In April 1997, on the night before Houston Comets coach Van Chancellor was to make the first pick in the inaugural WNBA draft, he got a call from then Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster, who knew his friend was trying to decide between USC 6'2" senior forward Tina Thompson and a veteran of an overseas league. Foster told Chancellor, "Younger players bounce back more quickly from injury. The WNBA season doesn't last long. Take Thompson." Foster made a good point, but it never applied to Thompson: In 16-plus seasons in the league, the first 12 in Houston, she has never had a major injury.
As players and teams have come and gone, and many celebrated stars have hit the disabled list for long stretches, Thompson—with her ruby-red Diva lipstick—has been an important constant in the league. That will change after this season, when Thompson, now 38 and the last original WNBA player still active, retires from the sport.
Though the topic makes her cringe and "feel old," Thompson's legacy extends far beyond what's listed in the record book, though there is plenty there. She, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes made up the Big Three and led the Comets to the first four WNBA titles, from 1997 through 2000. With tenacious post defense, range out to 30 feet and a jeweler's touch around the rim, Thompson plays with a versatility that was unknown among power forwards in the women's game 16 years ago and is still rare today. Even as bigger and faster young athletes flood the league, Thompson continues to be a difficult matchup—her experience and savvy, and her careerlong commitment to staying in shape and expanding her game, make up for any lost explosiveness. (Through last Thursday her 14.4 points ranked first and her 4.6 rebounds third on the 4--4 Seattle Storm.) To her four titles she added eight All-Star nods, seven All-WNBA selections and two Olympic gold medals. She has been the league's alltime leading scorer since 2010, and her 7,124 points (through last Thursday) are more than 800 ahead of Katie Smith, who is No. 2 on the list.
On the way to establishing those towering records, Thompson made another less heralded but no less influential contribution to the league: She provided young players with a template for how to be a successful female professional athlete, even when mom gets added to their résumés. After Thompson's son, Dyllan, was born in May 2005, the two traveled together wherever Thompson played, Stateside and overseas. "I took a chapter out of Tina's book when I became a mom," says 2008 league MVP Candace Parker, who took her own daughter, Lailaa, on the road with her soon after she was born in May 2009. "It's been great to have my daughter share that experience with me and get to be a little worldly. Tina showed me that was a good idea."
Thompson's mentoring of Parker, her teammate on the L.A. Sparks from 2009 to '11, began long before Lailaa arrived. When Parker joined the U.S. national team in 2006, Thompson taught her three post moves she had borrowed from the NBA: the Timmy, a double-team-eluding move used by Tim Duncan; the Kiki, a face-up maneuver employed by Kiki Vandeweghe; and Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake, a sequence of moves ending with a jump hook, which former Houston Rockets G.M. Carroll Dawson taught Thompson one afternoon early in her career. Parker in turn has passed those moves on to Sparks teammate Nneka Ogwumike, last season's Rookie of the Year, thereby ensuring that Thompson's impact will be felt for seasons to come.
With Storm stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson out for the season with injuries, Thompson's career will surely end more quietly than it began—no Big Three and, most likely, no final title. Her future? A career in broadcasting is a goal, and law school, which she put on hold when the WNBA called 16 years ago, remains a possibility. But Thompson says Dyllan, now eight, gets top priority. "Now he has his own goals and aspirations, and those are my focus," she says. "I've already lived my dream."
On the way to her towering records, Thompson provided young players with a template for success.
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