They were all smiles this morning in the theater of the Los Angeles Grammy Museum. Sparks' co-owner Kathy Goodman was smiling at the chance to introduce Tina Thompson, the team's latest sensation, to investors, who might have been concerned about the absence star for all or part of this season of phenom Candace Parker due to childbirth (the due date is May 1 at team spokesperson said) and by marquee player Lisa Leslie's announced retirement at season's end.
The three-year contract with Thompson, a five-time All Star and MVP of the 2000 MVP of the 2000 All-Star Game, makes the Sparks the only team in the league to have four members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team on their roster, Goodman noted in a prepared statement. Thompson took Olympic gold with the U.S. teams in Athens (2004) and last summer in Beijing, but missed the 2000 Olympic team due to injury. With the signing of Thompson, the Sparks line-up now boasts a combined nine Olympic gold medals, four WNBA MVP awards, the first six WNBA Championships, and 21 All-Star selections.
The often sober Coach Michael Cooper was smiling too. He described himself as "ecstatic about adding a player of Tina's caliber and talent to our roster." After starting last season as the presumptive league champion due to the return of Leslie and the addition of Parker, first pick in last year's draft, then seeing the team's title hopes slip through his fingers in the final minutes of two close games in San Antonio, he emphasized what Thompson could contribute to the team's already formidable front court.
"She can dominate on both ends of the floor and will be an integral piece of the puzzle as we look to win another Championship," Cooper added.
The move also brought a smile to the face of no less a legend of the sport than Earvin "Magic" Johnson. "I've always been a big fan of Tina's going back to her days here at USC," Johnson said in a wirtten statement. "She's a great woman on and off the court, at the same time a great mother as well. With her championship experience down in Houston, she has what it takes to help Lisa [Leslie], Coop [Coach Michael Cooper], and the Sparks bring a championship back to L.A. And, I am honored that she will be wearing my old #32 in the purple and gold."
Thompson will wear Number 32, in honor of Johnson, when the Sprks open the 2009 WNBA season on June 6 at Staples Center against the defending WNBA Champion Detroit Shock.
Thompson herself was literally beaming as she stood in the elegant Grammy Theater, surrounded by her three-year old son Dylan, her mother, family, friends, and a delighted Sparks front office. "I'm happy to be coming home," she said emphatically. "Over the years, I've played [against L.A.] in some intensely competitive situations, ... but this is home to me.
Thompson, the league's second leading all-time scorer (behind only Leslie) with more than 5,000 career points, was born in Los Angeles, and played high school basketball, along with Leslie, at local Morningside High.
Thompson followed Leslie crosstown to the University of Southern California where she racked up one honor after the other. A Naismith Player of the Year finalist in 1997, and an A.P. All American in 1996, Thompson was PAC-10 Freshman of the Year in 1994 (when Leslie was a senior at USC) and was named to the 1995, 1996, and 1997 All-PAC-10 First Teams, and well as to the Kodak All-District regional teams in the same years.
Thompson is one of the youngest of the handful of veterans still playing from 1997, the WNBA's inaugural year. The Number One draft pick, selected by Houston, Thompson says she was one of the few players to be drafted straight out of college. "It was overwhelmingly veterans [of overseas play and previous failed leagues]," said Thompson, describing herself as "something of a kid" in the midst of this "sea of much more experienced players."
Thompson stepped right into the line-up beside Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, who became known as the "Big Three" as they led the Houston Comets to a sweep of the league's first four championships. Along the way, Houston, now defunct, established a sometimes bitter rivalry with the Los Angeles, who seemed to be always the bridesmaid but never the bride in their early playoff duels.
Still, after the Comets folded and Thompson became a free agent, it was the Sparks' talent-rich roster and her familiarity with many of the teams' players--including not only Leslie, but also Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones, with whom Thompson has played for USA Basketball--that made L.A. one of the top contenders for her talents, Thompson says.
Thompson's signing has been rumored on various blogs and basketball message boards for several months now, but Thompson says that's all it was--"just rumors." Sparks' GM Penny Toler, another very happy face in the room today, didn't receive Thompson's signed contract until 4:00 a.m. Wednesday, says Thompson.
Thompson said she had been seriously considering three other teams: San Antonio, Connecticut, and Seattle. "I told all the coaches the same thing I told Coach Cooper, ... that I was considering things carefully and that I would talk to them before signing with anyone else. So I wanted to talk to them--to Coach Thibault, Coach Hughes and Coach Agler--before making any kind of announcement."
Toler added, "Did she tell you how hard I've been running after her? I've been calling her every week, asking, 'Tina, what can I tell you? What can I do to help you decide to come to L.A.?... Lisa [Leslie] even talker to her at the [N.B.A.] All Star Game."
Toler, who declined to discuss the details of the deal, said her main selling points were the great players already on the Sparks' roster, and the team's history of winning, or at least being in hot contention for, league championships. "Great players want to play with other great players," said Toler. "Tina is a great player, and she'll be playing with other great players here in L.A."
Thompson agrees that factor, along with her familiarity with both the players and the community in L.A., helped her make the decision. She describes herself as in a somewhat unique subgroup in the league because of her youth and experience.
Looking back at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Thompson distinctly recalls a moment immediately after the gold medal win, when she stood alone on the sidelines as two distinctive groups of teammates each enjoyed their own celebrations. In one group were Leslie, Comets teammate Sheryl Swoopes, and Dawn Staley, who had played together on the Senior Women's National Team since the 1995-1996 developmental year designed to bring the gold back to the USA at the Atlanta Olympics. Thompson, still in college, was not selected for that year's team and missed the 2000 Olympics due to injury.
Further down the sidelines a younger group of players--Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Ruth Riley--frolicked in the victory. These were the "newcomers," most of them only a year or two out of college, to whom the torch was getting ready to be passed.
Thompson acknowledges that as an experienced veteran about to receive her first gold medal, she had a foot in each group, but fully belonged to neither. "They gave me a moment, they knew I needed a moment, to just take it all in. I was like, 'Wow, it's finally happened.'" Then, Leslie, stepped over to pull Thompson into an embrace and invite her into the veterans' celebration.
|USA women's basketball teammates Tina Thompson, then of the Houston Comets, right, and Lisa Leslie, of the Los Angeles Sparks, share hugs and tears of joy after a 74-63 win over Australia in the gold medal game at the Indoor Arena in Athens during the 2004 Olympics Games. Leslie, Thompson, and Sheryl Swoopes, also on the U.S. team in Athens, were among seven original players still in the WNBA as it celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer. That talented trio of All-Stars has combined for five WNBA championships and three consecutive Olympic gold medals. Swoopes has since been cut from the Seattle Storm roster, while Thompson, who picked up her second Olympic gold last summer in Beijing where Leslie notched a record fourth consecutive Olympic gold, joined the Los Angeles Sparks roster today.|
That same combination of youth and experience is a huge plus to be reaped by the Sparks from this acquisition. Last year, Thompson averaged 18.1 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game, and 2.1 assists per game for the Comets. That stat line was better than Thompson's career averages of 16.3 points and 6.7 boards per game, a clear sign that this player has yet to peak.
Of her own future, Thompson says retirement might be "close," but it's not yet at hand. She says she is committed to going out on top of her game, and that every player knows the right time for them. "Some of us are just too proud to admit it when it gets here, I guess," she said with a laugh.
Then she grew more serious. "I'm at the point in my career when I no longer want to lead in minutes played, which I used to. I do get tired. I'm not a person who has to be out there just to be there." If she plays, says Thompson, she always wants to make a contribution to her team.
That's something Thompson feels she's prepared to do for the Sparks this season, and perhaps for several years into the future. "I feel good," she says. "I'm healthy. I haven't played basketball in a long time," adds Thompson, who took the winter off from playing ball in Europe. "Realizing that I might be playing basketball soon, I've been keeping in shape. I'm not ready to go play in the Olympics right now, but I'm ready to get out there and start playing again. I'm looking forward to getting the season started."
No one would say exactly what the Sparks' line-up would look like with the addition of Thompson, but Toler stressed her versatility, and for that matter, the versatility of the rest of the roster.
"She'll start," said Toler. "You don't bring a Tina Thompson here and not start her." Toler said fellow power-forward Delisha Milton-Jones, whose contract was recently extended, was also expected to start.
Thompson "may be a power forward, but she can play almost anywhere from the two to the four. She's strong in the paint and a great defender. But you know her range--it's pretty much from her car!" Toler exclaimed of her new post player's ability to step out and sink the three. Toler added that Milton-Jones could also play from the two through the four, even the five. "You can put Lisa [Leslie] anywhere from the three to the five. And Candace can play anywhere. That's part of what makes them such great players. I'll leave to Coop [Coach Michael Cooper] to decide where and how to use them. My job is just to go out and get [the great players] for him."
Together, the four players--Thompson, Leslie, Parker and Milton-Jones--may make up the most powerful front court ever to take the floor in women's basketball.
Toler is still unwilling to concede any weakness in her team's oft-criticized diminutive back court ("You win as a team and you lose as a team. Who are the better point guards in this league who would be available to us right now," she told Full Court at the time of Leslie's retirement announcement.)
But Toler also said that there would be more trades and acquisitions ahead for the Sparks. "You've got to get better every year," she stated. "This won't be the last. It's the biggest, but it's definitely not the last."
As for Thompson, she has just one goal looking ahead to her time in a Sparks uniform. "To win," she said. She paused for a moment, and then repeated, even more emphatically, "To win it all. That's what it's all about, isn't it? It is for me. If I'm playing, then I'm playing to win."