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Doc Star of the Month: Cynthia Cooper, 'Women of Troy'

By Lauren Wissot

Cynthia Cooper, from Alison Ellwood's 'Women of Troy.' Courtesy of HBO Sports

It's a crying shame that Cynthia Cooper is not a LeBron-level household name. Having won championships in college, at the Olympics and in the WNBA—where as a Houston Comet she was named MVP in the finals for four straight seasons (still a record) and anointed by fans as one of the Top 15 players in the league's history—does anyone doubt things would have been different had she been born into a non-patriarchal world? Hard to imagine any NBA athlete with that type of track record being exiled to 10 years of overseas play just to earn a talent-commensurate wage.

And now with the COVID19 crisis hitting women's sports especially hard, the WNBA draft coming up on April 17, the season opening a month later—and neither date is guaranteed—it's unfortunately perfect timing to finally right the sexist wrongs. Filmmaker Alison Ellwood does just this with her HBO doc Women of Troy, which checks in with b-ball's female trailblazers today (Cooper shares screen time with other WNBA Hall of Fame legends like Cheryl Miller, the dogged coaches and more) to look back at their unconscionably dustbin-confined history through thrilling archival footage of those pre-WNBA salad days, when Cooper and Miller led the USC Trojans to NCAA glory. And fortunately for Documentary, we were able to catch up with "Coop" herself a day prior to the film’s March 10th airdate on HBO Sports (the film is currently streaming on HBO GO and HBO Now).

DOCUMENTARY: How did you get involved in this project? Did the filmmakers reach out to you directly? Did you have any concerns about participating—or were you on board from the start?

CYNTHIA COOPER: I was on board from the beginning. I think the first person that reached out to me was Rhonda Windham. She's the point guard of our team, and so she's still the boss of all of us. And then [producers] Gary Cohen and Branson Wright were our two contacts. They really got the ball rolling. I was thrilled to highlight our 1983-84 [USC] team and all that went into winning those championships and coming together as a unit.

D: How do you feel about your overall portrayal in the doc? Anything left on the cutting room floor that you wish could have been in the film—or conversely, anything you’re uneasy about watching onscreen?

CC: I felt absolutely amazed. It was awesome, incredible, the way HBO captured our story. There were things I didn’t even realize…For example, I didn’t realize the impact that Cheryl's injury had on her personally. From the outside, you saw Cheryl go into broadcasting for TNT for the next 16 years, so in my mind it was seamless. And I didn't realize it was such a huge part of her life and impacted her that way. The documentary brought that out. 

I loved the way our story was told because it really encompassed everything from Title IX and the time frame that we played in. The scholarship and non-scholarship athletes, that it was only the second NCAA championship. I loved the way that I was portrayed, as well as my team and teammates.

D: You spent nearly a decade playing in the Italian leagues—and you are fluent in Italian—so I'm curious to know how the media and fans react to female athletes overseas. The notion that a country that could embrace Berlusconi-style misogyny could also treat its women basketball players with more respect (and actually pay them closer to what they’re worth) than we do here in America is a head-scratcher.

CC: The biggest thing playing overseas is that they already had an infrastructure and things organized in a way that they fueled their teams, and paid for their teams with sponsors. It was strange to have that already organized and going overseas as opposed to America. But you have to understand that America loves its sports. We love our baseball, we love our football and we love our NBA. And there was really very little space other than tennis and just recently soccer—there was very little space for us women to showcase our talents. It is a head-scratcher that they figured it out overseas and they were able to provide a professional platform for women to play professional basketball, and it took America a little longer to do that. But I will tell you this: there is nothing like playing professional basketball in the WNBA in front of your family and friends and English-speaking fans.

D: Since the interviews seem to mostly be conducted separately, I wonder if you've stayed in touch with any of the other players in the film. Has participating in the doc brought anyone back into your life—or changed it in any way?

CC: I've stayed in touch with pretty much everyone that was interviewed. A special friend of mine is LeeAnne Sera; she was my roommate while I was in college. I was a little rough around the edges and LeeAnne, she's just so sweet. She was a walk-on, School of Dentistry. She has two dental practices—one up in northern California and the other one in Honolulu. She just has so much patience with me, so we still enjoy a very close relationship.

Rhonda Windham, Juliette Robinson, we've always stayed close. Pam [McGee] and I played basketball in Parma [Italy] for a year or two. We played overseas together and I used to babysit [her son] JaVale [now a center for the LA Lakers]. Same with Melissa Ward—Captain Ward, as she would have you say. I still stay in touch with everyone. Yolanda Fletcher was part of my freshman class, as well as Tracy Longo—and she made me promise that the next interview I did I would say something great about her.

D: What are your ultimate hopes—both for the film and for women's basketball itself? 

CC: My hope is that the WNBA is alive and well 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 60 years from now. That we continue to pour in talent and sponsorships so women don’t have to go overseas to play professional basketball. And that the public and the fans recognize women and our talent for what it is. Sometimes we play above the rim, sometimes we play beneath the rim, but we always play hard and we always play with a certain skill set that I think is amazing.

For the film, I really want people to understand how important Title IX was, and how important the way we played, how important it was for that time and for what you see now both in the WNBA and the collegiate game. You think of a player like Cheryl Miller. She was really the first player at her size—at six-foot-two—to have the skill set that she brought to the game. Shooting outside, shooting from the three, taking it to the rim, playing great defense, leading the fast break. She was really the first player to bring that type of skill set, a complete skill set, to the collegiate level.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.