Cynthia Cooper made sure everyone knew who was in her thoughts as the Houston Comets won their third consecutive WNBA championship.
Moments after the Comets clinched the title with a 59-47 win over the New York Liberty, Cooper leaped onto the scorers' table and held aloft Kim Perrot's No. 10 jersey. She then took a victory lap around the Compaq Center court, waving it to the 16,285 who stood screaming long after the final buzzer sounded today.
This title was not just about establishing a dynasty. It also was for Perrot, the Comets' starting point guard on their first two championship teams who died Aug. 19 after battling lung and brain cancer.
"We really wanted to win it for Kim," said Cooper, who scored 24 points and earned the series' most valuable player honors for the third consecutive year. "This is in memory of Kim. This is in tribute to Kim. . . . It feels good, especially after all we've been through this year."
Many fans paid tribute to Perrot as well, chanting, "Three for Kim! Three for Kim!" in the game's waning moments.
In the end, the most impressive aspect of Houston's march to the title was not the Comets' considerable talent, but their tremendous heart. They demonstrated a remarkable resiliency in the face of such tragedy.
"What character, what a team," Houston Coach Van Chancellor said. "I think this is the greatest joy I have had in coaching."
The Comets made it tougher on themselves than necessary today, shooting an abysmal 29 percent from the field. Houston never seemed to find its rhythm offensively, but was able to take a 33-25 halftime lead by making 27 of 32 free throw attempts.
The Comets were able to get to the foul line so frequently because they attacked the basket and drew fouls on the Liberty. New York was charged with 28 personal fouls.
Although Houston is not known as a particularly strong rebounding team and was out-rebounded in Games 1 and 2, the Comets held a sizable advantage on the boards today thanks primarily to center Tammy Jackson. The former Washington Mystic grabbed 11 rebounds, which helped Houston outrebound the Liberty, 36-28. She gave Houston the physical presence inside that it needed. "I'm old school," Jackson said. "When I started playing basketball, that was the focus, banging."
Guard Crystal Robinson, the Liberty's best outside shooting threat, struggled when her team needed her the most. After an impressive second-half performance in Game 2, Robinson made just 2 of 10 shots and finished with five points today.
"I always feel like I can shoot my way out [of a slump]," Robinson said. "I just couldn't get my shot to fall. I couldn't even make a layup."
New York carried over its momentum from Game 2 and kept it close most of the first half. Sue Wicks, who led the Liberty with 11 points, and Vickie Johnson were finding open shots and making them.
But in the second half, New York fell victim again to Houston's tenacious defense. The Comets held the Liberty scoreless from the field for more than eight minutes to start the half. Even after Kym Hampton made a layup to break New York's scoring drought, the Liberty scored only two baskets over the next eight minutes while Houston built a 48-33 lead. New York's 47 points were the lowest total in a WNBA title game.
"Because we have so many offensive players, we don't get credit for our defense," Comets forward Tina Thompson said. "But we have always been a great defensive team first. And tonight, when our offense wasn't going, our defense picked it up and shined."
The Comets, who boast an 81-22 all-time record and are the only team in the WNBA to win the title, refuse to call themselves a dynasty. However, they have been the most dominating team since the league formed three seasons ago. The Comets are one of only four professional teams to win at least three straight basketball titles. They join the Minneapolis Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls.
"The league is still very young," Houston forward Sheryl Swoopes said. "Even though we've won every championship, I wouldn't classify it as a dynasty. What we've accomplished is very special to us, but we still have a lot of things we want to prove. I don't know what word you should use, remarkable, maybe."
One development that could affect the Comets' current makeup is expansion. The WNBA will grow from 12 to 16 teams next season, and teams will be allowed to protect a limited number of players before the expansion draft. The exact number has yet to be determined.
But even expansion may not end Houston's dominance. The Comets, who go just six players deep, will certainly protect the "Big Three" -- Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson. Beyond that, their supporting cast -- like that of the Jordan-era Bulls -- is somewhat interchangeable.