In the last week of the last regular season of her remarkable 17-year WNBA career, and Tina Thompson still won’t break character. She won’t stop being the great blue-collar superstar of her sport. She won’t relent, even as she’s celebrated, until that last practice free throw falls perfectly through the net.
You’d figure that such little things wouldn’t matter at the end, that there would be some level of senioritis for Thompson, who will retire at season’s end. But she wouldn’t short-change the game like that. She wouldn’t short-change herself. So in her final days, Thompson goes about business as if her career will never end, and if you’ve seen her stellar play in leading the Storm to the playoffs this season, you would say her career shouldn’t be ending.
Most athletes leave the game reluctantly because they can’t play anymore. It’s the ultimate paradox of sports: You master the game, and then the game masters you. But Thompson is exiting as she intended. She’s retiring with plenty left.
“I’m really OK with my decision,” said the 38-year-old Thompson. “It’s set in stone. At no point am I going to change. The time is absolutely right for me. There isn’t any regret. I’m very comfortable in this decision.
“I think that you retire from the game, that the game doesn’t retire from you. I think that it’s a disservice to any player when the game retires from them. When you’ve had a very long career, it’s not necessarily about going out on top, but since I began playing basketball and in anything that I do, I’ve always been an extreme competitor. And I wanted to go out competing at the highest level.”
Thompson — the WNBA’s all-time scoring leader, the toughest player ever to compete with lipstick flawlessly applied — will leave having made one significant final statement.
Storm coach Brian Agler has told her throughout the season that if she could help lead a Storm team without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson to the playoffs, “this would be one of the biggest things you’ve done in your career.”
On the surface, that’s almost crazy to suggest. Thompson is the ultimate winner, with four WNBA championships and two Olympic gold medals on her resume. But her work this season has truly been extraordinary. It would’ve been so easy for Thompson to suffer a letdown without Bird and Jackson and ride into retirement on her previous laurels. But she didn’t become a women’s basketball legend by making excuses. She accepted one last challenge, and there was no way she would fail.
“Challenging Tina Thompson is like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull,” said Van Chancellor, Thompson’s former coach with the Houston Rockets and the 2004 Olympic team.
Thompson doesn’t know what she’ll do in retirement. She laughs and mentions sitting on the couch the first few weeks. She’s interested in doing television, and she certainly has the eloquence for it. She’s excited to spend even more time with her 8-year-old son, Dyllan. Agler has suggested coaching to her.
But she’ll only talk about the future so much. She still has work to do. The Storm are in the playoffs (they’ll take on Minnesota on Friday in the first game of their first-round series, and though Seattle will be a heavy underdog, Thompson says, “The expectation is to win a championship, always.”
“What I want people to know is that I absolutely love the game of basketball,” added Thompson, who is averaging almost 14 points and six rebounds this season. “I’ve given every ounce of myself to it. And I played with no regrets. I respect this game entirely. And I would never cheat it.”
No doubt, this is as graceful an exit as you’ll ever see.