For her, it’s all about winning

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Seven weeks ago, Tina Thompson sat in the Sparks’ locker room, elbows on knees, head in her hands. She had piled up a team-high 24 points in the game, surpassing 6,000 career points along the way -- the second player in WNBA history to do so. Only there was no joy.

“I don’t care,” Thompson said with painful bluntness, staring at the floor. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll think it’s cool, but right now we just lost.”

Losing is not something the nine-time all-star forward takes easily. Neither is being in the spotlight, though that is where she finds herself going into Friday’s game against Tulsa at Staples Center. She needs 26 points to break Lisa Leslie’s record of 6,263.


What does it mean to her?

“Right now, absolutely nothing because we’re losing,” Thompson said Thursday, referring to the Sparks’ 9-17 record. “Everybody keeps asking me that, and I’m like, ‘Dude, we’re trying to make the playoffs.’ ”

The Sparks are half a game out of a playoff spot with eight games left in the season.

The scoring record is “the last thing on Tina’s mind right now,” Sparks Coach Jennifer Gillom said. “I think she’s just trying to help her team get to the playoffs.

“She’s definitely been our go-to player, our leader.”

That hasn’t always been the case, of course. In fact, it is serendipity that finds Thompson about to surpass Leslie’s record while leading Leslie’s old team.

In 2009, after playing her whole career for the Houston Comets, Thompson found herself without a team. The Comets had folded, but the Sparks beckoned.

“We all knew this was Lisa’s team and Lisa’s city,” teammate DeLisha Milton-Jones said. “Tina came in accepting her role. When you have a player of her stature coming into her situation ... that’s priceless.”

In a way, the 35-year-old Thompson has played behind Leslie her whole career, first at L.A.’s Morningside High, where each once starred, then at USC and again in the WNBA.


By the time Leslie retired at the end of last season, the spotlight belonged to Candace Parker, the 2008 league MVP and rookie of the year. But in June, the Sparks lost Parker to season-ending shoulder surgery. Thompson stepped up and is averaging 14.9 points a game despite a sore Achilles’ tendon.

“Tina doesn’t focus on individual accomplishments,” said Anne Donovan, who coached the U.S. team to a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics -- Thompson’s second gold. “She focuses on her team and wins.”

Thompson agrees.

“That’s me in a nutshell,” she said. “The objective of the game is to win. Basketball is a team sport. You can’t win without your entire team. Nobody pays attention to a team that loses no matter how well an individual player is playing.”

Thompson was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA’s inaugural draft in 1997 and immediately helped the Comets win four consecutive titles.

Former Comets coach Van Chancellor said Thompson was an easy choice.

“She can defend, she can rebound and she can score,” he said. “She does it with an inner strength and a drive to excel. Tina Thompson is as competitive as anyone who’s ever played the game.”

But so was Leslie.

In the 1999 Western Conference finals, they clashed for the first time when Thompson taunted Leslie after the Comets pulled ahead of the Sparks. Leslie responded by hitting Thompson just under the chin. Both were ejected and fined by the WNBA.


“I don’t know if we’ve ever been the same type of friends we were before, to be honest,” Leslie said. “But I love Tina, I love her family and her son, and I have no ill feelings about her at all.”

In fact, it was Leslie who encouraged Thompson to sign with the Sparks last year.

“She’s a hard worker, she’s a professional; it was a no-brainer for me,” Leslie said.

Former Sparks coach Michael Cooper agrees.

“She could’ve gone somewhere else where she could’ve been the queen, but that wasn’t the case,” he said.

Thompson, who has one year left on her contract, says she doesn’t seek the spotlight.

“That isn’t my personality,” she said. “My love is to play basketball. I’ve been blessed to play it for a living. Not many people get to do something they love to do and get paid for it. I wouldn’t be upset if someone never asked me for an autograph.

“I value being a role model and having an influence on young girls, but all the other things that come with it, I don’t need it.”

Then again, wouldn’t breaking the record impress her 5-year-old son, Dyllan?

“I’m not even his favorite player,” she said, laughing. “It’s Diana Taurasi.”



Top scorers

All-time WNBA scoring leaders:

*--* PLAYER GM AVG PTS Lisa Leslie 363 17.3 6,263 Tina Thompson 391 16.0 6,238 Katie Smith 372 15.3 5,690 Lauren Jackson 288 19.7 5,666 Tangela Smith 407 11.6 4,701 *--*