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Neil Enns/Storm Photos

Celebrating a Legendary Career

September 11, 2013

Brian Agler much prefers having her in his huddle than in the huddle at the other end of the court.

Noelle Quinn is much happier playing with her than playing against her.

And Seattle fans think she looks much better in Storm white and green than in Comets red or Sparks purple.

As Tina Thompson gradually prepares to turn down the lights on her phenomenal 17-year career, her impact has gone way beyond the boundaries of 94 feet of maple hardwood. It long ago ceased to be contained by the walls of Houston’s Compaq Center or Toyota Center, L.A.’s Staples Center or Seattle’s KeyArena.

In nearly two accolade-laden decades in the WNBA, she played with talented teammates and played for title-winning coaches.

So sure, go ahead and ask them about what Tina Thompson has meant to women’s basketball. But don’t stop there.

Ask the fans, too.

Ask some of the Storm Crazies, who have relished every moment of the final two years of Thompson’s tremendous career and are hoping to relish a few more in the weeks ahead.

“She’s just been so strong and steady throughout her career. I think she’s a great example,” said Storm fan Jan Bollerjack. “She has brought a lot of life to the Storm this year.”

“I don’t think she should retire yet,” added Ellenor Jensen, a Storm fan who had no trouble speaking what many Storm fans are feeling right now, “I think she’s amazing.”

Were it not in large part for what Thompson has been doing the past three-and-a-half months, those Storm Crazies might not have a whole lot to be going crazy about in the waning days of the regular season.

Delivering the kinds of performances night in and night out that many players in their prime can’t match – team-leading marks of 14.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, with four double-doubles factored in – Thompson and the Storm are assured of yet another trip to the postseason, their WNBA record-setting 10th straight.

In fact, query her about her most special moment from her two summers in Seattle here and she needs only a second or two to settle on one…although that special “moment” is six months long and is still continuing.

“I would probably say this entire season has been very enjoyable, considering the expectations everyone else had for us,” Thompson said.

BELIEVING IN IT – AND WORKING FOR IT

Those expectations were almost universally low after the wintertime announcements – barely a month apart – that Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird would miss the entire 2013 campaign while recovering from injuries.

Yet the Storm was dead even at .500 after 30 games (15-15) and assured of a playoff berth, while several other teams, including defending champion Indiana and highly-touted Phoenix, were still trying lock up their places.

“I don’t think anyone outside of this group of women and the direct people who have a day-to-day imprint of how we function believed that we would be able to be in this place,” Thompson said. “To me, believing is half the battle. Then it’s putting in the work to actually put you in this position. I’m really proud of my teammates and what we’ve been able to do, considering we had so many doubters.”

None of those doubters have a locker or an office in KeyArena or in their practice facility at Seattle Pacific University.

The players and coaches have been believers all along. Thompson – sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly – helped see to that.

“She knows when to get on somebody and she knows when to give them a pat on the back,” Agler said. “But she has high standards. That’s why she’s as good as she is.”

Even at age 38 and with those 17 seasons of wear and tear, some of those high standards are evident in the box score on an almost daily basis.

Others are only evident when looking outside the box.

“She’s a tremendous competitor,” Agler said. “She competes in practice on every drill. Every game, she’s going to do her best to bring her best. That becomes infectious in a team setting.

“That’s part of her leadership,” he continued. “There’s leadership you can do by your communication and by your action and she does both. I think all of our players who have played with her have benefitted in learning from her in multiple ways.”

Noelle Quinn can attest to that. She was Thompson’s teammate with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2010 and 2011, then was reunited with her this year in Seattle after signing last winter as a free agent.

“What ultimately makes Tina Thompson a winner is her work ethic, her competitive spirit and her toughness,” Quinn said. “It’s on display in the locker room through her leadership. It’s on display on the practice court through her focus. It’s on display in road trips through her preparation and discipline.”

That Thompson has put this on display for the Storm and its fans the past two years was not part of her original plans. She figured she’d be a lifelong Houston Comet after being drafted out of Southern California in 1997 and then helping them win the first four WNBA championships.

But that franchise folded after the 2008 season and she joined the Sparks. Three summers later, she was in Seattle, lured in part by the two players who haven’t been able to suit up during this, her final year on the court.

“I played with both Sue and Lauren in different instances. What they bring is very close to the outlook that I have about approaching the game and kind of like how I see it,” Thompson said. “I thought this would be a good fit for me.”

MOVING ON, BUT NOT SLOWING DOWN

And so it has been. But in a few weeks, Thompson and pro basketball will go their separate ways. She’s very serious about pursuing her lifelong dream of law school.

“That was kind of my career goal and aspirations I had as a student,” she said. “But the WNBA kind of came along and put it on hold for a little while.”

She’s eagerly anticipating the chance to have nothing more on her schedule than just driving 8-year-old son Dyllan to school or basketball practice or Little League.

“My most favorite (role) is being a mom. I wouldn’t trade that in for anything,” Thompson said. “Basketball is something that is temporary. It will last for a period of my life. Momship will be like forever.”

As much as she has meant to the Seattle franchise, to her teammates, to Agler, it’s not a one-way street. Getting an opportunity to extend her career – and ultimately finish it – in the Northwest has meant a lot to Thompson.

So has playing in front of the Storm fans, whose vocal and supportive reputation usually is recognized by WNBA general managers as making Seattle the toughest place for a visiting team to play.

“There’s nothing like just being appreciated and welcomed and just kind of loved by your fan base,” Thompson said. “Being able to finish in front of a group of people and a fan base that appreciates what we do on a night-to-night basis is amazing – and it’s also helpful. Sometimes, you find yourself in positions during a game where you’re clawing your way out of situations or fighting to finish off a game. To have that support at the end of all this is so helpful.

“It’s pretty priceless.”

Priceless? Storm fan Hellen Della Cruz might just say the same thing about Thompson’s impact, especially the last two years in Seattle.

That is, Della Cruz will say it if she can find the right way to say it.

“She’s so good,” Della Cruz remarked, “that words can’t really describe it.”

Maybe in this case, words aren’t needed.

The name Tina Thompson says it all.

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