Bittersweet homecoming

Walking into the Southwest College gym during the first week of training camp, Tina Thompson was conflicted.

After signing a three-year deal with the Sparks, this should have been her homecoming. A Los Angeles native, the two-time league MVP was a star at Inglewood Morningside High and then USC. Yet, after a 12-year career with one team, the Houston Comets, she now felt like a tourist.

It's not that she doesn't still love L.A. She is wearing No. 32 this season in honor of Magic Johnson and is enamored with purple and gold. The problem is she won four WNBA championships wearing red and white.

"Los Angeles is home, but the Los Angeles Sparks aren't my home," said Thompson, who will anchor the offense of an injury-depleted Sparks team as it hosts the division-leading Seattle Storm on Sunday. "If I would go anywhere, you have to get acclimated with how things are run and how they do things."

The Sparks (2-5) have had missteps, though Thompson is averaging 13.7 points and is the only player on the Sparks to crack double digits in six of their seven games. But those are below her career average of 16.02 points a game, leading Thompson to say she's "been consistently average, but I don't consider myself an average player."

Coach Michael Cooper agrees she is anything but average.

"We have yet to see her full force because she hasn't been shooting the ball well," Cooper said days before Thompson led the Sparks with 20 points and shot eight for 10 in their 69-67 loss Friday to Seattle.

The Sparks aggressively pursued Thompson after she found herself without a team as the Comets franchise folded. With her joining a roster full of fellow Olympians -- Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones -- the league's general managers not surprisingly predicted the Sparks would win the title.

"Tina is definitely one of the best players the WNBA has ever seen," said New York Liberty Coach Anne Donovan, who coached Thompson on the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing. "She did it as a rookie and a younger player . . . then developed her own game. She did it as an Olympian. Now that she's in L.A., she just continues to shine."

She did just that on the Sparks' media day last month. With a beaming smile, she displayed a David Yurman cable bracelet and ring and a white Chanel watch. She has talked glowingly about shopping on Melrose Avenue again and enthusiastically ticked off her favorite restaurants: Tito's Taco, Papa Jakes, Harold & Belles.

It wasn't only the shops Thompson missed, but her family as well. Now she and her 4-year-old son, Dyllan, can visit them any time, including her 89-year-old grandmother.

Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, the former Comets star, says for Thompson, it is also about being successful.

"Tina puts winning first," she said. "She wants to win, whether it's with the Olympic team or the Houston Comets. When you want to win, you're willing to do whatever it takes to be successful."

But being drafted by the Comets in 1997 didn't make it easy.

"I actually didn't want them to draft me," said Thompson, 34. "Los Angeles had the No. 3 pick, so I was expecting to play at home. For them to pick me was kind of like a nightmare. In retrospect, that was awesome. But then, I was kicking and screaming."

She recalls learning ahead of time from Houston that she was going to be the No. 1 overall pick. As soon as she hung up the phone, she vented to her mother, Lady Thompson.

"I'm going to die," Tina Thompson said. "Some guy called me and told me they were going to pick me No. 1."

"So that means you're not going to play in L.A.," Lady Thompson replied.

"Hopefully they change their mind," Tina Thompson said.

But Comets coach Van Chancellor has called it the "best pick that's ever been made in the WNBA" -- and for good reason. The Comets won the league's first four championships, thanks in no small part to Thompson.

She is the second-leading scorer in WNBA history, behind only Leslie.

Thompson made the All-WNBA first team, finishing her rookie season in the top 10 in blocked shots, rebounds and points per game. Thompson would make the league's first team seven more times.

But that first season? She cried a lot.

"I was miserable," she said.

She didn't think she fit in with a veteran-savvy team and mentioned other teammates' "drama." Although she had lived on her own at USC, she had enjoyed knowing family was only a 20-minute drive away.

But the frustration never spilled onto the court.

"You let it go and you go to work," Thompson said. "Everybody is not happy all the time, but there you have a responsibility. When you make a commitment, you have to follow through with it."

After spending the last two seasons without a playoff appearance, Thompson was thinking retirement.

"If Houston was still in existence, I wouldn't be playing anywhere else," Thompson said. "I would've ended my career there."

Known for having a dependable outside shot, post presence and an ability to guard the wing and post, Thompson has always been among the players that ranked high on the wish list of Sparks General Manager Penny Toler.

She knew she had the incentives to secure Thompson. That included having a chance to win her fifth title.

"Good players are going to want to play with good players," Toler said.

It soon became a match. As Cooper said of the signing, "It's like when you're building a puzzle and you're looking for that last piece to make it complete."

Leslie, who is making this season her last, put it more simply. "It's a no-brainer for us to play together," she said. "I don't think she'd be happy anywhere else, honestly. And I wouldn't want her to be. I'm happy that she's here."

So is Thompson, though she admits the adjustment from the Comets to the Sparks has been more than expected. For one thing, the practices are twice as long as what she's used to -- "more than I've ever practiced in my career," she said.

She also has some catching up to do.

When she and Leslie recently visited Morningside, former coach Frank Scott acknowledged some of the students were unfamiliar with Thompson, even though both players have had their high school jerseys retired.

"I don't think they'll forget who she is now," he said.

Thompson will try to make sure of it. For now, she'll revel in playing for a team she wanted to join as a rookie, even if she plans on returning to Texas after she retires.

"I love Houston,' Thompson said. "I'm totally still a California girl, though."

--

mark.medina@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesmedina

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Position

Sparks forward

The player

2 Olympic medals (2004, 2008), 4 WNBA championships (1997-2000 with Houston Comets), WNBA's second all-time leading scorer (5,500 points), eight-time league All-Star.

Connection

Played at USC (1994-1997), where she was a three-time All-Pac 10 selection and finished fifth all-time in scoring (2,248 points) and rebounding (1,168). Won California AAA player of the year in 1993 at Inglewood Morningside High.

Abroad

2001-2002: Roverto Basket (Italy); 2003: Kumho Falcons (South Korea); 2006-2007: Spartak Moscow Region (Russia).

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°