Thompson's WNBA Legacy Unparalleled
She should blame the company she keeps.
In Houston, it was Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. On the U.S. Olympic team it was Lisa Leslie, a pecking order that carried over to the Los Angeles Sparks last year. Even this season, the 14th year of Thompson's WNBA career, Candace Parker played the starring role in Los Angeles.
She's never been an attention-seeker, a spotlight grabber. When she gets called for interviews, she admits thinking, "Nah, c'mon, not me."
But don't you dare assume that says anything about Thompson or her place in WNBA history. She's nobody's second-fiddle, nobody's complementary player. The people she played with know that all too well.
"She has only flown under the radar for the person on the outside looking in," said Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, now the head coach at UNC-Wilmington. "The people she's played with know who she is and what she's capable of."
"I'm sorry, but Tina's always been recognized as an all-star player. I don't see her as underrated, I see her as a superstar," said New York Liberty coach Anne Donovan.
"She never was second-fiddle in my mind," said former Houston Comets head coach Van Chancellor. "One of the luckiest moves I've ever made was being fortunate enough to draft Tina Thompson."
How's this for a legacy?
The 35-year-old Thompson has four WNBA championship rings and two Olympic gold medals.
She is the lone original player remaining from the WNBA's debut season in 1997.
She was the No. 1 draft pick in league history.
She is a nine-time WNBA All-Star, and a two-time league MVP.
And she is 43 points away from snatching the WNBA's career-scoring record from Leslie.
Thompson currently has 6,220 career points and 2,554 career rebounds. Leslie's scoring record is 6,263.
At this late stage in her career, Thompson finds herself carrying a heavy load. She's become the Sparks' go-to player in a difficult season. A team that was already adjusting to the retirement of Leslie then had to absorb a season-ending shoulder injury to Parker. Los Angeles is 7-16 so far this season and are in line for only the franchise's second losing season since 1998.
"I am one of the leaders of this team, but with Candace getting hurt, it's put a gray cloud over this team for the moment," Thompson said. "I've definitely had to do some adjusting for sure. It's not something you embrace, really, but you adjust to it."
In Parker's absence, Thompson is the Sparks' leading scorer at 14.8 points a game.
"In the absence of Candace, she's taking a lot of players under her wing, helped them push through adversity," said Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom, who was Thompson's peer on the floor back in 1997. "To do as many things as she does so well, rebounding and scoring and passing. Her being on championship teams helps us in moments like this. We're making a push to the playoffs and she's been there."
Thompson spent 12 productive years in Houston playing for the Comets, winning the first four WNBA titles in league history.
But when she was drafted by Houston as the No. 1 overall pick in the league's inaugural draft, she was reluctant. She was hoping to stay closer to home in Southern California.
But Chancellor said that if Thompson was unhappy or homesick, it never showed on the floor.
"She hit the floor for our first practice at Houston Baptist back in 1997 and she's been a great player ever since," Chancellor said. "She is the best shooting big in the history of the game. And she plays with such toughness and grit and determination."
Cooper-Dyke calls Thompson "a fierce competitor."
"She wants to win so badly and she's always been willing to put in the hard work," Cooper-Dyke said. "She's never been satisfied with winning a championship and that's why she's carved out such a legacy for herself, it's why she's still in the game. She's really done it all. If you name those players -- LIsa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes -- you have to name Tina Thompson. She's awesome."
Donovan coached Thompson on the U.S. Olympic team, which won the gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
"I [had] complete confidence with Tina on the floor that we were not coming away with anything but a gold medal," Donovan said. "She has experience and wisdom and maturity and above all that, she is not going to let her teams lose."
Thompson is, without question, near the end of her basketball career. She looks around and there's literally nobody left from her rookie season in the league. She never thought she would be the last original player.
She said that being 35 is "most definitely different than being 28 or 30 or even 32."
"I'm blessed never to have had a major injury, but it's tougher to bounce back. I'm the training room a lot more than I used to be," Thompson said. "Things hang around because of the wear and the tear and all the minutes."
Thompson has one more year left on her contract with the Sparks -- but she's thinking about retirement. In truth, she's been thinking about it for a while.
"I totally could have retired anytime in the last five years, but I'm a competitor and I want to win," Thompson said.
Yet the Sparks struggles are wearing on her. She said she will evaluate her desire to play at the end of the season.
"The end is most definitely near," Thompson said. "The Sparks knew when I signed that at the end of each year it was going to be an evaluation process."
Thompson is a mother to five-year-old Dylan. And she might just be ready to go to law school -- something she's dreamed about since graduating from USC back in 1997. She wanted to take the LSAT back then, but basketball got in the way. She's carrying the LSAT books around with her on the road right now.
"My career goals was always to be a judge, but that seems a little far-fetched now," Thompson said. "But I want to go to law school."
And Thompson, who never worried before about her place on the marquee and with a scoring record closing in, isn't going to start now.
"The attention is not my thing, it's not something I've ever chased," Thompson said. "I know that at the end of the day, those WNBA championships and those Olympic gold medals, I think there's an argument to be made that if I'm not on those teams, we don't win those."