Tina Thompson — And Her Lipstick — Have Left A Mark

Star Has Been There From The Beginning

UNCASVILLE — It began her freshman year at USC. Tina Thompson played OK in the first exhibition game and then much better than OK, scoring 23 points in the second.

"I had a huge load of classes my freshman year, something like 16 or 18 units," Thompson said Friday on the eve of her record ninth — and final — WNBA All-Star Game. "I was rushing through my days, my days were packed and I just left my lipstick on.

"I played a really, really good game and one of my friends said it must have been the lipstick. I'm like, maybe, and I just started wearing it for no other reason than that."

And two decades later?

"Oh," Thompson, 38, said. "Now it's part of my uniform."

The league's all-time leading scorer, four-time champion and the only woman to play in every WNBA season is hanging up that uniform for good at the conclusion of the 2013 Seattle Storm season. If Dorothy found her home in the movies by wearing ruby red slippers, Tina found her home in the WNBA wearing her ruby red MAC Diva lipstick.

"When Tina retires, no one should be able to wear Diva ever again in the WNBA," said Diana Taurasi, who'll be Thompson's West teammate Saturday at Mohegan Sun Arena. "I think her jersey should be retired in every arena. If you play in the WNBA, that should be your goal: to be like Tina Thompson."

Rebecca Lobo, who broke into the WNBA in the initial season of 1997 with Thompson and later was a Houston teammate of Thompson, had another idea.

"At the basketball Hall of Fame," Lobo said, "they should have her locker with just the lipstick there."

If we are to look beyond the cosmetic, of course, we are left with one of the great and versatile pioneers on and off the court.

Over 17 seasons, Thompson proved she not only could hammer with the best around the rim, she also could step outside with a long-range jumper. Growing up on the courts of Robertson Park in West Los Angeles, she played on the perimeter against her brother TJ and the other boys. In high school, as a teammate of Lisa Leslie at Morningside in Inglewood, she moved inside. Together, she and Leslie would move on to USC and much later would reunite with the LA Sparks.

Thompson's WNBA record 7,218 career points and 15,597 minutes played stand as a statistical tribute to her ability and durability. She has a whopping 885 more points than No. 2 Katie Smith. Thompson is third all-time in rebounds.

"Tina is the ultimate WNBA player," Taurasi said. "Year 1, No. 1 draft pick. Probably the best legacy in the WNBA is the Houston Comets, to win four in a row, to play with Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes and still be a superstar in her own right."

Said Thompson: "The third championship with the Comets stands out the most for me in my career. Our friend and teammate Kim Perrot was battling cancer, it was an emotional time for us, mentally and physically draining. To overcome [her death that 1999 season] and still win a championship and dedicate it to her, it is my proudest moment."

Size, speed and versatility, to be sure, have changed since the late 1990s. Thompson and Lobo pointed to Candace Parker and Elena Delle Donne as proof.

"Tina was such a big, strong, physical presence," said Lobo, who'll broadcast the game for ESPN. "She was one of the first post players I had to play against on the perimeter. Now, it's not uncommon to see Elena or Candace, but she was the first big player who could really spread the floor.

"I didn't know a lot about her coming from UConn. We never played each other. I was her teammate in Houston in 2002 and she was such a leader. She was the voice of that team. Super-competitive, fiery, supportive, incredible longevity, I think the world of her."

Sports Illustrated recently called Thompson "a template for how to be a successful female professional athlete, when 'mom' gets added to their resumes." Thompson gave birth to her son, Dyllan, in May 2005. While former NBA player Damon Jones is Dyllan's father, Thompson has always been the primary caregiver.

"Being a mom, it's who I am," Thompson said. "I don't necessarily look for any credit for that. It's my life. It's my responsibility. As far as mentoring other players, I wouldn't necessarily call it mentoring. I have relationships with teammates, players I've met in the league and I share my experiences. Whatever knowledge I've picked up along the way, I just pass it on."

Parker was one of those recipients. A former teammate of Thompson with the Sparks, Parker returned in 2009 only six weeks after giving birth to her daughter Lailaa.

"I had two great role models with Lisa Leslie and Tina," said Parker, married to professional basketball player Shelden Williams. "I saw the way she balanced everything, how it's OK to feel tired sometimes, that you're not superwoman. It's great to have my daughter on the road to share experiences with her."

"Being a mom I can't imagine having a child, getting your body back so quickly and be able to be at such a high level competitively," Lobo said. "I think for the most part Tina has handled it as a single mom. I give her so much credit."

And what would she tell young women who would combine motherhood and hoops?

"It's definitely not easy," Thompson said. "Look forward to less sleep, really long days, but it's definitely possible. That's the most important part. I don't think you have to sacrifice one or the other. You need a support system for sure, but it's something we can do."

Taurasi talked about learning from Thompson while playing for Moscow Spartak and winning EuroLeague titles together. She was a "pit bull," Taurasi said, refusing to lose. Olympics, national teams, Thompson long has been eager to help younger players. She taught Parker early on moves perfected by Tim Duncan, Kiki Vandeweghe and Hakeem Olajuwon.

"Tina was tremendous in enhancing my knowledge of the game," Parker said.

Thompson says she hasn't approached her last season any differently. The difference is the reaction. On Friday, when she stepped on the court, the fans at the All-Star practices gave her a big round of applause. She later addressed them.

"I wasn't expecting to here," said Thompson, who was asked to play after an injury to Brittney Griner. "I gave them a hard time. 'Isn't there somebody? I need these days off.' They said, 'No, we did the number-crunching. You're next in line.' I said, 'I'll be there.'

"I love basketball with all my heart. Every time I stepped on the court, I gave my all. I never cheated the game. If people remember me that way, I'll be satisfied."

A long time ago, at USC, when the WNBA first called, she was working toward becoming a lawyer. That career path is not out of the question, although Dyllan is her primary concern now and broadcasting may be a better fit. Still, with collective bargaining talks looming, Thompson has her opinions.

"It would be great to see another roster spot added," Thompson said. "Players are getting hurt a lot more than in the past. I'd like to see an increase in the salary, too. It's pretty unfortunate. We're probably the only professional sports league where the coaches, executives, everyone gets paid more than players [the maximum is $107,000 and was $50,000 in 1997].

"It was never a matter of whether we could play or not. It was a matter of how we would be received. There hasn't been a year since the WNBA started where I could say the basketball wasn't good. The product has been great."

And so has Tina Thompson.

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