with Sheryl Swoopes.”

In these weekly 10- to 15-minute videos, POV camera shots give detailed tours of their garden. That includes “how-to” videos like making a chicken brooder, a “meat haul” showing off the beef their first-purchased cow produced and updates on their fig tree, FeFe.

“It was really important to me to find another way to give back to my African American community. We decided to do that through gardening and teaching our youth — and even adults — the importance of eating good nutrition and learning how to grow your own food,” Swoopes says. “As boring as that may sound to some people, that space gives me such peace and pleasure.”

The content is the antithesis of boring. Comments continually pour in from fellow Black homesteaders offering support, guidance, encouragement and thank yous. It’s different from her basketball stardom and highlight reels, she knows. But Swoopes still believes she’s making a difference.

“It’s just in a different way,” she says. “Being able to teach our kids something new and something they’re not being taught enough of, that’s definitely something that’s important to me.”

Back to Our Roots goes beyond gardening, though. Swoopes has a vision of allowing the local African American community to travel back to Africa; through sponsorships, they would be able to explore the land of their ancestors and learn about the history and heritage of where they come from. Growing your own food is a large part of African culture, but Swoopes feels it’s become a lost practice among today’s youth.

“And even adults,” she says, adding that her grandmother had a neighborhood fruit stand while she was young, but the true significance of growing your own fresh fruits and vegetables wasn’t instilled in her then. “There’s so much stuff I’ve learned about myself and where I come from that I didn’t know when I was growing up,” she explains. “It lit a fire in me that makes me want to learn more and be able to pass that on to my kids and other kids who haven’t been taught it.”

In order to be eligible to participate in Back to Our Roots’ nonprofit, African American high school students (and adult volunteers) must write an essay explaining what they know about Africa and, if chosen, what they’re hoping to absorb from the overseas field trip. For most of the African diaspora, it’s unknown exactly which part of the continent their family’s lineage stems from. Swoopes says they’re partnering with companies to offer DNA genetic testing, so when the participants arrive in Africa with Back to Our Roots, they’ll have a better idea of their heritage.

“We’ll be going to Ghana and teaming up with people there who can talk to the kids about their ancestry,” Swoopes says, painting a vivid picture. The students will have a real opportunity to experience their rich African culture, and the dream is that it’s not a one-time visit. “Hopefully,” Swoopes adds, “they’ll continue to want to learn more and more about the motherland.”

The first trip has been on pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Swoopes remains laser-focused on this passion project and how she can incorporate hoops, too.

“For me, basketball is one of those languages every country speaks,” she says, adding that she envisions student basketball camps and tournaments as a part of her nonprofit. “Basketball has allowed me to connect to so many people all over the world. That’s why, with Back to Our Roots, basketball will of course be a part of it.”

***

“Oo, that’s tough!” Sheryl Swoopes’ voice is booming through the mic. She’s color commentating a game for Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season and just witnessed Danni McCray absorb a double team, spin and shoot a fadeaway jumper. The move was reminiscent of Swoopes in her prime. And the first season of AU pro hoops in February reminded Swoopes of another league’s start.

“The atmosphere was so electric,” Swoopes says. “It definitely reminded me of when the W first started.”

As a fan, the five-week season wasn’t nearly enough, but it gave viewers an opportunity to see the untapped talent outside of the 144 roster spots in the WNBA. It was thrilling to witness, in real-time, the growth of the women’s game.

“I loved doing the games and being a part of it. It’s given players another opportunity to play professional basketball. That’s the part that makes me feel good,” Swoopes says. “I think it’s all our responsibility to do our part to help grow the game. I think it would be great for the WNBA to add more teams because it’s needed. There’s so much talent out there that’s not getting noticed because there aren’t enough teams and there aren’t enough roster spots.”

Swoopes and Dawn Staley share a laugh with Sue Bird at the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game. (Mary Kate Ridgway/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 1997, when Swoopes and the first draftees of the WNBA entered onto the scene, they were bona fide celebrities. Then, when Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and the Houston Comets won the league’s first four championships, they became royalty.

“Swoopes was the original two-way player,” says Dawn Staley, Hall of Famer and Swoopes’ Olympic teammate. Staley described her skill set as unmatched, and when they took the court together, winning was the only option.

“She emerged on the scene and quickly became a household name, and when you got the opportunity to see her play, she did not disappoint,” Staley adds. “Swoopes was as good as advertised. She changed the game.”

But since Swoopes’ final season in 2011, she expressed that their involvement with the league has been little to none (though they did sit courtside together during the WNBA All-Star Game in Chicago earlier this month). Using her green thumb, Swoopes offers some advice: “The WNBA still has a lot of Houston Comets fans, and even though the Comets no longer have a team, [the fans] continue to follow the league. So to me, it would do the league a great service for them to find a way to get some Houston Comets involved with the league. And that to me would definitely help its growth. Hell, I’d love to see the Comets come back to Houston!

“They have to continue to find ways to keep people involved, get former players involved,” she adds. “And continue to find interesting ways to gain more fans.”

In other words, they have to keep planting more seeds.

“You got to plant seeds and you got to continue to water them,” Swoopes says. “You can’t forget about those old plants, you know what I mean?” The new seeds — the rookies, the draftees, the signees from Athletes Unlimited — are wonderful and necessary. But as a gardener, you have to keep the entire crop in perspective.

“If you forget about your old plants that continue to produce food for you, eventually those old plants are going to die. Former players, such as myself, who continue to do everything in our power to talk about the league, promote the league, help grow the game, but at some point, if we feel like it’s not appreciated or we’re not being recognized or used enough, then we will just move on to something else.”

Real fans know what Swoopes has done for the game. The first player signed; the first champion; the first player to have a kid and come back; the first player to get a triple-double. She’s a Hall of Famer and a member of the W25. When it’s all said and done, she’ll be one of the greatest to ever do it.

Rapper Shavone Charles reminded everyone of this when she released the tribute song “Sheryl Swoopes” in partnership with Spotify during last year’s Women’s History Month.

Sheryl Swoopes with the air game
Might add Nike to my last name

Not too many WNBA players have songs dedicated to them. Not many NBA players either. “Sheryl Swoopes” was a headliner for Spotify’s first-ever Queen playlist, which honored women who’ve had an impact on culture.

Shoot like Sheryl Swoopes, yeah
Shoot like Sheryl Swoopes, yeah
Double Nike swoosh, yeah
Car ain’t got no roof, yeah
There go Sheryl Swoopes, yeah
Yeah, she bad, yeah
Gettin’ all them bags, yeah
Triple-double racks, yeah

“It’s time to give Sheryl her flowers, not only for her impact in sports but for her unapologetic legacy, as a trailblazer in fashion and culture,” said Shavone, referencing Swoopes being the first female hooper to have their own signature shoe.

It is time we give Swoopes her flowers. She deserves them, undoubtedly. But if the flowers don’t come from the places she helped make prominent , don’t worry. She’ll just plant her own.

Editor’s Note: This story is a part of the Just Women’s Sports inaugural Legends Collection. Check out our stories on the other legends, Billie Jean King and Brandi Chastain.

Jordan Ligons is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. She is also the host of Jordan’s “Take it From LA” series, the co-host of “Spinsters” and a WNBA host for “Buckets.” Follow her on Twitter @_jordanligons.