BY BRIAN NIELSEN
JG-TC Sports Editor
CHARLESTON – Sheryl Swoopes started the war of words between head coaches.
“She was a pest,” Swoopes said of Eastern Illinois women’s basketball coach Debbie Black. “That’s what I remember.”
Relayed the comment, Black broke into laughter.
“That’s a compliment,” the EIU coach said.
Yes, a compliment is how Swoopes meant it as the two former WNBA All-Stars now are to clash again as first-year head coaches when Black’s 0-3 EIU Panthers play host to Swoopes’ 1-2 Loyola team in today’s 7 p.m. non-conference game at Lantz Arena.
Listed at 5-foot-2 1/2 , Black was the shortest player in the WNBA during her 1999-2005 pro playing career and was named the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2001.
“She was one of those players you hated to play against but really respected,” Swoopes said. “When someone asks if they are too short I use an example of people who played and Debbie Black is one of those players along with Dawn Staley and a former teammate Kim Perrot who passed away.
“Debbie was just a hard-worker. There was never too big of a challenge. She was always a leader. Those were qualities you look for. There is no doubt in my mind she will turn the program around.”
Anyone who remotely follows women’s basketball knows of Swoopes, who scored 47 points leading Texas Tech to an 84-82 win over Ohio State in the 1993 NCAA national championship game and then was the first player drafted when the WNBA was formed in 1997.
She was a three-time WNBA Most Valuable Player and three-time Defensive Player of the Year
“I think of a terrific player,” Black said of Swoopes. “A terrific defensive player. She had a little Michael Jordan in her. I think they won four championships in Houston. She was a competitor.
“A couple of times I had to guard her. She was very difficult to play against. She was a pull-up jump shooter. She could get a layup. She was a winner.”
Neither former star player is finding instant success in her first coaching season.
But Swoopes is not buying the adage that a great player cannot become a successful coach.
“You know, I never came into this job expecting my players to be like me,” said the Loyola coach, whose only previous experience on the bench was as an assistant coach at Mercer Island High School in 2010 before serving as a television analyst for Texas Tech women’s games last season. “For one thing, no two players are ever alike. I just look for the effort, the energy, the heart. I do at times wonder why they can’t see things like I have or have the passion I have. But I have never expected them to be the player I was. I like for them to be individuals and themselves.”
Black, who already has eight years of coaching experience as an assistant at Ohio State, does not consider her player-to-coach transition to be as difficult as that for Swoopes.
“Not so much for me because I had to do it the hard way,” the EIU coach said. “I kind of look like our team the same way. I wasn’t like Sheryl Swoopes. They look at me and it’s more like if she can do it. . .I’m sort of the norm where which makes it easier.”
Now Black’s EIU team that has been close at halftime at all three of its games before losing by double figures is trying to right its ship.
“We try to simulate practice and games,” Black said. “We take them in for 15 minutes and bring them back out. I don’t know what it is. We started doing that before the last game. As coaches you try to find out what is different.”
The Panthers trailed Evansville 28-21 at halftime before losing their season opener 81-46, was behind Indiana State 25-23 and then lost 65-63 and was behind Saint Louis 37-35 before losing 71-52.
“They have some size,” Swoopes said of the Panthers. “I definitely see areas where we are stronger than they are and areas where they are stronger than we are. Their size is one of those.”
Loyola, now a Missouri Valley Conference member, played its first three games as part of the Women’s Preseason NIT at home.
The Ramblers went 1-2 losing to Louisville 101-54, defeating IPFW 82-61 and losing to Idaho 62-60.
Now players from both teams are ready to compete in this game whose main storyline is the coaches.
“It will be interesting,” Black said. “I don’t think it’s Sheryl against me but it’s Eastern against Loyola. But we’d both like to step out on the court.”
Contact Nielsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-238-6856.