Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Tina Thompson Was a Game-Changer

Guru’s note - the headline was different but since only minor changes made afterwards this was the Guru’s submission of Tina’s bio for the printed program for ceremonies inducting her 2018 class into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass.

By Mel Greenberg

A virtual last-minute off-court decision as a collegiate senior at Southern Cal led Tina Thompson to her eventual place at this weekend’s induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the establishment of the first WNBA dynasty while a last second shot late in her career helped launch another one in the women’s pro league for a team she never played for.

Thompson arrives in a year that has already seen her enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville and appointment to her first head coaching job at Virginia last spring after spending three seasons on the sidelines at Texas in NCAA competition.

Back in the winter of 1997, both the then-fledgling WNBA and short-lived American Basketball League in strong competition against each other for the best of collegiate talent had Thompson as a priority on their draft lists.

As the clock ticked down to when the WNBA was to launch their first selections, Thompson nodded in their direction.

By the time her career ended in 2013 finishing out in Los Angeles and Seattle after being part of the stellar Houston Comets era, Thompson was the all-time scorer with 7,488 points, since eclipsed last year by future Famer Diana Taurasi, and 3,070 rebounds in 496 games.

She was the last of all WNBA players from the inaugural season to depart.

Van Chancellor, who had just been hired as coach from Mississippi a few days earlier, recalls the frenetic wait.

“One of the luckiest breaks I ever got in my pro career, it was Sunday afternoon, five or six o’clock, and the draft was the next morning and 9 o’clock Thompson became available,” he remembers in making Thompson the first overall pick.

(Several players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie were allocated to teams near their natural markets.)

“We drafted her because she was a great outside shooter and Tina Thompson was tough and there’s no question in my mind she was the best post defender to ever play in the WNBA.”

Thompson completes a sweep of the Comets greats already enshrined here in Chancellor, Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke who were the mainstays of Houston winning the first four WNBA crowns from 1997-2000.

“On the other team, whether it was Lisa Leslie, Yolanda Griffith, Kym Hampton, she guarded the other team’s best inside scorer and she was a tremendous scorer, rebounder and smart as a coach,” Chancellor said.

“It’s unbelievable how tough Tina was as a basketball player. She was the total package. In the gold medal game I coached in Athens in 2004, we put her on the block and she was a force there,” he added.

“Her ability to score, the intelligence, the ability to defend, the ability to pass, it’s unbelievable what she meant to Houston franchise.”

A Los Angeles area native in Culver City who played her high school ball at Morningside in Inglewood, the 43-year old Thompson is one of five siblings with two brothers and two sisters and she has a 12-year-old son, Dyllan.

At Southern Cal (1993-97), she was fifth on the all-time scoring list when she graduated with 2,248 points besides grabbing 1,168 rebounds.

Former Trojans coach Marianne Stanley, now an assistant with the WNBA Washington Mystics, jokes about recruiting her but departing before Thompson arrived on campus.

“Obviously to achieve the status to be acknowledged and recognized by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, you have to be a tremendous competitor,” Stanley said.

“And one of the things about Tina that I always felt was special was she was a fierce competitor, as fierce as they come. And she combined that with a skillfulness that was unusual for a lot of the power forwards in her time.

“She could shoot the three from anywhere. If there was a four-point shot back when she played, she’d be hitting four-point shots all day long. She really opened up change for a lot of power forwards into the game — not just the back to the basket player, not to be rebounders, but to be face up players to be feared,” Stanley said.

“She was one of the players that people feared when she got on the court because anything inside half court, Tina was taking that shot and knocking it down and in that way she got the game evolved for power forwards.

The thing I think though that really set her apart was being one of the fiercest competitors,” she added.

“One of the best players I got to recruit at USC but never got to coach, which is a shame I never had that opportunity, but the other thing I think that’s really important for Tina is she has a legacy in the WNBA that sometimes she and her teammates and coaches don’t get the acknowledgement, because they won four championships.

“She was a big part of the success of the Houston Comets and I think the WNBA should make sure that they keep that history so players like Tina Thompson are being recognized and remembered as a tremendous talent that they were.”

Thompson grew her game though being undersized at 6-2 defending against many post stars.

“As post players, we get comfortable in our little box and we don’t want to move so much,” Thompson told the Daily Progress in Charlottesville following her hire at Virginia. “But the harder I’m going at you, the quicker you have to react, and the tougher you have to be to combat what I’m bringing.”

Debbie Ryan, who coached Virginia in a stellar career that ended before Joanne Boyle succeeded her and left last spring creating the vacancy for Thompson, remembers the USC star in NCAA competition.

“Tina Thompson is so deserving of this incredible honor, the Naismith Hall of Fame,” Ryan said. “She was a constant example of how the game should be played and she has cemented her legacy as one of the best to ever play the game of basketball.

“Tina was able to dominate the game as an undersized, hard-working post player. She owned the paint at every level and has set a very high bar for every player who will follow her.”

Thompson was a nine-time WNBA All-Star, including MVP honors in the game in 2000.

Besides her USA Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008, internationally overseas Thompson won titles in the Russian, Euro and Romanian National Leagues.

Taurasi, who now owns the all-time WNBA career scoring mark, says of her rival and teammate over the years, “Whatever I say, underestimates how much she’s meant to my basketball career and to a lot of people’s basketball careers over the years.

“She’s been the first person I’ve ever been around — on the Sparks, playing in Russia, and on the Olympic team — her approach to the game is like no others,” the Phoenix star observed.

“I’ve always wanted to be as tough as Tina. Whatever game we played, she was always tough as nails. She was always the rock to all those great teams, whether it was the Olympic teams, the Houston teams, and those overseas teams.

“Everyone wanted to be like Tina.”

As for that last second shot mentioned here earlier: In 2010 right near the end of the season, Los Angeles and Minnesota, both with mediocre records, played a game that was going to send the winner to the playoffs and the loser to the lottery.

The Lynx went ahead with four seconds left but after a timeout Thompson fired a long-range bullet that clinched a tiebreak and playoff berth for the Sparks after both teams finished 13-21.

As for Minnesota, the Lynx in the lottery landed the top pick and chose UConn’s Maya Moore, who also will be celebrated here one day in the future.


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