Before the titles and the toppling of records, back when the Olympics and a professional career seemed nothing more than dreams, Tina Thompson learned to love the game of basketball.
Growing up, she honed her skills playing pick-up ball in the gyms and on the asphalt courts of West Los Angeles, not too far removed from her hometown of Culver City. As she once told ESPN’s Andy Kamenetzky, she had no idea this game could help pay for college before becoming so much more.
Then, as now, it was about playing — forget glitz and glamour and media frenzy. Accolades were nice, but they never supplanted her initial sense of purpose.
So when Thompson announced late last month her decision to retire at the end of the 2013 season, it was through a simple statement. She’d already met with her Seattle Storm teammates to inform them that this was her final campaign, but after consulting with her agent and the league, she decided to go public.
No plans were made for a farewell tour — Thompson would never hear of that. At 38 years old, with what will be 17 WNBA seasons under her belt, it was simply time to move on to the next chapter of her life.
“I’m not one for extra attention, and I was also considering my teammates,” said Thompson. “Things like this, it can turn into a circus. I’m here to play basketball. I wanted that to be the focus.”
Fans have been allowed to show their appreciation during the course of games, but teams have respected her wishes to keep things simple. When the Storm traveled to Connecticut on June 16, the Sun made an announcement, met by a rousing cheer from those on hand. That was enough; this final season won’t turn into a series of sideshows. As always, the game takes precedent — the Storm won that one 78-66.
Thompson was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA’s inaugural 1997 draft, and won league titles in her first four seasons while teaming up to devastating effect with Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes for the Houston Comets. The 6-foot-2 forward is the league’s all-time leading scorer (7,124 points) and has played the most minutes (15,333). She is the only remaining player from that debut ’97 season.
“I just want a break,” said Thompson, whose professional career has included stops in Italy, Romania, Russia and South Korea. “I’ve played [basketball] since I was 9 years old, nonstop. A lot of years it was year-round. Just being able to not travel, enjoy time with my son … I’m looking forward to having time to do with my day, my week, whenever.”
Now 8 years old, Thompson has home schooled Dyllan since last November, when she headed to South Korea to play for Woori Bank Hansae of the Women’s Korean Basketball League. She was named the 2013 WKBA Player of the Year after leading Hansae to the league championship and averaging 21.8 points and 11.5 rebounds through 24 games.
Thompson, in her 17th season, is the leading scorer for Seattle this season averaging 14.4 points per game (photo courtesy of the Seattle Storm)
In Seattle, the reaction to Thompson’s retirement wasn’t so much surprise or shock according to Jayda Evans, who covers the Storm for the Seattle Times.
Instead, there was a sense of nostalgia — the kind that gathers force over the course of a season, as the games on the schedule diminish and realization settles in that this is the last go-round for one of the greatest champions in history.
“There was a sense of understanding,” said Evans. “It’s been 17 years, and she wants to raise her child (Dyllan) in a more stable environment.”
Thompson once told Evans that heading into each offseason she’d look to improve an aspect of her game. She’s always been a terrific shooter, a skill she forged during those heated pick-up games she played in as a rail-thin kid.
Facing opponents — often boys and men — who were much bigger than her, Thompson quickly recognized that she if she could stretch defenses with her trusty jumper, she’d give her team the best chance to win. And if her team won, they stayed on the court for the next game.
That perceptiveness and insatiable desire to unlock defenses stayed with Thompson as the years went by. She starred at Morningside High School and then the University of Southern California, and her offensive skill-set became one of the most dynamic ever seen in the WNBA. She kept adding wrinkles, which kept her opponents guessing. It has allowed her to remain competitive even as she’s gotten older.
“The shooting was always there, but she’s added more accuracy and more versatility to her game,” said Evans. “She’s stayed with these young kids. It’s not trailblazing, but she’s been able to stick to her roots.”
Seattle is the third WNBA stop in Thompson’s career, after 12 seasons in Houston and two in Los Angeles. This season, the Storm are coping without their two tenured stars, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. Both are out for the season, with hamstring and knee injuries, respectively.
“This will be a different season,” said Thompson. “It’s an adjustment, figuring out who we are from a personality perspective.”
In Bird and Jackson’s absence, Thompson has assumed a much greater role for the Storm than had perhaps been expected.
Last season, with Bird healthy and Jackson back in the fold after playing for Australia in the London Olympics, Thompson started just five games out of 29 and averaged career lows of 8.9 points and 19.0 minutes.
But multi-faceted offensive players thrive in Storm coach Brian Agler’s system, which is predicated upon players who can affect the game from anywhere on the court.
Through the first eight games of 2013, Thompson has averaged a team-leading 14.4 points along with 4.6 rebounds and just under a block per game. Thanks in large part to that production; Seattle has won three of its past four games after starting 1-2.
Facing the Sun (June 16) and Washington Mystics (June 18), Thompson poured in 47 points and shot 18-of-31 from the field (7-of-13 from three) while averaging 34 minutes per game (that pulled her season average to 27.8 minutes; it now rests at 27.5 per game.)
Against the San Antonio Silver Stars this past Friday, Thompson added 21 points in a 91-86 road victory. All four of her field goals were three-pointers, and she sank nine of her 11 free throws.
Evans believes the Storm can crack the postseason, and with the league so balanced this season while a number of teams weather injuries to key players, anything can happen. Can Thompson’s body hold up through September, and possibly October? That’s the key question at the moment in terms of gauging Seattle’s chances, Evans believes.
At the very least, the Storm won’t have to worry about any distractions stemming from Thompson’s final foray through the WNBA schedule.
“I appreciate the love, and people not wanting me to go and send me off well,” Thompson said. “But my focus is the same from when I started; it’s always been basketball. All the other stuff is a bonus.
“I’m not one of those personalities to reminisce. Once it’s all over, maybe it’s something I’ll do, but I’m constantly moving forward. I’m a single mom with a son, whom I home school. I have a job. I travel. I don’t have much time to sit and reflect. Right now, I make a decision, and I’m happy with it. I rarely make decisions that I regret. I’m just taking it day by day.”
It’s impossible to get Thompson to gloss over her career, Evans said. She’ll always demur, or offer that maybe there will be time for reflection once she’s retired and has a little more time on her hands.
Sometimes, Thompson will shoot you a withering look that conveys that message better than words ever could. Evans said this with a knowing chuckle. She’s covered Thompson for years, and she knows the selflessness is as genuine as it comes.
For now, Thompson wants to win another championship with the Storm. Until she bounces a basketball for the final time in this league, this final season will be set to a rollicking crescendo fueled by consummate professionalism.
“She was the first true WNBA legend,” said Evans. “You can’t say it any more than that.”