SEATTLE -- It was the last week of the last regular season of her remarkable 17-year WNBA career, and Tina Thompson still wouldn't break character. She wouldn't stop being the great blue-collar superstar of her sport. She wouldn't relent, even as she's celebrated, until that last practice free throw fell perfectly through the net.
You'd figure that such little things wouldn't matter at the end, that there would be some level of senioritis for Thompson, who will retire at season's end. But she wouldn't short-change the game like that. She wouldn't short-change herself. So in her final days, Thompson goes about business as if her career will never end, and if you've seen her stellar play in leading the Storm to the playoffs this season, you would say her career shouldn't be ending.
Most athletes leave the game reluctantly because they can't play anymore. It's the ultimate paradox of sports: You master the game, and then the game masters you. But Thompson is exiting as she intended. She's retiring with plenty left.
"I'm really OK with my decision," said the 38-year-old Thompson, who scored 22 points in herr last regular-season game at KeyArena with the Storm on Saturday night, an 85-73 victory over Tulsa. "It's set in stone. At no point am I going to change. The time is absolutely right for me. There isn't any regret. I'm very comfortable in this decision.
"I think that you retire from the game, that the game doesn't retire from you. I think that it's a disservice to any player when the game retires from them. When you've had a very long career, it's not necessarily about going out on top, but since I began playing basketball and in anything that I do, I've always been an extreme competitor. And I wanted to go out competing at the highest level."
Thompson--the WNBA's all-time scoring leader, the toughest player ever to compete with lipstick flawlessly applied--will leave having made one significant final statement. Storm coach Brian Agler has told her throughout the season that if she could help lead a Storm team without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson to the playoffs, "this would be one of the biggest things you've done in your career."
On the surface, that's almost crazy to suggest. Thompson is the ultimate winner, with four WNBA championships and two Olympic gold medals on her resume. But her work this season has truly been extraordinary. It would've been so easy for Thompson to suffer a letdown without Bird and Jackson and ride into retirement on her previous laurels. But she didn't become a women's basketball legend by making excuses. She accepted one last challenge, and there was no way she would fail.
"Challenging Tina Thompson is like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull," said Van Chancellor, Thompson's former coach with the Houston Rockets and the 2004 Olympic team.
Chancellor can recall a game against Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks, and his Houston team was debating how to defend the talented center. After much discussion, Thompson declared: "I can guard Lisa Leslie. Just let me figure it out."
Agler laughs when recalling a moment during a timeout this season. It was crunch time, the Storm needed a bucket, and Agler asked Thompson, "Tina, are you feeling one coming on?"
"Brian," Thompson replied, "I'm always feeling it."
Thompson has a superstar's confidence, but her unselfishness and versatility have defined her career. She is the WNBA's all-time leading scorer, but she often had to make her game fit with other superstar teammates. Most notably, she formed the greatest trio in league history in Houston with Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. She played with Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie in Los Angeles. And though they weren't on the court a lot together in Seattle, she played with Bird and Jackson. And she never had trouble meshing with any of them.
It's because of her team-first demeanor and her rare skill set. Thompson was the WNBA's first true post player who could step outside and make three-pointers like a shooting guard.
"She has so unusual a skill set, a post player with the ability to stretch the defense," said former Storm and current Connecticut coach Anne Donovan, who coached Thompson on the 2008 Olympic team. "But it's more about how much of a professional she is. Too often players are distracted by the wrong things. You never had to worry about that with Tina."
Thompson doesn't know what she'll do in retirement. She laughs and mentions sitting on the couch the first few weeks. She's interested in doing television, and she certainly has the eloquence for it. She's excited to spend even more time with her 8-year-old son, Dyllan. Agler has suggested coaching to her.
But she'll only talk about the future so much. She still has work to do. The Storm is in the playoffs, and though Seattle will be a heavy underdog, Thompson says, "The expectation is to win a championship, always."
"What I want people to know is that I absolutely love the game of basketball," added Thompson, who is averaging almost 14 points and six rebounds this season. "I've given every ounce of myself to it. And I played with no regrets. I respect this game entirely. And I would never cheat it."
No doubt, this is as graceful an exit as you'll ever see.
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