The pecking order within the Houston firm of Cooper, Swoopes &
Thompson was never clearer than on May 15, when the three-time
WNBA champion Comets were honored for the first time at the White
House. The Comets' irrepressible guard, Cynthia Cooper, the
league's two-time MVP, worked the Rose Garden like a Borscht Belt
comic, presenting a ceremonial Comets number 1 jersey to the
President. Then celebrated forward Sheryl Swoopes reminisced
about her previous White House visits, in 1993 with national
champion Texas Tech and in '96 as a member of the
gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. As the cameras fired away,
the third member of Houston's Big Three, 6'2" forward Tina
Thompson, lurked in the background, to which she had been
essentially relegated in the program.
Thompson is accustomed to being upstaged. Though Houston coach
Van Chancellor insists that each has been equally integral to the
team's remarkable three-peat, Cooper and Swoopes were named
first-team All-WNBA last season, while Thompson was second team.
Swoopes and Cooper finished first and second, respectively, in
the 1999 All-Star voting, while Thompson trotted home fifth.
Cooper and Swoopes wear their own signature shoes; Thompson
usually wears Air Swoopes. No wonder that when Thompson learned
that SI was interested in writing a story about her, she said,
"Why me? Did Cynthia and Sheryl turn it down?"
Entering the league's fourth season, which begins on Monday,
Thompson is the Comets' career leader in rebounds and blocks, and
her point total ranks seventh on the WNBA's career list. "On any
other team she would be the franchise," Swoopes says. "We know
that without Tina, we wouldn't have three championships, so I
really admire her for handling the recognition she doesn't get."
While Thompson occasionally bristles at her lack of celebrity,
she comprehends the public relations dilemma. "How many players
on one team can be poster girls for the WNBA?" Thompson says.
"I'm only 25, and all the focus on Sheryl and Cynthia gets me a
lot of open shots, so I'll wait my turn."
Growing up in Southern California, Thompson aspired to be a
judge, and the pursuit of justice has shaped her career. When
Tina was nine, her big brother, Tommy, let her tag along with him
one day to Robertson Rec Center near their home in west Los
Angeles. As Tommy played a half-court pickup game with his
friends at one basket, Tina practiced on the opposite hoop until
one of her shots caromed down to the boys' end. A player snatched
Tina's ball, carried it out the gym door and tossed it across the
street, proclaiming that a girl could never be any good at
basketball. Tina responded by spending nearly every day that
summer shooting alone on an asphalt court outside the rec center.
"At first I didn't love the game," Tina admits. "I kept playing
to get my revenge."
The following summer she joined a rec league team with Tommy and
his friends. As the only girl on the squad, she rarely escaped
the bench until the day only six players showed up, one fouled
out, and the coach was forced to play her. "The coach told me,
'Whatever you do, don't shoot,'" Tina recalls. "So naturally my
plan was to shoot as soon as I got my hands on it." With time
running out and her team trailing by a point, Tina launched a
20-foot jumper and swished it to win the game. Before long, Tina
was among the first players picked at Robertson.
Apparently predestined to shadow fame, Thompson joined the
varsity as a sophomore at Inglewood's Morningside High the season
after Lisa Leslie earned the program national acclaim by scoring
101 points in a game. She even followed in Leslie's footsteps to
Southern Cal, where from 1993 to '97 Thompson quietly produced a
career double double. A sociology major, Thompson had planned to
attend law school, but she postponed that goal with the advent of
two women's pro leagues. The night before the 1997 WNBA draft
Thompson put the prospect of broader exposure ahead of immediate
financial gratification by accepting that league's $50,000 offer
and spurning a $150,000 deal with the American Basketball League.
The next day Chancellor took a risk of his own by passing on
several top veterans to select Thompson with the league's
first-ever draft pick.
Thompson required just one game to show how well she could
augment Cooper and Swoopes, pouring in 23 points, including 10 in
overtime, as the Comets beat Charlotte in their preseason opener.
She attracted almost as much attention that evening for what she
wore as for what she scored. On the court she sported her
favorite lipstick, Diva, a style note that dated back to her
first season at USC when she forgot to remove it before a game
against Maryland and scored 23 points. Thompson continues to be
so sure of Diva's charms that the day before a recent exhibition
game at Washington, when she discovered she'd left her lipstick
at home, she prevailed on her friend Chamique Holdsclaw of the
Mystics to drive to a mall and purchase a new tube for her.
Thompson may wear Diva on her lips, but diva is not in her
makeup. Power forward describes both her position and the manner
in which she plays it. She played the first week of her WNBA
career with a broken nose, which she had suffered in practice.
Last August, in the final moments of Houston's clinching win over
the Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference finals, Thompson
and Leslie were ejected after getting into a scrape that incited
a bench-clearing scuffle. "Tina's a good friend, but you wouldn't
know it on the court," Leslie says. "She's not dirty, but she
isn't afraid to fight and scrap and fuss and maybe even bust your
lip to try to win a game."
Since joining the WNBA, Thompson has been one of the top
three-point-shooting forwards in the league--she hit 35.1% of her
treys last season--and one of its best post defenders. After she
was released by the U.S. Olympic team last summer, she practiced
tirelessly to become more of a threat to shoot off the dribble.
Says Mystics coach Nancy Darsch, "If you wanted the prototype
WNBA power forward who can run the floor, rebound, set solid
screens, handle the ball and shoot the three, you'd clone Tina."
The Comets begin the season favored to join the Boston Celtics as
only the second pro basketball team to four-peat. But Cooper is
37, and Thompson's chance to move up in Houston's firm is coming,
unless the woman who is always paddling against the current
suddenly decides to scrap basketball and become a lawyer. She
plans to take the LSAT this winter, so one way or another, it may
not be long before Tina Thompson finally gets her chance to
command a court.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH "Tina's not dirty," says Leslie, "but she isn't afraid to bust your lip to try to win a game."
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU
Foretelling Year Four
While rookie Ann Wauters (12, above), the league's No. 1 draft
selection, hopes to change the Cleveland Rockers' fortunes, much
will be the same in the WNBA this season. For the third time the
Comets will face the Liberty in the Finals, and for the fourth
time Houston will take home the championship. Here's our
projection of the league's order of finish. --Trisha Lucey
1. New York Liberty--Leadership of Teresa Weatherspoon and Sue
Wicks will keep New York on top
2. Washington Mystics--After trading for Vicky Bullett and
drafting Tausha Mills, Mystics will soar out of the cellar
3. Charlotte Sting--Key players, especially Dawn Staley and
Tracy Reid, must get healthy fast
4. Orlando Miracle--Taj McWilliams and newcomer Cintia Dos
Santos form potent one-two punch in the post
5. Cleveland Rockers--Can top draft pick Wauters, a 6'4" center
from Belgium, have an instant impact?
6. Detroit Shock--No proven floor general, but rookie guards
Edwina Brown and Tamicha Jackson will be stars
7. Indiana Fever--Good backcourt depth with Gordana Grubin and
Stephanie McCarty, but not much else
8. Miami Sol--No go-to player, though center Marlies Askamp and
point guard Debbie Black are solid
1. Houston Comets--Cooper, Swoopes and Thompson unbeatable until
proved otherwise--maybe next year
2. Sacramento Monarchs--Strong at every position, and center
Yolanda Griffith is poised for another MVP season
3. Los Angeles Sparks--Second-year playmaker Ukari Figgs must
stabilize this unpredictable team
4. Phoenix Mercury--Should get a boost from high-scoring guards
Tonya Edwards and Brandy Reed
5. Utah Starzz--Point guard Jennifer Azzi's broken right hand
may mean another slow start for Utah
6. Minnesota Lynx--Eight draft picks will make Lynx more
athletic, but rookies will struggle to adjust
7. Seattle Storm--Czech center Kamila Vodichkova is a force in
the paint, but there's no complement from outside
8. Portland Fire--Former Liberty guard Sophia Witherspoon will
have to score a ton for this expansion team