The Quiet Storm
As the only player left from the W’s inaugural season, Tina Thompson is still around…and dominating.
by Christian Mordi / @Mordi_TheComeUp
In the past 16 years, Tina Thompson has seen all that the WNBA has had to offer. Thompson has observed—and been a part of—the ups and downs of advertising in the WNBA, scored a lot of points and was a key factor in the league’s first dynasty. But possibly the most important thing Thompson has learned over her basketball career is this:
The choices you make will define you.
Thompson’s game is probably one of the most unique the WNBA has ever seen. While many talk about her versatile skill set, Thompson said her game was developed as a product of her environment. Thompson was raised in West Los Angeles, CA, honing her game at Robertson Park. In an area known for its rich basketball culture, Thompson was placed in a great environment to grow.
“Everyone in my neighborhood played basketball,” Thompson said. “It wasn’t my initial interest, but my brothers used to always take me to the park, and I just began playing and competing.” Playing with her brother and his friends helped mold her game for years to come. “I started playing basketball with guys, and they were bigger than me. A lot taller and more developed than I was.” As a result Thompson developed a polished outside game and often displayed an uncanny ability to hit shots for a player of her size.
The balance of Thompson’s offensive game made coaches salivate at the opportunity to have her don their program’s jersey. Thompson chose to stay close to home and continue to soak in the Cali sun at USC. It was here that Thompson got to play with Future Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie. Thompson was very observant and learned a lot in the year playing alongside Leslie.
“We pushed each other and playing together was an instant connection,” Thompson said. “We had an excellent high-low game, with me up top and Lisa working the block down low. The game becomes very easy when you are playing with someone of that caliber. Her basketball IQ is very high.”
In 1997 Thompson graduated from USC, which was perfect timing, as it was also the WNBA’s first season. The Houston Comets chose Thompson as the first pick ever in the WNBA Draft.
“Things were so different then, I actually knew I was going to be taken first before the event happened,” said Thompson. “I didn’t feel any pressure, I felt like everyone was really working with me as this was our first draft.”
The Houston Comets and the WNBA instantly threw Thompson into the fire. In regards to the Houston Comets, Thompson was a rookie expected to immediately contribute for a team full of talented, grizzled vets. Thompson lived up to the hype, and made an immediate impact on the court and in the lockeroom.
“Even when she first came on the team as a rookie she had something special about her,” former teammate Sheryl Swoopes said. “The way she carried herself was very professional, that was contagious for everyone on the team.”
The WNBA in Thompson’s first years was a veteran-dominated league, but in order for it to grow, gravitating toward the youth would be imperative. Having Thompson on board with the vision and buying in was key. “From a media standpoint, I think she was a little shy, everything was new and different,” said Swoopes. Even though Thompson is a naturally shy person, she put her best foot forward to represent the Comets and opened up with the press.
Rather than shy away from the moment, Thompson dug deep and focused on developing her game. Ever-studious and observant, Thompson had a great chance to learn more about basketball from future Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper.
“I think Thompson saw the benefit of hard work,” said Cooper. “Her perception of professional sports changed with time. She began to see it like a pro, going and working for eight hours. Trying to get better every day. Going to work so that your company, which for us was the Houston Comets, was the best out there.”
Thompson also credits Cooper for helping mold her approach to the game to take herself to an elite level.
“I had the pleasure of watching Cynthia Cooper as a professional,” said Thompson. “I didn’t get to see her play until we both got to Houston, but when I met her I instantly noticed her work ethic. Her professionalism and how she handled the game of basketball. She was the first into practice, last to leave. She didn’t have to be there, but she was because she was dedicated to the game. This clicked with me.
“I was 22 at the time, and I was determined not to let her be the last one in the gym every day. I feel like this example really helped shape me and my career,” Thompson said.
The experience paid huge dividends for her and the now-defunct Houston Comets. They became the league’s first dynasty, winning four championships. Winning early changed the Cali native’s perspective and approach to the game of basketball.
“My only focus is on winning championships,” said Thompson. “I believe if you put the work in you can put your team in a position to win those goals.”
It’s no surprise that even though Thompson’s achieved so much individual success (WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a nine-time All-Star), she always bought the focus back to team goals. “I have never been a player who set goals to be the MVP or All-Star. I always wanted to just play the game hard and be efficient. I put the team first,” she said.
Her ability to adapt with the times and her well-balanced game are key factors in Thompson being the lone player left from the 1997 inaugural season. Thompson also credits eating well and keeping her body in good shape year round as other reasons she has had a lengthy career. Thompson isn’t just out there playing spot minutes at the end of the half as her career dwindles away either; Thompson is out there making noise.
Most recently against the Washington Mystics, Thompson exploded for 30 points and 8 rebounds on 5-9 shooting from downtown. While many expected the Storm to struggle this year with Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson out, but Thompson has stepped up and the Storm are 3-3, good for third in the Western Conference.
When asked to choose one word to describe Thompson’s game, Cynthia Cooper said, “Smooth. Thompson’s transition from a tough back to the basket to being able to shoot on the wing and put it on the floor was effortless for her. She made the transition with ease.”
Thompson most recently announced that this would be her last year in the WNBA as a player. Odds are the transition will be just as smooth to whatever line of basketball-related work Thompson heads into.
“I think Thompson will be a great general manager,” says Cooper. “I am not sure if coaching is what she wants to get into, but I know she loves the game of women’s basketball. I could also see Thompson in broadcasting. I think she has a great personality and can bring a lot of insight.”
The world will be at Thompson’s fingertips at the season’s end. The choice she makes will define her future, and Thompson knows this all too well.