With the KeyArena spotlight on her, Tina Thompson turned the attention of her WNBA regular-season farewell Saturday into instructions for the players in care of the game she’s leaving behind.
“The WNBA is the best-kept secret in the world in a sense that in every single season that I’ve been a part of, this product has been amazing and the level of competition has been very high,” she said to Storm teammates, Tulsa Shock players and a crowd of 8,978. “You guys are the future of the WNBA. Continue to work and play as hard as you do.”
It’s one of those scary moments to which parents can relate. At some point, you have to let go of your baby in order for it to flourish. Now Thompson, 38, embarks on the final days of her career beginning with a first-round playoff game Friday at Minnesota.
Thompson, a 6-foot-2 forward, is retiring after an illustrious 17-year career that is defined by four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets and nine All-Star appearances. She is the league’s all-time leading scorer (7,488 points) and career leader in minutes played (16,089).
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When Thompson plays her final game at the end of the Storm’s playoff run, it’ll be a final look at the WNBA’s beginning and its sole dynasty. The Comets won the first four league titles, and Thompson was one of the team’s stars until it folded after the 2008 season.
“It never occurred to me that that could happen. If Seattle were to disappear, I would really not have a WNBA home,” injured Storm star Sue Bird said. “It (brings) it home when, say, Tina or Sheryl (Swoopes) will never have their jersey raised in the rafters. All of the great things that did happen there. But to still not have a team in Houston, it does kind of take away from it … now that those players aren’t in the league anymore you want to celebrate them.”
Pieces will still remain of the Comets. The team abruptly disbanded in December 2008 when Hilton Koch, a former football player turned furniture dealer, couldn’t juggle his private business with a financially struggling franchise.
After purchasing the team from Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander in January 2007, Koch turned the team over to the league in protection of his $10 million investment in 2008. The WNBA was in the midst of signing a deal with ESPN for its broadcasting rights – a first – and selling “marquee” sponsorships where companies like LifeLock and Farmers replaced “Mercury” and “Sparks” on jerseys. But WNBA president Donna Orender couldn’t find an owner quickly enough to spread the wealth in Houston.
There was a dispersal draft a week after the Comets folded, rookie Matee Ajavon going to Washington, Sancho Lyttle getting picked up by Atlanta and Roneeka Hodges eventually resurfacing in Tulsa. All are still playing.
But Thompson is the last from the glory years.
“All of that winning, it was amazing,” said Thompson’s mother, Lady, of her eldest daughter’s Comets teams.
Some thought Thompson would simply retire after the team folded, having established Houston as her home and giving birth to son Dyllan in the city. Instead, the Los Angeles native returned home to play three seasons with the Sparks.
When that experience didn’t result in a championship, Thompson signed a two-year deal with Seattle in 2012. With Bird (knee) and Lauren Jackson (hamstring) out this year due to offseason surgeries, Thompson took on an unexpected leadership role in her final season. She averaged team highs in scoring (14.1 points) and rebounds (5.8) in leading the Storm to a WNBA-record 10th consecutive postseason appearance.
“She never stopped trying to get better,” said her agent, Aaron Goodwin. “She never rested on the accolades she did before. Here we are, 17 years in, and she’s still out there competing and trying to win. That’s Tina.”
The same season the Comets dissolved, the WNBA stopped requiring teams to print media guides and stopped printing its own guide and register. So even the record book the Comets wrote is a relic that’s hard to find.
“I really hated for Tina to have to go through that because she — along with Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and all of them — they set the standard in the WNBA the first four years,” said former Houston coach Karleen Thompson (no relation), one of Tina’s closest friends. “To see that go away and she’s still playing, that was the sad part about it. All of Houston wanted to see Tina retired in Houston, no doubt. She helped build that house there.”
Third-year WNBA president Laurel Richie is still learning her league. Her focus is strengthening the 12 existing teams and growing the brand. The league’s collective-bargaining agreement will expire at the end of the 2013 season, too, which is a higher priority than reflecting on the past.
Saturday at KeyArena, Richie and the Storm and Shock players stood and looked directly at the past in Thompson, however. The players wore her signature berry-red lipstick and No. 7 jersey, each expressing a want to fill her championship shoes.
Perhaps that’s how Thompson and her Comets legacy will continue to live.
“I feel lucky I was able to play with Tina,” Bird said. “She really got things going.”
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JaydaEvan