Sixteen years ago, Tina Thompson was sitting in a law school preparation class in her senior year at USC when a WNBA official left a voicemail inviting her to play for the new league.
Thompson had always wanted to be an attorney, so she was hesitant to go in another direction.
“They weren’t offering very much money,” Thompson recalled. “I think the initial offer that the WNBA offered me was below the poverty line in California.”
But a few hours before the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997, Thompson decided that she couldn’t pass on an opportunity to play for a pro sports league that was backed by the NBA. The Houston Comets made her the first player chosen.
She viewed it as a short-term adventure.
Seventeen seasons later, Thompson, who now plays for the Seattle Storm, is the only player who has remained in the league since its inception. The 38-year-old plans to retire after this season.
Thompson will play in Los Angeles on Thursday when the Sparks (12-5) play host to the Storm (6-10) at Staples Center at 12:30 p.m.
Thompson has played long enough to create her own record book. She is the league’s all-time leading scorer (7,195 points) and also leads in games (478) and minutes played (15,566). In addition, she is a four-time WNBA champion with the Comets, an eight-time All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. But former Comets coach Van Chancellor jokes that Thompson will be remembered for something else, “her bright lips.”
During every game in her WNBA career, Thompson has worn a deep red shade of lipstick. The tradition began during her freshman year at USC, when she forgot to wipe off her makeup before an exhibition and went on to score 23 points.
“From that moment, I just kind of wore it as a symbol,” Thompson said. “Then it kind of started taking on a personality of its own.”
Despite her bold look, in some ways Thompson has always been in the shadows on the court.
Thompson played with Lisa Leslie at Morningside High in Inglewood and at USC. Then after being selected by the Comets, she played behind stars Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper.
Her teammates, however, have never underestimated her value.
“The Houston Comets don’t win not one championship had it not been for Tina Thompson and her contribution,” Cooper said. “So many people want to give it to Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper, but Tina Thompson did so many things that people don’t recognize.”
Thompson is a 6-foot-2 forward but can play almost any position.
When she was young, she developed her outside game by playing against boys at Robertson Park in West Los Angeles. In high school, she switched to playing down low because she had a height advantage. “Tina Thompson is the complete package on both sides of the ball,” Chancellor said.
After the Comets folded, Thompson played for the Sparks from 2009 to 2011, alongside Leslie and Candace Parker. The following year she signed with the Seattle Storm, and this season she has assumed a starring role.
Storm stars Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird are out for the season because of injuries. Thompson is averaging 11.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game, both second-best on the team.
“This is really the first year where she hasn’t really had to play underneath anybody, and you just see how well she’s been able to play,” said Tamika Catchings, who played with Thompson on the U.S. Olympic team in 2004 and 2008.
During her lengthy WNBA career, Thompson said the quality of play has dramatically improved. “The players are a lot bigger and stronger,” she said.
But the WNBA remains a sport that is struggling financially.
The league started out with eight teams, it grew to 16 before several franchises folded, and it now fields 12 teams. The maximum WNBA player salaries have increased, from $50,000 in 1997 to $107,000 this year, and minimum salaries have also climbed from $15,000 to $37,950.
However, the league’s attendance continues to shrink. The high point was in 1998, when WNBA attendance averaged 10,864 per game; last year average attendance fell to 7,457, according to SportsBusiness Daily.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” Thompson said. “Everyone who plays in the WNBA wants it to be successful. We definitely want attendance to be high, and it’s unfortunate that we kind of haven’t figured it out.”
Despite aging gracefully on the court, Thompson said it’s time for her to walk away, perhaps to head back to law school.
“It’s something that I’m considering,” she said.
But Thompson’s impact continues to be felt.
“Young girls look up to her and aspire to be her,” said Camille Little, Thompson’s teammate on the Storm. “I think even after she’s done playing, she’s going to make another legacy in whatever she decides to do.”