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A candid and surprising chat with the at-times controversial Latasha Byears of the Houston Comets.

LatashaByears
Latasha Byears, in the white jersey, begins her second season with the Houston Comets.

Inflate your plastic slappy tubes and pull those red and blue jerseys out of winter storage. WNBA game time has arrived.

But first, a look back.

Our hometown team, the Houston Comets, was introduced in 1997 with a preseason game on the boards of Autry Court at Rice University prior to their debut in Compaq Center. The audience watching the play then was representative of the audience that watches now: mothers or fathers (usually, either/or) accompanying their elementary school-aged daughters (some sons, but mostly daughters).

The young girls were visibly excited to see, possibly for the first time, professional B-ballers whose bodies resembled their own. Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that requires schools to provide equal athletic opportunity to both male and female students, had taught these young girls that they too could grow up to become leaders and stars in a profession previously dominated by men.

The other pervasive component of the audience: the lesbians. Old, young, coupled, in packs, alone, the lesbians came out to the Compaq Center. In droves. By the hundreds. By the thousands. At halftime, the Sapphic smokers among them would descend to the lower-level puffing area, packing in like it was last call at Lesbo Lounge. Cruisier and more estrogenically laden than a women-only camping festival, it was a sight to behold.

Television cameras spanning the crowd broadcast us in all of our sisterly splendor, easily recognizable to those of us watching from home.

“There’s one, and there’s another, and oh, look at all those sisters!” we would squeal at the screen.

It wasn’t until 2002, five years into the league’s existence, that a WNBA player first came out of the closet, with Sue Wicks of the New York Liberty publicly declaring her lesbianism.

TheComets
The Comets move to the Relient Arena.

Closer to home, Houston Comet and the league’s perennial most valuable player, Sheryl Swoopes, followed suit in 2005 with a much-publicized interview in ESPN Magazine.

That same year, long-time WNBA power forward Latasha Byears was dealing with publicity of a different sort entirely.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1973, Latasha Byears began her WNBA career with the Sacramento Monarchs in 1997, moving on to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001. By 2003, she ranked among the top ten rebounders in league history.

Despite her expertise on the court, Byears was becoming more famous for her aggressive style of play, including throwing a ball at the face of an opposing player during one game. In 2003, she told GQ magazine that she was the toughest player in the WNBA.

Five years later, when asked if she is still the toughest player in the league, Byears presents a much different image.

“Hmm,” she ponders the question. “I’m not tough. I’m the smartest now.”

This wizened attitude belies the thug reputation Byears is said to possess, bolstered by an incident in Los Angeles in 2003 in which she was accused, with three men, of sexual assaulting a woman.

A doppelganger-like scandal was occurring simultaneously with another basketball star on another L.A. team. However, despite the rape accusation levied against him at the time, superstar Kobe Bryant continued to play, receiving support from the Lakers and the team’s front office.

Byears? Not so much.

The Lakers-owned Sparks cut the now-undeniably-out Byears at the start of the season, prompting her to sue the Lakers for imposing a double standard on its players.

In 2005 prosecutors dropped the charges against Byears based on lack of evidence, her lawsuit was settled, and she rejoined the WNBA, this time playing with the Washington Mystics.

In 2007, Byears signed on with Houston Comets as a free agent, while continuing to play in the off-season in Europe.

Latasha Byears was eating dinner around seven o’clock Turkey time with her partner, Brankica, who is from Serbia, when we spoke by telephone.

In this candid interview, Byears talks about her rough reputation, other (alleged) lesbians in the WNBA, and a softer side of the woman her fans might be surprised to know exists.

Nancy Ford: When I found out you were in Turkey, I don’t know why I was so surprised, but that just doesn’t seem like a place that would welcome women’s basketball.
Latasha Byears: Mmm-hmm. Women’s basketball is actually big here in Turkey. I’m playing for Samsun Sports, right here on the Black Sea. I’ve been playing in Turkey now for the last six or seven years.

What’s it like waking up every morning as an American in Turkey?
You know, to me, it’s not as interesting anymore, because now I’m somewhat used to it. I know I’m in a foreign country, but I don’t look at it in that way. Growing up, I never thought I’d be able to see the countries that I’ve been able to see, coming where I come from.

Amazing. Can you be out of the closet there?
Yes. As a matter of fact I’m sitting with my baby right now.

This is going to be your second season in Houston. Do you see much difference playing for the Comets than playing for the Sparks or the Monarchs?
Umm, yes, it’s different. There are different styles, you know. The team we had with the Sparks was just an incredible team. In Sacramento, we were just starting out. It was the beginning of the league. It was just like a growing thing in Sacramento.

Right, right. Well, obviously, there are big changes in Houston this year, going from the Toyota Center to Reliant Arena. A lot of the women I’ve talked to are happy about the change in venue because they think it’s going to enhance the socialization and the party spirit among the fans. What do you think?
I think it’s great, too. Smaller venue, right? I feel like the fans could feel like they’re closer with a smaller venue, as opposed to the Toyota Center, because it’s so big. You know, the fan support has been down, so maybe this is a chance to pick up the fan support again.

I see it as a very positive situation. And of course, Swoopes is gone. What do you suppose is going to be the Comets’ biggest challenge with her taking off to Seattle?
Well, Sheryl is a legend. Everyone knows that. But this is a business, first. That’s how everyone has to look at this—it’s a business. You know, at the end of the day you have to sit down and make a decision. I just trust management to do the right thing. I’m only a player for the team. I don’t make those kind of decisions.

So it really didn’t surprise you much to learn that she’d signed with Seattle?
It was somewhat of a surprise. Sheryl has been a Houston player forever. You say “Houston Comets” and you think “Sheryl Swoopes.”

When Swoopes came out in 2005, she had already signed a deal, or was about to, with Olivia Cruises for lesbians. Do you have any similar endorsements or deals?
[Snickers] Nawww. When I started, there were no deals like that. It’s funny. You know, I’ve been like this [a lesbian] my whole life. This is the lifestyle that I live. I don’t know any other way to live or whatever, or be in the closet and all of this stuff. That’s never been my situation. My situation is like being too real, and being open-like. Basically, [I’ve always had an] I-don’t-give-a-f**k-type attitude.

The people who know me understand me. For the people on the outside looking in, sometimes they don’t understand. They just go off on stories that they’ve heard about me.

I never once cried about the WNBA marketing me, or anything like that. I just make it happen elsewhere, you know what I mean? Olivia Cruises? If they were to endorse me, man, you know that whole ship would be rockin’! [Laughs]
Well, I’ll tell you what — I’d buy a ticket!

[Laughing] That’s what I’m saying! You know, if they were to endorse me, I guarantee you they wouldn’t have an empty seat on that ship.

I’ve got a feeling you’re right. So you’ve always been out of the closet, as long as you can remember?
Mmm-hmm.

Amazing. What was that like, growing up?
It was an easy transition for me, because my aunt has been gay her whole life, also. So I looked up to her a lot. And I really never cared, really. I mean, it was just natural.

Well, you’ve got so much visibility in the WNBA. It’s a lot of responsibility.
It’s a lot of responsibility, but at the end of the day, you have to sit back and look at the people who are coming to our games. It’s not just people with their “friends.” It’s gays and lesbians that are in the stands. Once the league starts to recognize that, I think the league will be better off.

I just wish every lesbian in the WNBA—I just wish everybody—would come out. It would be better. Don’t be afraid for your job. I mean, hey, this is you! I can’t tell everyone when to come out and when not to come out. But I know it would make them feel better.

Right, right. Give me a ballpark figure: What do you think is the percentage of lesbians in the WNBA?
Oh, wow. You know what? I can’t give you an accurate percentage, but I know that percentage is pretty high.

That’s my feeling too. Well, just take a look at the players! The gaydar screams!
Well, I really appreciate your integrity coming forth with this information and how you feel about being a lesbian. It’s a big deal.

I’m proud to be one, really, to tell you the truth, because in my eyes it’s one of the most difficult lifestyles to live. People are always judging you, and over the years you just grow a thick skin, you know?

What would you say to the young people, the young kids about coming out? There seems to be a big audience, a big fan base, not just with the lesbians but also with the young kids.
Well, what I would say to the young kids is, I think you have to sit down with your parents. I understand it is not easy to come out of the closet when you’re young. I guess my childhood was just different. My mom just showed me that love, and didn’t have discrepancies about, “Well, you can’t do this and you can’t wear your hair a certain length and you can’t dress this way.” I didn’t have any of that.

So I just respect that from my childhood, and I would just say it depends on your family. That’s why a lot of the girls haven’t come out—because of their family, their job, and what people say about them.

But Latasha? I never had that problem. My only problem is just dealing with the critics and the naysayers and the people who hate. But the people who hate are just the people who are ignorant. There are people who are doing the same thing I’m doing, but they’re in the closet. So that’s why I sit back and I laugh.

It’s really hard to understand, isn’t it? It’s almost like deceit is encouraged.
Mmm-hmm. Well, you know, I’ve been an underdog my whole life, so this is not new to me. And I never quit. I never give up. I don’t believe in that.

So you’ll get back to Houston when training starts. What do you do to relax when you’re here?
When I’m in Houston? Oh, I’ve matured a lot. I’m not really into partying or clubs or stuff like that anymore. I just chill with friends. My baby came last summer, so we just spent a lot of time together.

Per your interview in 2003 with USAToday , do you still have plans to eventually open a restaurant or nightclub?
Yes, and I started my own entertainment company, Can’t Stop a Diamond from Shining Entertainment, and I have a DVD coming out of my life story. It’s very inspirational for kids growing up who have been through something. We’re looking for it to drop this summer sometime. I’m producing it along with my [business] partner, Mike Marangu [Snoop Dogg—Puff Puff Pass Tour]. No one in the WNBA has ever put out anything like this.

And I just want to say—and you can put this in the magazine—to all of these Internet bloggers who have nothing else to do with their time but chop up Latasha Byears: tell ’em thank you. I just want to thank them for all of the press. [Laughs] Just keep it up. Tell ’em to keep up the good work, because I know they have nothing else to do with their time but just sit around at home on the computer all day.

Well, like the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. If you have your name out there, it’s a chance to impact people. What would you most like Houston fans or any fans to know about Latasha Byears?
That I have a big heart. I have the Latasha Byears Foundation, which gives kids a chance to go to basketball camps. We give away shoes, we give away turkeys at Thanksgiving. A lot of people don’t know these things—that’s why I’m talking to you to get this message out. People will see, when this DVD drops, the real side of Latasha Byears.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my teammates or anybody. That’s just how I was raised. Besides all the tattoos and all of that, I’m a great person, and sometimes my playing on the court doesn’t show that. But, you know, it’s a business. It’s all entertainment. And that’s what I do. I entertain.

And tell Olivia if they want a real entrepreneur, tell ’em to call Latasha Byears. [Laughs]Tell ’em I got some great ideas!

Nancy Ford interviewed Judy Shepard for OutSmart’s April issue.
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OUR NEW HOME

Aptly led by Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, and the late Kim Perrott, the Houston Comets gifted Houston with four consecutive championship banners in the first years of the WNBA, filling the more sports-minded of our community with pride and bravado. During those glory years, it wasn’t unusual for most, and often all, of the 16,000-some seats in Compaq Center to be filled as well.

When the Toyota Center opened in 2003 to accommodate the overflowing fans of the Houston Rockets, the Comets (in those years owned by the Rockets organization) naturally packed up and followed the men. Unfortunately, much of the Comets’ lesbian fan base didn’t. Citing reasons such as a distaste for downtown, increased parking and concession fees, and a sense of disconnectedness from other fans in the massive arena, many women stayed away. Attendance fell with the team’s number of wins. Barely 6,000 viewed one game during the 2007 season, according to WomensBasketballOnline.com.

When the Houston Comets return to the boards on May 27 to face the Minnesota Lynx for the first home game of the season, they will be welcomed by approximately the same number of fans that used to be dwarfed by the massive Toyota Center, which requires 20,000 butts to fill. Team owner and furniture purveyor Hilton Koch, who bought the Comets in January 2007, announced last December that he would move the team to the 24,000-ish-square-foot Reliant Arena, a far cozier venue that seats a maximum of 8,500 people.

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