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Past and current teammates credit Sparks' Tina Thompson for development

June 29, 2009 |  3:38 pm

Tina Thompson blog picture

As mentioned in a recent profile story on Sparks forward Tina Thompson, what drives the league's second all-time leading scorer is pretty simple. Former Houston Comets teammate Cynthia Cooper (now Cooper-Dyke) summed up Thompson perfectly as a player, saying, "Tina puts winning first."

But what about Thompson as a person? The assessment from Sparks forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, captures her pretty well: "She’s all about the realness of situations," said Milton-Jones, who also played with Thompson in the Beijing Olympics. "The ring and trophy is fine. But the thing that means more for her are the moments, the intimate moments that were shared."

Conversations with past and current teammates show that Thompson, a four-time WNBA champion with the Houston Comets (1997-2000) and two-time gold medalist (2004, 2008), has had that effect on many people. She was weary of the picture being portrayed, however, of an established veteran mentoring various players, saying, "I think people, in my opinion, use the term 'mentor' very loosely. I don't seek out any of their relationships or think, ‘You know what, she looks like she needs some help so I’m going to go and mentor her.' "

Instead, Thompson stressed she looks for lasting friendships that extend beyond basketball. "When you have close relationships with people, whether it’s family or friends, you’re truthful and you’re honest with them. If you see an area where you can help and give your opinion, or share an experience that will help them grow and better themselves, that’s what you do." And there are plenty of examples that show Thompson has done just that:

Tamika CatchingsTamika Catchings

Catchings, an All-Star forward for the Indiana Fever, never played with Thompson in the WNBA. But the two were teammates in the Athens and Beijing Olympics, as well as on the World Championship team that won bronze in 2006.

Their friendship started long before that. "It started with comparisons of our basketball game and stuff like that," Thompson said. "We’ve played USA basketball, and she was here at the beginning of the WNBA. We’re very similar with our personalities in a lot of ways."

Catchings missed her first season in 2001 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee, and Thompson was there to lend her support.

"She was the first person to text me to keep my head up and play the game," Catchings said. "Through ups and downs and shooting slumps, she's always texting me, 'Don't worry about what people say. You know you can play.' She was always being positive with me."

Catchings returned the following year, led the Fever to its first playoff appearance and was named the league's rookie of the year in 2002.

"Even though the injury she had was as severe as it was, she’s a different player," Thompson said. "How that player would come back and affect them as an individual or career, it’s something you might question. But Tamika, in my opinion, was the exact opposite. I think she’s one of those people where it’s not something she can’t overcome. So I said, 'I know you’re down right now, but the bright side is you are who you are. You’re going to come out of this fine.' "

 Michelle Snow

Michelle Snow

Snow, who played at forward with Thompson on the Comets from 2002 until last season when the organization disbanded, was blown away when Thompson broke down her game within minutes of seeing her play her rookie season. That assessment ranged from her help-side defense, her ability to double team and her inconsistency with rebounding.

"Definitely on point," said Snow, who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream. 

In her second year in 2003, Snow was named the WNBA's most improved player.

“Always constructive and positive,” Snow said of Thompson's feedback. “When she would get on me, she would say, ‘I’m not getting on you because I’m mad. It’s just I know what you’re capable of and you’re not doing it.' "

That help continued, Snow says, especially during the 2007 season. The Comets started the season at 0-10, with new Coach Karleen Thompson succeeding Val Chancellor, who had won four league titles with Houston. Tina Thompson stressed to Snow about producing, regardless of any philosophies and offensive systems that may change under Karleen Thompson.

"Michelle’s potential is amazing with some of the things she can do," Tina Thompson said. "It’s one of those things where if you don’t know how good you are, then other people just see it by the glimpses. Not only did I need her to play well, it was the fact that she could."

Candace Parker Candace Parker blog picture

Parker and her mother, Sara, spotted Thompson at the 2004 Women's Final Four in New Orleans. Then a 17-year-old senior at Naperville (Ill.) Central High, Parker idolized Thompson, and her mother made that clear.

"I was embarrassed," Parker said. "She asked her every question under the moon and sun."

Parker said Thompson handled the questioning with grace, but Thompson acknowledged later that she noticed that "Candace was very beat red at the moment."

Two years later, the two became close during a national team trip to Australia.

"She's really really cool and fun to be around," said Parker, who also was her teammate in the Beijing Olympics. "I tagged along like a little sister, and luckily she liked me too. We have similar likes and dislikes, and we tell it like it is,"

Now Parker says "she's the first person I call about anything," including when she found out she was pregnant. On May 13, Parker, who was named the WNBA's most valuable player and rookie of the year last season, delivered her first child, a daughter named Lailaa. Parker is married to Shelden Williamsof the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Parker expects to return from her maternity leave by the end of July, and she's been getting advice from Thompson, who has a 4-year old son named Dyllan. Thompson has told Parker not to worry about external expectations about returning to the court, and stressed the benefits of traveling with a newborn.

"I told her that I couldn’t put a price tag on the fact that the things basketball has allowed me to experience and exposed me to, having Dyllan and being able to take him along exposed him to those same things," Thompson said. "I think it made him a more open person to diversity and differences in people."

In addition, Thompson says Parker is known to "forget everything" on road trips. When they played together in the Beijing Olympics, Thompson lent her computer and phone chargers, flat irons, curling irons, fingernail polish and hair ties. And when Parker returns to the Sparks, she's sure she'll seek more on-court advice from Thompson.

"She pulls you to the side and constructively criticizes you," Parker said. "She's been great to me. Anytime I need advice, she's always there to help me out."

--Mark Medina

Photo: Lisa Leslie, left, embraces Tina Thompson after the U.S. women's victory over Australia at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Credit: ROBERT GAUTHEIR / Los Angeles Times

Photo: Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings (24) goes up for a shot against the Phoenix Mercury's Kayte Christensen in a 2003 regular-season game. Credit: JOHN HARRELL / Associated Press

Photo: Former Houston Comets forward Michelle Snow (2) takes a shot as Seattle Storm's Janelle Burse (33) blocks during a playoff game Aug. 30, 2005, in Houston. Credit: JESSICA KOURKOUNIS / Associated Press

Photo: Los Angeles Sparks' Candace Parker drives to the basket against the Sacramento Monarchs in a game Aug. 28, 2008, in Los Angeles. Credit: JEFF LEWIS / Associated Press