Nine for IX: Swoopes (2013)

Directed by Hannah Storm

Perhaps the most apprehension of any film in the series going in was in connection with this one, Swoopes. My reasoning is simple. The ESPN Films documentaries that seem to fall flattest are those that are content with simply existing as a biography of a famous athlete, or a history lecture of momentous moment in sports. Sheryl Swoopes is one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, if not the single best. Another reason I took pause before sitting down to watch the latest from Nine for IX was the director of the film, SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm. As a film buff, I tend to place quite a bit of stock in the director of a film, and having a non-filmmaker helm this sort of product had me thinking double trouble all the way.

However, it appears I underestimated the power of Sheryl Swoopes. My niece just recently turned 1 year old, and I must admit that since she has come into our lives, I have begun to be a little more mindful of the female side of things, particularly in sports, as my family is all about sports. My mother is convinced that she will be a golfer on the LPGA tour. I am not sure about that, but what I have started to notice is myself looking at female sports with a different outlook, searching for stars and potential role models for my young niece. Sheryl Swoopes, albeit a phenomenal player, is not necessarily the ideal role model for young ladies everywhere, but at the same time she is a perfect fit. A confusing contradiction this may be, but it is the flaws in Swoopes’ life that make her journey, her tale such an impactful one.

I must admit that the film played out about as I would have expect from a filmmaking standpoint. What we get a fairly straightforward biography of Swoopes’ life as a basketball star. And director Hannah Storm throws in nothing out of the ordinary. I suppose as well that she doesn’t really make any missteps, veering off the focus of the film. She delivers the film with magnificently bland care. But just what I did underestimate was the power and drama of Sheryl Swoopes and her roller coaster life, and what all it can teach us, and my young niece about being a person of strong character and beliefs, great passion, drive and hard work. Swoopes is a beloved athlete, but she has gone through her trials and tribulations as well.

Coming from a poor family and small West Texas town, Swoopes was able to pursue her dreams as a basketball player. She encountered many obstacles, including homesickness, pregnancy, bankruptcy, and even an awakening and acceptance of her sexuality. What comes off so strong about Swoopes is her ability to always be who she is, without exception or reconsideration. She is a pioneer in women’s sports, but she did so not even by trying. She signed an endorsement deal with Nike, saying she would have done it for no money just to have her own Air Swoopes shoe. She proved women athletes can be mothers, returning just 6 weeks after giving birth to her son. She came out as being in love with another woman, without a thought of what it could do to her career, and without catering to the homosexuality community. Being Swoopes, as she ever was, she proclaimed she simply loved who she loved. It was her choice.

Was the film the most innovative? Not even close, but Storm gives us what we need. Was the film the most insightful? No, but it gave us the journey and story of Swoopes. Honestly, this feels like exactly what this series should be about. It presents us a brief overview biography of a strong female athlete who made a great impact on her sport, and women athletes everywhere. The film itself is breaking down no barriers, but it fits perfectly into the mission of the series, and the hour time slot in which it has to make its argument. There will be better in the series, and in fact there already has been. But I would strongly suspect there will be weaker ones as well, and once again, there already has been. Swoopes fits the bill for the Nine for IX series, fueled by the compelling, insightful, lesson-filled journey of Sheryl Swoopes.

*** – Good


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