Tina Thompson Reflects On Basketball Legacy

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By Michelle Smith

Tina Thompson grew up in West Los Angeles, a place where the groundwork for a future in the Pac-10 was laid.

"My best friends from high school went to Washington State and Arizona and Oregon and Oregon State," Thompson said. "The Pac-10, for me, was kind of a childhood experience. My cousin played football at UCLA. And I have to say, so many of those people went on to great professional careers because they were always students first and athletes second."

Thompson first made her mark on the women's basketball program at USC, and went on to carve out one of the greatest careers in the history of women's basketball, at both the Olympic and professional levels.

In 1997, she was the No. 1 pick in the first-ever WNBA draft. She is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, won four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets, is a nine-time WNBA All-Star and last summer, she became the WNBA's career scoring leader with the Los Angeles Sparks.

Thompson, the lone original player from the WNBA's inaugural season, played in 2010, but hasn't decided whether she will return for her 15th season of professional basketball. But her legacy in the game is secure, her career destined for the Hall of Fame.

Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Thompson's teammate on the Houston Comets and herself a USC alum, has called Thompson "a fierce competitor."

"She wants to win so badly and she's always been willing to put in the hard work," Cooper-Dyke said. "She's never been satisfied with winning a championship and that's why she's carved out such a legacy for herself, it's why she's still in the game. She's really done it all. If you name those players -- Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes -- you have to name Tina Thompson. She's awesome."

Thompson came to USC after a decorated high school career at Morningside High School in Inglewood. Thompson said she chose USC over Stanford at the time because she wanted to stay close to home, and came into the program as part of a large freshmen class.

Thompson played power forward for the Women of Troy from 1994 to 1997, sharing the paint for one season with Lisa Leslie, who held the Pac-10 women's basketball scoring record for more than a decade, until Candice Wiggins took over in 2008.

Thompson and Leslie have been complementary players for quite some time. They went on to win Olympic gold medals together and share the floor in the WNBA for the Sparks for one season.

Thompson was at USC during a time of transition in the program. She was recruited by then-coach Marianne Stanley, who eventually left the program. She would finish her career coached by the legendary Cheryl Miller, who starred at USC in the early 1980's and is regarded by some as the greatest women's player ever.

"It was scary and exciting," Thompson said of playing for Miller, who is a member of the basketball Hall of Fame. "We were all familiar with her history and who she was and what she accomplished."

But Thompson said the experience turned out to be very positive.

"[Playing for Miller] led me to where I am today," Thompson said.

Thompson finished her Pac-10 career ranked fourth in conference history in scoring with 2,248 points and third in rebounding at 1,168. She ranks in the top 10 in field-goals made, field-goal attempts, free-throws made and free-throw attempts.

Part of Thompson's positive experience was the relationship she developed with the other athletes in the USC athletic department.

Thompson said that when she arrived at USC in 1994, she lived in the dorms and she purposely chose a roommate that did not play basketball.

"One of my roommates was a volleyball player," Thompson said. "I made a lot of friends with the other athletes. We were all in the same athletic department building, passing each other in the hallways. We would study together at the academic center."

This close contact with the other athletes created a department-wide team mentality.

"If you walked over from the dorm, the dorm was right next to the Lyon Center where we played. And where we played was 20 steps from the track," Thompson said. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the athletes because we were together all the time."

Basketball has taken Thompson around the world. She has played with and against some of the sport's greatest players. But she still has friendships that date back to her time on the USC campus and a sense that she was part of something important.

"I always had a sense of what women's sports has meant in this region," Thompson said. "There is a culture of women's sports in the Pac-10. I'm a West Coast girl and it just fit for me."

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