June 07 2016
Three-time WNBA champion Swin Cash, of the New York Liberty, has announced that she will retire at the end of this season, her 15th season in the league. To honor the future Hall of Famer, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Bill Laimbeer and Tanisha Wright took to The Players’ Tribune to pay tribute to a teammate, a leader, a competitor and a champion.
BY SUE BIRD
There are, generally, two kinds of people: those who can be described, and those who can only be experienced.
Swin Cash is an experience.
I first met Swin in the summer of 1997. We were both juniors in high school and had been invited to a Nike All-American Camp. At the time, it was a huge deal — all of the best players in the country participated in practices and exhibition games in front of the biggest college coaches.
I remember this girl, a six-foot-one post player with a thick Pittsburgh accent, wearing a lot of gold, talking about her boyfriend. A lot.
That was Swin.
When we both entered college to play at UConn, nothing had changed. Except the boyfriend.
Her personality was as big as her play. Swin is unabashedly herself, always. That’s part of her persona. But there are layers there. You quickly understand who she is, what she came from and what’s important to her. You also know immediately that she’s going to work her ass off. That’s her M.O.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES
That kind of authenticity demands respect.
I’ve played with and against Swin for almost 20 years. That’s more than half my life. Which means I’ve collected a lot of great Swin Cash stories.
Everyone knows how hard of a worker she is — and she is, in everything she does. This is a person who, when she sets her mind on something, she works 110% for it. One day in college, we were doing individual workouts: a couple of players, one coach and a bunch of drills. We were working on our ball handling. We’d line up, go down the court and back, one after the other. And then Swin went.
One of the coaches yells, “Swin! You need to go harder!”
She comes back down the court to the back of the line and she looks at the few of us who were there. She goes, “Watch. This.”
She starts the drill, going the same pace, the same effort, the same moves, but she added a few vocal grunts: Uh! Ah! Oomph!
Swin is unabashedly herself, always. That’s part of her persona.
“That’s what I’m talking about!”
She had sold it. We were cracking up.
She was savvy like that, but she was also one of the hardest working players I’ve ever come across. She’d run the floor with ferocity, drive through people and make big plays. Swin always found a way to come up with a big play. It could be a defensive stop or offensive putback — always right when you needed it. Those are the players you win championships with.
For as tough as she was, she was also human. I remember the Shot against UCLA in 1999.
Swin had been working really hard on her jump shot. She was a post player trying to expand her game further from the basket.
In the second half, UCLA’s Janae Hubbard missed the second of two free throws, and Swin got the rebound.
Players’ Tribune, roll the tape.
There she was, right in the middle of the lane. Perfect form — holds the follow through and everything. Wrong basket.
The game was played around Christmastime so later on SportsCenter, the anchor joked something like, “You know Christmas is the season of giving, but Swin Cash took it a little too far.”
It may have been the wrong basket but even then you were starting to see the potential in Swin’s game. The Swin you see now — the one you’ve seen the last eight to 10 years — is not the player you saw in college. It started with a jump shot.
There are only a handful of players who can make the transition from post player to stretch guard. Swin’s one of them.
She was a post player by every definition. She rarely went out past the free throw line. Instead, she was going to outwork you under the basket. She was thin for someone playing that position, but she was quick and knew how to drive, take a hit, get fouled and still finish.
But in the WNBA, she went smaller. You just don’t see players make that kind of transformation in their game — present company included. Sure, players add things to their repertoire and get better. But Swin fundamentally changed. She slowly moved her game away from the basket while still keeping her identity as a killer post player intact. And it made her really difficult to match up against for a lot of teams for many years.
Do you know how good of an athlete you have to be to transform like that?
Swin Cash good.
I’ve had a lot of different teammates over the past two decades but Swin will go down as one of my favorites. There’s a mutual trust between us. It was immediate in college and it was still there, years later, in Seattle. I always knew what to expect from her, she always knew what to expect from me and it worked.
I’ve never known my career without Swin Cash.
When Tamika Catchings announced her retirement, and when Kobe Bryant did the same, I thought about time and how it ultimately defeats an athlete’s body. I thought about what they might be going through. That’s natural given my age. If I had been 26, maybe I wouldn’t have consider it much.
But with Swin’s retirement … it’s different. It feels much closer. This is someone who’s had nearly the same basketball career as I’ve had. With the exception of Diana Taurasi — and that’s only because we played in Russia for so long together — I don’t know that I’ve gone through as much with anyone as I have with Swin.
Two national championships. A WNBA championship. And a whole lot of life in between.
For all the change that time allows, she’s remained a constant.
All of that gold, though? She doesn’t have to wear it. Now it’s on her trophies and Olympic medals.
BY BILL LAIMBEER
I was a consultant for the Detroit Shock in 2002, heading into the WNBA draft. They weren’t a very good team, and had the No. 2 pick. I remember asking the executives, “What are your strongest positions?”
They said, “Our forwards.”
“Well, who are you gonna draft?”
Made sense. She was one of the top players coming out of college.
I asked them if they were going to start her. They said no. I thought, What are you guys thinking? I said, “You get the second pick in the draft and you’re not going to start her?”
Fast-forward. The Shock started the season 0–10, and I took over as head coach. I went straight to Swin.
“I’m going to make you the focal point of this basketball team.”
There’s a difference between coaching someone who’s coming straight out of the University of Connecticut versus most other schools. UConn players are the best in the country. They come out of high school already built to dominate — they’re real basketball players. And when they get to UConn, they are surrounded by other dominant players. In most college programs, you have one elite player on a team and some support around them. At UConn, everybody’s elite. When a UConn player gets to the professional level — a place where there are only great players — they already have a leg up. It’s hard to teach someone how to play alongside greatness. UConn players? That’s all they know.
As a rookie, Swin was relentless. She would outwork everyone. She ran the floor all-out all the time. She was physical, too. She dominated with her size. At UConn, she was a power forward at six-foot-one, but I made her a small forward. You see, the lanes were smaller then — this was before they widened the lanes. By making Swin a small forward, she could dominate everyone with her size and strength. As a three, she’d get the ball under the basket and use her size to go straight through, up and around inferior players.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL WARNER/AP IMAGES
Right away, it was clear she was a leader. She was the most vocal and the most aware — and she wassmart. I made her captain of the team after that first year, and we went on to win the WNBA championship in 2003. Worst to first. If the Shock don’t draft Swin with the No. 2 pick, there’s no way we win that championship. Not even close.
She was the difference.
I remember seeing Swin get injured in a noncontact situation towards the end of the season in 2004. We were in Phoenix, and she was at the other end of the court. She drove into the lane and tried to stop. Her knee blew out.
I knew immediately.
You never know how people will come back. Sometimes, great players don’t make it back to the level they once were. They’re just shadows of greatness. I can’t imagine that injury didn’t change Swin just a little bit. Injuries have a way of doing that — making you realize that basketball is finite.
Swin persevered to win two more championships and another gold medal. She always perseveres.
I saw Swin come in as a rookie and will see her exit as a decorated veteran. We’ve won two championships together. My coaching career is intertwined with hers. It’s a complicated relationship; Swin is tough and driven, and so am I. I’ve pushed her to be better just like she’s pushed me. But anytime you win, a special bond develops. That’s especially true of that first championship in Detroit.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREGORY SHAMUS/WNBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES
It’s rare to meet someone who’s as solid as Swin — as a player and a person. She knows who she is, what she’s about and where she’s going. You can see the awareness in her that her time as a professional athlete is almost over. But basketball has been more than a game to Swin; She’s used it to further her life where many other players do not.
Most players don’t last this long. She still plays at a high level, even at the age of 36. She works hard and takes great pride in her craft — her consistency has never wavered. Her ethic, her drive, her intelligence and her tenacity — all those things are why she’s lasted this long.
People will remember her championships and gold medals, but I also hope they remember her as a leader. She can and will walk in any circle. From boardrooms to locker rooms, she can speak any language and make people feel comfortable and heard — especially players who come from nothing.
By doing that, she gives them everything. Just like she’s given everything to basketball.
BY TANISHA WRIGHT
I was shell-shocked the first time I faced Swin Cash.
Our high school basketball teams were playing against one another. I was a freshman, and she was a senior.
We’re from the same area just outside of Pittsburgh — the projects, where you play basketball in the street with milk crates. The legend of Swin Cash was born there. People talked about this athletic freak — a six-foot-one monster who dominated on the court and on the track.
That’s something most people don’t know about Swin — she was a beast in track and field, too. She had size and strength, and speed.
Picture me: a wide-eyed freshman playing against a … myth. No one dominated Swin Cash. Swin Cash dominated everyone.
My friends still make fun of me for that game. (It didn’t go well.)
I came up against Swin again in the WNBA, when she was playing in Detroit and I was in Seattle. Her name evokes a very specific image — let’s call it diva-ish. Her outfits, her heels, her mouth. She’s strong in energy and personality, and for some, that’s tough to get past. But we had Pittsburgh in common. And when she got traded to Seattle in 2008, we were like two Pittsburgh girls in a pod. I wasn’t a freshman anymore. I no longer saw her as this mythical creature from the hood. Instead, I saw her as something like a big sister.
Swin was part of a wave of star players who came to Seattle. We already had Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, two of the most dominant players in the league. Then we got Swin, Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith. These were women who’d already all won championships. Everything changed.
I looked around. Damn, O.K., I thought.
They each brought something we needed. Swin brought professionalism — she made us about our business. She had a point to prove after leaving Detroit.
She came out busting heads.
That’s what she does. Swin will outwork you. That’s how she kills opponents. You see the same thing with Tamika Catchings. She’s going to bust her ass, run the floor, get to her spot, demand the ball and then she’s gonna go to work. And she ain’t gonna be denied.
We needed that in Seattle. We needed somebody who would work hard all the time — who wouldn’t be denied. It’s not just that Swin plays like that on the court — she lives that mentality. You need that to carry a team through.
PHOTOGRAPH BY TERRENCE VACCARO/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
I remember the Western Conference finals against Phoenix — Swin’s tenacity fueled us. She made play after play. One game, Sue was about to lose the ball out of bounds and she quickly bounce-passed it into the paint. There was Swin with the ball, two people around and all over her and she goes up for the layup anyway. And she makes it. It was one example of a hundred plays that she made time and again. And always when we needed it.
That’s her mentality: I’m gonna get it done. Nobody’s gonna take this away from me. This is what I want. I’m gonna go get it by any means necessary.
We won the championship in 2010. My first. Swin’s third.
Three championships. Do you realize how hard that is? Especially in the WNBA, where the distribution of talent is generally even. Any team can beat another on any given night.
As hard as it is to win gold medals and championships, it’s near impossible to escape the projects. Swin was always the person that people — young girls — from my neighborhood strove to be. She’s the standard. She’s the one we hold up and say, When you get to this, you’ve made it. You can’t cherry-pick someone from the projects and say, Right here, this is the one that’s gonna make it out.
I may be losing a teammate when Swin retires, but I have a sister for life.
But Swin did.
Greatness is being able to say, You were dealt this hand, but you still made it out.
That’s something you have to do for yourself. You have to go out on your own and do it. That’s something innate — to want it but then to go out and do it.
Swin Cash is greatness.
She built this. And she’s building others. She gives back, especially to kids like us. She gives them opportunity where there is none. She’s about building women — all women — up.
I may be losing a teammate when Swin retires, but I have a sister for life.
The WNBA is losing an ambassador — a face. I think about all the little girls who won’t get to see Swin Cash in the future, or to live the greatness of her career as it plays out. But then I remember all the little girls who did. They’ll pass it on.
Swin Cash is basketball royalty.
When it’s all done, wear that crown, Queen.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES
BY TAMIKA CATCHINGS
The decision to retire is rarely sudden, and it’s never easy.
For some athletes, the decision is made for you. A catastrophic injury, a waiver and any number of front office decisions or life events can steal the future away.
For others, it’s a slow-going, thoughtful, deliberate choice. You can order your own fate.
I should know. When I decided to announce two years ago that my last season in the WNBA would be in 2016, I’d ruminated on it for months.
I unintentionally talked it through with those closest to me. Among them? Swin Cash.
Swin and I were rivals before we were close friends. I played at the University of Tennessee, and Swin played at the University of Connecticut. At the time, the two schools had a fierce rivalry. Every game between us was an event — a matchup between college basketball titans. Pat Summitt vs. Geno Auriemma.
When we played UConn, we had to plan for the Huskies’ depth, not just for players like Swin, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird. We had to plan for everyone — from their starting five to the bench. With Swin, she was this scrappy, long, determined player that came straight at you. Offensively, she could hold her own. She’d get the ball, face the basket and go. But it was her defense you really had to watch for. Those arms — that speed. She could shake you out of any rhythm and wear you down.
(None of that has changed, by the way.)
Players from UT and UConn, at the time, weren’t friends on the court. I only knew Swin in college as someone I wanted to defeat. We were enemies because that’s how the media pitted us against each other.
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But years later, we were on the 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team together. We were just young pups. We’d only been in the WNBA for a couple of years and were just learning what it meant to be professionals — and suddenly we were Olympians. During training camp, Swin, Ruth Riley and I gravitated toward one another. We were the rookies trying to find our place on the team.
We were growing up.
At times, our careers and lives have mirrored one another’s. Championships. Injuries. Weddings.
I remember standing next to Swin as one of her bridesmaids last year at her wedding. We’d been up the night before, celebrating the life that was to come. Looking forward always makes you pause to look back. More than a decade had passed since we met at Olympic training camp. I looked at her and thought, This is it. We have officially grown up.
And now, we mirror one another again in retirement.
There’s a natural evolution for all athletes: When you begin your career, the game is everything — the travel, the tape, the grind. Every day is dedicated to one thing. But then time passes. Life opens up in a different way. Your passion starts to shift. Your body starts to wear.
The one thing that’s never wavered with Swin is her passion for the game. She’ll do whatever she has to do to help her team win. It’s evident on the court, in the locker room — she can motivate her teammates to do anything. You see that same passion in her charity work with Cash for Kids. She understands what it means to have to fight for everything you have, and build opportunities for yourself and those around you. And then, once you’ve achieved success — however you choose to define it — you pay it forward.
She’s won three championships, two gold medals and two national championships. Swin’s leaving the league but she’s not ending her legacy. She’s leaving the locker room but she’s not leaving the cause. She’s been a vocal leader within the Players’ Association, and affected real change for the generation behind us.
Swin Cash the player may be done after this season, but from what we know, Swin Cash the person will continue on boldy.