She has been there from the beginning.
As much of a part of the WNBA as the oatmeal and orange pattern on the ball.
Seattle Storm forward Tina Thompson was the league’s first overall draft pick in 1997, and after 17 seasons, the all-time leading scorer and nine-time All-Star will retire at the end of the season, a farewell tour that stops in Phoenix for the final time at 7 p.m. Friday night.
“The fans are brutal, but they applaud good basketball, as well,” the 38-year-old Thompson said what she would miss about coming to Phoenix. “You can tell they love their team. They are very into the game, what I remember most about coming to Phoenix, this was quite a while ago, but the two nuns, they kind of stick in my mind, being in the audience, just giving the opponent a really hard time. The fan base has always been great here, whether it’s the competitor or the home team, it’s always good to play in front of a good crowd.”
Joining with the tandem of Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, Thompson led the Houston Comets to the WNBA’s first four championships from 1997 to 2000. She went on to win the Olympic gold medal with Team USA in both the 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games, as well as a bronze in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. After the Comets folded, she played with the Los Angeles Sparks from 2009 to 2011, playing one season with USC college teammate Lisa Leslie, of whom she would surpass as the league’s all-time leading scorer on Aug. 8, 2010. She signed with Seattle in 2012.
The 2013 season with the Storm hasn’t exactly been to plan. With injuries to Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, Thompson is relied upon more in the rotation, starting every game, averaging 28 minutes, and leading the team in both scoring and rebounding at 13.3 and 5.6 per game. In her most recent game, she went for 17 and 10 in a 20-point blowout of the Sparks, and before that scored 23 in 35 minutes in a win over the Fever.
“I’d like to play less, but that’s not in the cards right now,” Thompson said. “I’m going to do whatever my team needs throughout my career, so I guess it’s kind of my destiny.”
One of the most respected figures in the game, many have high regards for Thompson.
Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who is on pace to break her career scoring record in the next few years, won two gold medals with Thompson and two Euroleague titles with Spartak Moscow in 2007 and 2008.
“Tina’s been great, I’ve known her since I was really young,” Taurasi said of Thompson. “My first stint with her was on the national team in 2004, and then we played three years together in Russia, so Tina and I have been through battles, we've won championships together in Europe, Olympics, World Championships, I have the upmost respect for Tina.”
Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever also played with Thompson in Athens and Beijing.
“Tina, we all know what she’s brought to the game and the WNBA, she’s definitely one of my role models,” Catchings said. “My big sis, I’m excited about the career she’s had, just a wonderful person and an awesome player to watch. I’m not happy, I’m sad to see her leave.”
Storm point guard Temeka Johnson, who led the Mercury to the 2009 WNBA Championship, runs the current offense that features Thompson.
“To play with somebody who had been here since day one is great,” Johnson said. “She has a great understanding of the game, great respect for her teammates, we respect her, and I am happy I have the opportunity to play with her.”
Seattle coach Brian Agler is in his sixth year with the team, winning the title in 2010, and is in his second season with Thompson.
“I’m so impressed with her, not only her abilities, but her intelligence for the game,” Agler said. “Her saviness and the quality of person she is, and to top it all off, she’s a great leader. She has just been a really strong and positive presence on our team.”
The Mercury (14-12), who sneaked past Tulsa Tuesday, 89-86, leads Seattle (12-13) by a game and a half for the third position in the Western Conference playoff race. The Storm is a comfortable three games ahead of San Antonio, however, for the fourth and final playoff spot.