WNBA's All-Time Top Scorer Tina Thompson Retires

The WNBA's biggest star, Tina Thompson of the Seattle Storm, has just retired. She played in each of the league's 17 seasons. She won four championships and two Olympic gold medals. Steve Inskeep talks to Thompson, who never dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to hear next from a woman who has finished one of the most extraordinary careers in recent sports history. Tina Thompson, of pro basketball Seattle Storm, has retired. She played in every one of the WNBA's 17 seasons. The all-time top scorer, she won four championships, two Olympic gold medals. But she never dreamed of becoming a pro basketball player. That option once hardly existed for women.

In fact, she was sitting in a test prep class hoping to get into law school when she got a call. The brand-new Women's National Basketball Association had chosen her for their very first draft pick.

Was a hard decision to go to the WNBA at all?

TINA THOMPSON: It was, especially initially because I mean, from a financial standpoint, the money that they offered me was literally a couple of thousand dollars above the poverty line...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...in California at the time.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: So...

INSKEEP: To be the number one draft pick in an entire sport.

THOMPSON: So I was kind of like, all right. You have been wanting to be, you know, a judge, you know, almost your entire life. You studied hard, now you're studying to take the LSAT and it wasn't, you know, to hard of a decision to decline. But once negotiations and stuff like that started, they made it more, I guess, pleasing for me to be able to make a decision to play in the WNBA.

INSKEEP: What's the smallest crowd you ever played before in a pro basketball game?

THOMPSON: I would probably say a few thousand. I mean I've been very, you know, blessed to play for good teams that have a great fan base. I mean, in Houston our fan base was amazing. There were times we went on the road, I remember it was actually a television game when we played in Detroit, like one year. And you could probably, you know, count the amount of people that were in the stands at the time. But, you know, once the game starts, I once - I kind of step in between those lines, I have tunnel vision.

So that's not something that bothers me. But of course, I did notice it, like, in warm-ups and things like that. Because when you can actually hear individual voices, and totally understand what they're saying - and there's not the hum of, you know, just people kind of like talking and stuff like that, like drowning it out - you know that there's a very small group of people in the arena.

INSKEEP: Is there any one play, any one basket, any one score that goes through your head again, and again, and again and you can see it is if you're experiencing it again?

THOMPSON: There is actually one play that I see quite often and just, I think it's embedded into WNBA history. And it's not one that I've taken myself. It was one...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...that was taken by a player by the name of Teresa Weatherspoon. And Teresa played for the New York Liberty. We were playing them in a championship, a three-game series, and we were up by two points. I actually think that I had made the basket before, to kind of put us up. And Teresa is taking the ball out of bounds. They don't have any timeout and we relaxed.

So, she kind of dribbles by a few of my teammates and I'm kind of like, in my mind, like: Are you guys just going to let her get a free look at the basket. And I run kind of asked her because I'm like, we should at least deter her. And she keeps the ball from our end of the court and it goes in.

INSKEEP: Ow.

THOMPSON: Yes. So they beat us by one point. And I am extremely livid. So we go to the locker room and everybody is kind of like, no big deal - we'll get them tomorrow. And I'm like: Are you kidding me.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Who wants to come back tomorrow?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Like, this should be over. I'm pissed.

INSKEEP: You should have one in the series.

THOMPSON: No one laughed. No one smiled. This is not OK.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: Needless to say, we go back and we completely smash them in the third game. And, you know, we win our second championship. But yeah, I was heated.

INSKEEP: Has there been - forgive me for not knowing this - has there been any moment in which you have played against the men in any kind of setting - in a kind of Billie Jean King kind of setting?

THOMPSON: Well, like during the All-Star Game, like, quite a few of us consistently are invited to the NBA, like, All-Star. And we do, like, shooting events during, like, All-Star Saturday and things like that. Being from L.A., I have a lot of friends that play professionally and have played, so more so like in pickup games and stuff like that.

INSKEEP: When you've played against men in informal games or in other settings, have you noticed differences in the style of play, the way of play, the way that people think, their attitude on the court between men and women?

THOMPSON: Oh, for sure. Some guys, especially those that are not professional - because the professional guys actually have a bit more respect. But for men that actually aren't professionals and, you know, they are put in the situation...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...where they're having to play against or with, or have to guard a female player, there's just kind of like his machismo that they have the sense that: No matter how talented this female player is, they believe because they're a guy that they're better. So they exert a lot more energy.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You said they use a lot more energy, meaning they're a little worried about you. They want to make sure...

THOMPSON: Yeah, like they're little or they feel like, you know, they might be embarrassed or something like that. And it's kind of like, yeah, like you just got crossed over by James Harden and it was no big deal, because he's a professional. But now, you're guarding, you know, Maya Moore, and you're being extremely physical with her because she's, like, a female. And it's just like, come on, dude - like, relax.

Like, no matter how you try, she's a professional. So you could try as hard as you want to - she's better.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Your fans will know that you have an eight-year-old son, right?

THOMPSON: I do. I have an eight-year-old son. His name is Dylan. He spent most of his life as a - just a basketball kid.

INSKEEP: What was that like when he was two, say?

THOMPSON: It was great. I mean he immediately adapted to the lifestyle. You know, sometimes our hours are really weird and really awkward, especially when we were traveling with the Olympic team or USA Basketball. I mean sometimes we were getting up at like three, four o'clock in the morning but he would get up. And he wouldn't be fussy.

INSKEEP: What did he say when you told him you were going to retire?

THOMPSON: He wasn't happy about it. He's so much a part of our team and he has relationships with our players and coaches, and stuff like that. So it was really tough for him. He actually cried. And, you know, I felt just kind of heartbroken by it. But at the same time, it's like: Mom is 38 years old and this is her 17th season; like, she can only play, like, so much. You know?

And I just explained to him, like, he's going to be amazed at the difference in our life: Little League, and to play flag football and basketball, like consistently. You know, me retiring and not playing basketball anymore, will be a distant memory.

INSKEEP: Well, Tina Thompson, congratulations on the highs and lows of those 17 years.

THOMPSON: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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