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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - Page updated at 11:30 p.m.
Tina Thompson: No. 1 and almost done
By Jayda Evans
Seattle Times staff reporter
Tina Thompson couldn’t have been an Olympic soccer player.
Athletic and driven, she couldn’t break any barriers as a female football player or play a simple game of catch on a softball outfield.
“I’m allergic to grass,” Thompson said as she tiptoed across the lawn at Seattle Pacific University for a photo shoot.
The player who has scored more points than anyone in WNBA history was practically predestined to play basketball.
And now, 29 years after her first trip to prestigious Robertson Park in West Los Angeles where she honed her game, Thompson, 38, is ready to put down the basketball. Thompson, the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA’s first draft of college players in 1997, leaves as the definition of what it means to be a women’s professional basketball player.
“I couldn’t have imagined any of this,” said Thompson, who has won four league titles and scored 7,195 points heading into Seattle’s matchup at Los Angeles on Thursday. It will be Thompson’s final regular-season game in her native city.
“The fact that I’m here 17 seasons later; it wasn’t ever my expectation,” Thompson said. “To be able to do it and do it in good fashion ... It amazes me a little bit.”
The first and last
Media questions have to be the most annoying part of Thompson’s job. Since her Houston Comets team disbanded in 2008, questions of when she’d retire began.
Thompson’s familiar scowl framed the standard response, “I’ll wait until the end of the season to see how I feel.” But it was always more than just her body.
There’s also her 8-year-old son Dyllan to consider. Born in May before the 2005 season, the gregarious child is the only reason Thompson has spent an extended time away from basketball. That was two months to give birth and get back into shape to return.
“Dyllan is probably the main reason Tina is still playing,” said close friend Karleen Thompson (no relation), who was present during Dyllan’s delivery.
Tina and Karleen met as players at USC. Karleen coached Tina in Houston and recently retired from her job as an assistant coach at Princeton.
“He’s so happy to be around the game,” Karleen said. “When Dyllan came into this world, her whole level of maturity went up another five notches. Tina’s most important thing is Dyllan and his stability. He’s a huge reason why she decided to go ahead and do it (play).”
Thompson’s physical foundation for longevity was built in college.
USC’s strength and conditioning trainer had the team up at 5:45 a.m. for drills. Coach Cheryl Miller held practices as if preparing for the Olympics. And Thompson didn’t party or drink.
Shooting three-pointers like a guard and scoring and rebounding in the post against bigger players was a foundation built in Thompson’s youth.
On the courts at Robertson Park, Thompson was the only girl playing against grown men, many who played in the NBA. She had to develop a versatile, physical game in order to even get into a game.
“When I decided to play basketball, it wasn’t because I actually wanted to play,” said Thompson, the second oldest of five siblings. “I just wanted to hang out with my older brother (TJ) because he was really cool. I used (basketball) as an excuse. When I got there, I realized it was a lot harder than just going out there and playing. Also, they were mean! ‘Girls don’t do this.’ Being the personality that I am, it was, ‘Oh, really?’ ”
Now, with Dyllan beginning his own path in football and basketball and his mother home schooling him in order to play in Korea last winter, the schedule has become too grueling. Being in the gym all day and doing homework until midnight was too much. Thompson woke each morning with aches that forced her to walk like the Tin Man.
Thompson has been the bane of equipment managers for two decades.
In nearly every game Thompson has played since her freshman season at USC, she’s left a blotted stain of lipstick on opponents’ jerseys — a welcome of sorts to rookies in the WNBA.
The “Diva” lipstick lined with a “Vino” lip pencil by MAC is synonymous with Thompson.
“It became part of my uniform,” Thompson said of the combo with a combined retail price of $30. She forgot to remove it once as a freshman at USC, scoring 23 points in a win.
“I was kind of like, ‘Oh, it must be the lipstick,’ and it stuck,” she said.
Thompson will retire the matte color, too. Yet, the feminine touch is a symbol of her off-court impact on the WNBA.
Thompson prepared to take the LSAT en route to becoming a judge before being drafted. She plans now to study law after retiring.
She’s the co-founder and creative director of Blue Print Collective, a marketing and branding agency. She’s sought for advice by fellow WNBA players who ask about their business aspirations and about handling personal issues.
On the floor, Thompson is a coach and referee, not shy to calm teammate Temeka Johnson from jawing with an opponent or belting “stop being lazy!” to Shekinna Stricklen on defense.
The respect Thompson has earned is no surprise to anyone, going back to her days at Morningside High in Inglewood, Calif., and carrying over into her college and pro career.
“I knew two weeks before that (former) coach Van Chancellor was going to pick her,” said Renee Brown, WNBA chief of basketball operations and player relations. “It was important because we were establishing the league. Now, her name will go down as one of the most important to help get this league started and help sustain it.”
“Why am I over here about to cry?” Karleen Thompson asked Tina at the end of a long conversation that began with her friend’s news that she was ready to announce her retirement.
Lady Thompson, Tina’s mother, and Dyllan expressed the same sentiment, the latter sharing he “cried a little bit,” when told.
“I was surprised,” said Thompson’s mother, who spent every WNBA season and some overseas stints traveling to watch her daughter play. “I think she’s still got it. But if she’s tired ...”
Thompson doesn’t shy from sharing the pains of playing this season.
She was signed in 2012 to be a secondary option to veterans Sue Bird, Camille Little and Tanisha Wright. And to make a final championship run when Lauren Jackson, an Australian All-Star, returned from the Olympics.
Injuries left the Storm one offensive play from reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2012. This season, with Bird (knee) and Jackson (hamstring) out, Thompson and Little are the top offensive options.
Thompson had a season-high 30 points in a 96-86 overtime win against Washington at KeyArena in June, making five three-pointers. She is Seattle’s second-leading scorer (11.6 points), shooting 38.2 percent.
“I’ve been stinking it up a little bit,” said Thompson of her final season. She wasn’t named an All-Star for just the third time in her career. “We’re at a place overall where we could fold and give in or we can get better. I’m not giving in.”
Then Thompson can retire on the positive note she desires.
She’s sacrificed valued time with family to play and said she’s eager to reconnect. But she’ll remain an ambassador for the league she helped build.
“She’s the one and only,” WNBA president Laurel Richie said.
She’s the one Tina Thompson owns many “No. 1”s in WNBA history: Career scoring 7,195 pts Career minutes 15,566 Games played 478 WNBA titles 4 Drafted 1st, 1997
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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