- By Jason Dougas Lewis
- In Local Legends
Raised in Watts, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke starred at USC and then traveled the world as she became one of the greatest women's basketball players of all-time.
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Originally published by the Los Angeles Sentinel. www.lasentinel.net
By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor (2010-2013)
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke's life odyssey has taken her around the world and back. After growing up in Watts, she dominated women's basketball at USC, in Spain, Italy, as a member of the US Olympic team, and in the WNBA. She is one of the greatest women's basketball players of all time, and now she is back in Los Angeles to turn around USC's women's basketball program as their head coach.
Cooper-Dyke's journey through life began in Chicago, but her family moved to Los Angeles when she was one-years-old. She lived in various places in Watts as a child, including the Nickerson Gardens housing projects, and on 111th Place, between Avalon Blvd. and San Pedro St. She attended 118th Elementary School, Gompers Junior High School, and Locke High School. Her family was a member of Rejoice in Jesus Ministry.
The areas that Cooper-Dyke grew up in were rough, but she feels that it shaped her life in a positive way.
"Everything that I have done in my career, has been because of the way that I was brought up, and the environment that I was brought up," Cooper-Dyke said. "It toughened me up for the real world and for life. If you were to ask me, my childhood and growing up in the Los Angeles area prepared me for life and helped me to be successful in everything that I have done in my career."
Cooper-Dyke was able to turn what would be viewed as a tough situation into a positive.
"There is so much negativity when people talk about Los Angeles," Cooper-Dyke said. "But I actually had a great time, I had a great childhood. It's always tough when you grow up in the inner city, but when you make the most out of it, you can come out of it and achieve some great things."
Various people influenced Cooper-Dyke's childhood, but it was her mother who had the greatest affect on her life. Cooper-Dyke's mother raised eight children in a single parent household.
"i saw her preserver through tough times," Cooper-Dyke said. "She raised eight kids by herself and give us everything that we needed, and all of the tools to be successful."
Athletically, Cooper-Dyke did not start playing basketball until her 10th grade year in high school. Up until that point she was a stand out in track and field, but one moment drastically changed the direction of her young athletic career.
"I saw a young lady at Gompers Jr. High School," Cooper-Dyke said. "She penetrated to the basket, she put the ball behind her back and she laid it up. I was like 'wow, that's cool! I want to be cool.' That sparked my interest in basketball, because I really wanted to learn how to do it".
Cooper-Dyke already had a strong drive to win, and as she tells it, if there was a championship in tetherball, she would have held the title. She was excelling in track at the 400-meter dash, 300-meter hurdles, long jump, and high jump. Her fastest time in the 400 was in the 52 second range. But she had made her mind up, that she was going to be a great basketball player, and it was time to get to work.
Most standout athletes start to playing their sport at a very early age, so Cooper-Dyke was quite a ways behind her competition, but she made up for lost time by being a gym rat. She played basketball where ever she could, pretty much every day, to close the gap between herself and other girls that had been playing for years. She would play at Will Rogers Park, Athens Park, and she would hop on the bus to go and play at Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Recreation Center. She would even play with the boys when they would let her.
While her mother worked to raise eight children, Cooper-Dyke had a lot of freedom to roam around as she pleased, which is typically not good for a child growing up in that type of neighborhood.
"Single parent household, you kind of have that freedom, in the sense that my mom had to work," Cooper-Dyke said. "So it was either get in the streets and get in trouble, or you have a routine where you are at a park. You're part of an after school program, or a summer program that the parks and recreations give. So sports really helped me stay focused and out of trouble."
The hours of hard work paid off for Cooper-Dyke, as she developed into a good player during her junior season and a star player during her senior year. That season she led Locke High School to a City Section and State championship, and she was named the City Section Player of the Year.
Playing high school basketball was great, but Cooper-Dyke had much bigger plans, and one thing motivated her to work as hard as possible at her sport.
"We were poor, and when you're poor you look for options," Cooper-Dyke said. "Sports was my vehicle to further my education. I knew that we wouldn't be able to pay for college, so I felt that sports would help get me a scholarship to further my education and have a better life."
Her plan worked, as USC offered Cooper-Dyke a basketball college. Other colleges were recruiting her, but mainly to run track, but USC was extremely interested in her as a basketball player. Her first moments at the school were awkward, but she quickly found her place on campus.
"We pulled up in our Pinto station wagon to move into the dorms, while everybody else was in Mercedes and all of these nice cars," Cooper-Dyke recalls. "So initially I felt a little out of place. The transition wasn't easy from an inner city school to a private university such as USC. But USC was so great in helping in bridging that gap between the education you get in the inner city school verses what is needed to be successful in a private university."
Before Cooper-Dyke became a member of USC's women's basketball program, the university had never won a national champion. But USC assembled a great cast of players, with Cheryl Miller and twin sisters Pam and Paula McGee. The four players led USC to national championships in 1983 and 1984, and that team appeared in the Final Four three times.
Cooper-Dyke may not have seen that type of success coming, but she had one major goal for herself and her team.
"I expected to win, because I liked to win," Cooper-Dyke said. "I wanted to win. I was always willing to put in the work to be successful. That was my goal, was to be really successful. And to show that I deserved to have a scholarship and I deserved to be at USC."
Cooper-Dyke said that she would put that team up against any NCAA women's basketball championship team ever.
After her college career ended, Cooper-Dyke had to move overseas to continue her basketball career because there were no professional women's basketball leagues in the United States. As difficult as it was to be so far from home, the experienced ended up being a great one for her.
"It was tough to live in another country, away of family and friends," Cooper-Dyke said. "But it was also fantastic because I got a chance to learn a different language. I speak fluent Italian. I got a chance to learn another culture. I traveled around Europe, and see places that I would have never gotten to see. Remember, I'm an inner city kid. I would have never had the opportunity to travel the world had it not been for playing overseas and on the USA national team."
Cooper-Dyke was a member of the 1988 Olympic team, which won the gold medal in Seoul, Korea. Winning for her country was a different experience from the other championships that she won.
"It's the difference between winning for your school or your city, you're winning for your nation," Cooper-Dyke said. Just standing on the podium in Seoul, Korea, and hearing the national anthem, it was just incredible. It was amazing, breath taking. It leaves you speechless, and it makes you so proud. I'm talking about proud to be an American. That moment is special."
After becoming an international star by playing 11 seasons in Spain and Italy, and playing in two Olympic games, Cooper-Dyke was able to come home when the WNBA was created.
"I was happy to play in the States," Cooper-Dyke said. "My major reason for wanting to come back over and play was that I was able to reconnect with friends and family members who had not seen me play in 11 years. The opportunity to play in the WNBA was great because now my mom could see me play and actually be a part of her daughter being a success."
Cooper-Dyke found instant success in the WNBA, as she led the Houston Comets to the first four WNBA championships, from 1997-2000. During three of those seasons she led the league in scoring, she was the league's MVP in 1997 and 1998, and she was the WNBA Finals MVP during each of the Comets championships years.
By many, Cooper-Dyke is regarded as the greatest WNBA player of all time, and some believe that she is the greatest women's basketball player ever.
The competitive drive did not stop upon her retirement, as Cooper-Dyke dove right into coaching. She started her coaching career at Prairie View A&M University, where she instantly turned around the program. In just her second season on the job, she lead the school to their first ever Women's NCAA Tournament.
Cooper-Dyke's next stop was as the head coach at UNC Wilmington. She was named Coach of the Year after her first season on the job. After two years she left Texas Southern, taking the job in 2012.
Bringing her odyssey full circle, Cooper-Dyke is back in Los Angeles, as USC hired her as the head coach of the women's basketball team.
"It feels great to be back at USC, and my goals are to turn this program around," Cooper-Dyke said. "To be a regular in the NCAA tournament, to be one of the best teams in the PAC-12, and to change the culture of this basketball program. To change the mentality to a winning mentality, to be a force to be wrecked with.
"This is a dream job, and it's awesome to be back in a city that gave me so much," Cooper-Dyke said. "Gave me so much in my life, professional, collegiately. This city, Los Angeles, has given me a life. A career. And now it's time in part for me to give that back. Through me coaching here, I can give some of that back. To the inner city programs, to the after school programs, to the AAU programs, to the high schools, and with our team camp. It's an opportunity for me to give back, and really to get the community to rally around USC and what we're doing here and what we're trying to accomplish."
Cooper-Dyke is married and she has twins with her husband, who both are excelling at tennis. They shoot the basketball around here and there, but at this point Cooper-Dyke is letting them find their own way.
Cooper-Dyke did not appear to have much when she was growing up in Watts, but she made the most out of what she had, and that has led her to become a highly successful person at every stop that she has made during her career. She is proof that the black community in South Los Angeles produces people who excel at the highest levels.