cooper

Aerial Powers of the Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks guard Te'a Cooper (2) race for a loose ball during a 2021 WNBA game.

Former McEachern High School standout Te’a Cooper has had an eventful couple of weeks.

Last week, the 5-foot-8 guard was a surprise release by the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. This week, she is being celebrated as one of five players from the league highlighted in the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

While Cooper seemed to be ready to take the next step on the court heading into the 2022 season, off the court is where her star is really on the rise. She has broken into both the modeling and fashion industries, she is the leading WNBA influencer with more than 3.5 million followers on social media, including 1.5 million followers on Instagram alone.

According to Sports Pro Media, Cooper is the 17th-most marketable athlete in the world and has a partnership with Nike’s Jordan Brand.

That popularity is one of the main reasons Cooper joined other WNBA standouts Didi Richards, Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the Sports Illustrated photo shoot. The issue is scheduled to be released Thursday.

“(The photo shoot) says ‘sports,’ but (the athletes) always looked like models, so I would have never thought one day I would be one,” Cooper told the magazine. “It was very empowering to be a part of this because of the people I did it with. Everybody’s story was different and just spending time with them, us all being in the WNBA as professionals, was overwhelming.

“(The WNBA players who came before us) worked hard to get us to where we are now. It’s still growing and it’s come far — bigger platform and stage, more support and viewership — but there are so many more windows to break. And the fact that some players are mothers — just being able to do all of that and be one of the top athletes is an amazing accomplishment. And for people to be able to see it is empowering.”

While Cooper enjoyed being with the other WNBA stars in the Caribbean, she now needs to find a new home on the court.

After two seasons with the Sparks, Cooper was released less than a week before the WNBA season started, and less than four months after she signed a new contract with the team. The 25-year-old, who played two seasons for Los Angeles, averaged 9.1 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game last season and was one of the team’s best defensive players. Cooper appeared in 31 games, making 13 starts.

“Her ability to disrupt the game defensively, as well as attack the basket on the offensive end, will be important for us moving forward,” coach Derek Fisher said in a statement when Cooper re-signed in January. “We’re confident she’ll continue to elevate her game and be an impact player in this league.”

Cooper helped lead McEachern to state championships in 2012, ’14 and ’15, and she was the co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-America Game in 2015. She played collegiately at Tennessee (2015-16), South Carolina (2018-19) and Baylor (2019-20) before being drafted with the 18th pick of the 2020 WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury.

Later that spring, Cooper was cut by the Mercury and signed with the Sparks.

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