Cynthia Cooper opened up with a light-hearted joke that drew a laugh from the reporters encircling her.

But her carefree manner belied the weariness on her face, the dark circles under her eyes and the slight sag in her shoulders.

Cooper, a two-time WNBA most valuable player, is summoning every ounce of energy to lead the Houston Comets to their third WNBA title while grieving the death of her mother, Mary Cobbs, in February and her best friend and former teammate, Kim Perrot, on Aug. 19.

"This [championship] would be special for them," Cooper said softly, her head bowed. "You know how some people say, 'Take it one day at a time'? I'm taking it one minute at a time, one hour at a time. And hopefully, I'll get through a day. And then hopefully, I'll get through a week, and then . . . it's tough."

The Comets begin their quest for a third championship at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. The New York Liberty hosts the first game of the best-of-three game series, which switches to Houston Saturday.

In light of what she has been through, Cooper has had a remarkable season. The feisty guard led the league in scoring (22.1 points per game) for the third year in a row. As one of the "Big Three"--Cooper, forward Sheryl Swoopes and forward Tina Thompson--she has brought the Comets to the WNBA finals in each of the league's first three seasons.

"One of the greatest stories in the history of sports," said Houston Coach Van Chancellor, a renowned storyteller. "How in the world can you hold up? Not only a mom, she lost her best friend."

Cooper's world started collapsing around her last December. While she was at the hospital visiting her mother, her nephew accidentally started a fire that burned her home to the ground (Cooper helps care for seven of her nieces and nephews, ages 5 to 20).

Then, in late January, Perrot, the Comets' starting point guard the past two seasons, discovered she had lung cancer that had spread to her brain. One week later, Cooper's mother lost her two-year battle with breast cancer.

No one can question Cooper's ability to play through pain. Although she has gone through the season with a heavy heart, Cooper has not allowed her game to suffer. What would have beaten down most players has only steeled her resolve.

New York guard Teresa Weatherspoon, who was also close to Perrot, lost her nephew in a car accident in May. She understands how draining it has been for Cooper and admires how well she has handled the stress.

"You tell yourself you're doing it for the person who you lost," Weatherspoon said. "You seem to find energy. I know what she's feeling. We both talked before the season. Every game that we play [against one another], we both look at each other and talk. We tell each other to hang in there, because it is very difficult. But when you tell yourself who you're playing the game for, you find that energy. I think Cooper's done a tremendous job going through all the things that she's gone through."

Cooper spent every moment she could with Perrot over the last several months, encouraging her, praying with her, helping her exercise. She twice flew to Mexico when Perrot was there receiving treatments.

Three days before Perrot's death, Cooper went to visit her in the hospital. That night she scored 42 points in Houston's 80-71 win against the Utah Starzz. During Perrot's final days, Cooper maintained a vigil at her friend's bedside. The only game she missed was Aug. 20 at Los Angeles, the day after Perrot died.

On Monday night, in the decisive third game of the Western Conference finals, Cooper willed Houston to victory. She finished with 23 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds.

"Any other person wouldn't be able to handle the situation the way she has," said Houston reserve center Tammy Jackson, who is Cooper's roommate on the road. "I'm sure she has some other grieving to go through. Just the fact that she really hasn't had time to do that because of basketball--I think there is a time period where she needs to have that solitude."

Houston, with its slogan "No. 3 for No. 10", has dedicated its championship run to Perrot, who was 32 years old at the time of her death. The skinny 5-foot-5 point guard came to the Comets as a developmental player in 1997 and was not expected to survive the final cut.

Instead, she earned the starting point guard spot, selflessly orchestrating the offense. Perrot averaged 8.5 points and 4.7 assists last season, but it's not her numbers they miss. It was her spirit and her rambunctious personality that made her a fan favorite. Her death affected not just Cooper, but the entire team.

"I've received much more credit for holding this team together than I deserved," Chancellor said. "This team has done a good job of holding itself together. It has tremendous character. It's just kind of had a will to win. They've just got an inner strength that's hard to measure."

Many have wondered how the Comets have been able to play and perform at such a high level just days after Perrot's death. But they say that is what she would have wanted.

"Kim's wishes would be for us to play basketball and to win another championship," Jackson said. "If we win, it's going to be for Kim and for ourselves second."