When Cynthia Cooper was a teenager playing pickup basketball on the courts of South Central L.A., guys would take one look at her and laugh. "They felt I was a girl who didn't have any skills," she recalls. But once she drained a few jump shots and faked a few guys out of their sneakers, the dissing would dissolve. "It got to be when I went out there, I was the first person chosen. It was, 'Hey, I got Coop.' "
Now everyone wishes they had Coop. Last year, Cooper, 35, led the Houston Comets to the Women's National Basketball Association championship in the league's first season. The 5'10", 150-lb. shooting guard also led the league in scoring—and wrested the Most Valuable Player award away from more publicized stars like Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo. With the new season already under way, Cooper is looking for more of the same. "She's like the female Michael Jordan," says friend and sports-marketing consultant Pookey Wigington, 31. "Her game just shines so much."
As the unofficial guardian of seven nieces and nephews ranging from 4 to 18, she may qualify as another kind of MVP: Most Valuable Parent. "I really feel like it's important for family to stick together and help one another out," she says.
Cooper is familiar with big households. She was the fifth of eight children of Mary Cobbs, a bus company employee, and Everett Cooper, a factory worker in L.A., who divorced when Cynthia was 6. Her mother ran a tight ship. "Academics were very important," says Cooper. "I couldn't run track or play basketball unless my grades were together."
After a stellar college career, she played professionally in Spain and Italy for 11 years, since there was no pro ball for women in the U.S. Homesickness proved more of a problem than opponents. "I'd score 60 points," says Cooper, who was top scorer wherever she played, "then come home to the phone."
So when the WNBA offered her a contract, she didn't hesitate. It gave her a chance to return full-time to her off-season home, a four-bedroom redbrick Georgian in Sugar Land, Texas, a Houston suburb. It also gave her a chance to return to the brood she had been assembling since she began playing professionally. While some of her seven siblings have been successful, others have struggled—and Cooper has taken their children under her wing: She cares for three of kid sister Lisa Cooper's children—Tyrone Williams, 12, and Antonisha and Anthony Campbell, 11 and 5. "In the tough moments of my sister's life, I really wanted to be there," says Cooper, "and at the same time give the kids a chance to have a future." Rounding out team Cooper are Brenda McNeal, 18, daughter of Cooper's sister Drena Cooper; Kenneth, 7, and Denecheo Cobbs, 5, offspring of Cooper's oldest brother, Kenneth Cobbs; and Tyquon Fulton, 4, who has lived with Cooper since he was 3 months old.
Although she is battling breast cancer, Mary Cobbs, 61, handles many of the mothering chores when Coop is on the road—just as she did when her daughter was in Europe—often with an assist from niece Brenda, a premed student at Texas Southern University. During the offseason, which coincides with the kids' school year, Cooper is an involved surrogate, attending teacher conferences, recitals and team tryouts. "It can be overwhelming," she says of the demands placed on her by the children and her career.
As the WNBA grows, those career demands are likely to become more intense. Even now she earns a five-figure salary from the Comets plus $500,000 to $750,000 in endorsements. It has allowed her to buy another home 10 minutes from the spread in Sugar Land. "I'm still close enough to where if they need me, I'm here," says Cooper, who plans to live in the new place alone with Tyquon, the youngest. "But I want to be in a position to come home and relax after a game."
Her own mother doubts her resolve. "I'm sure it won't be long before she comes back and gets some more of the kids," says Cobbs with a chuckle. "She's got a big heart."
Laurel Brubaker Calkins in Houston
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine