A couple of days ago I read a piece in Sports Illustrated about the lengthy and remarkable career of Walter Iooss, the magazine’s legendary photography. One particular Iooss story caught my eye—while shooting LeBron James last year, Iooss wasn’t allowed to speak with the basketball star. No, if he needed to make a point or ask something, Iooss—8 million times more accomplished and talented than James—had to go through a member of the so-called King’s entourage.
Now take today’s Quaz guest, Tina Thompson. An all-everything basketball star who stands as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, Thompson responded to my Quaz request, oh, an hour after I sent it. She was beyond generous with her time, and answered the following questions with detail and intelligence. Bravo.
Here, Thompson talks dunking, Houston Comets, Celine Dion, Showtime Lakers and why, at age 36, she’s as good as ever.
Tina Thompson, take it to the hole—Quaz style …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Tina, so I’m gonna start with a blunt one. You were the first draft pick in WNBA history. You’re the league’s all-time leading scorer and the only person to play in every season. You are, in a sense, Ms. WNBA. Which leads me to this: I feel like something with the WNBA hasn’t fully worked. I mean, you’ve inspired many girls and women, which is great. And you’ve lasted 15 years—a feat many people would not have expected. But, to me, it still feels as if the league is propped up by the NBA; that the moment David Stern says, “No mas,” the WNBA dies and this whole thing goes away. Tell me why I’m wrong—or right. Also, do you think the WNBA is limited, fan wise, by being a women’s league? What I mean is, can it simply never reach the heights and popularity of MLB and NFL and NBA because of gender? Or can the nation, as a whole, embrace it?
TINA THOMPSON.: First, the WNBA is still relatively young. Considering where we are now in comparison the NBA, NFL and MLB at this same juncture the WNBA is doing well. The WNBA is the most successful women’s professional league in American history, and there is a lot to be said about that. Like any relationship where there is assistance by the big brother (NBA) in order to get up and running or to succeed. There will come a time where the little sister/brother has to stand on its own. That also is a process. In my opinion the WNBA is at that stage. Becoming a public business and having independent ownership is the first step. There will be growing pains but that isn’t abnormal. I consider myself a pioneer, of course I would love to be paid more money, travel better and stay in grand hotels like the NBA, but that is not the reality and definitely historically not the journey of a pioneer. Yes, we have inspired many young girls, a feat in itself. That’s where it all starts for me—someone has to be inspired. From that inspiration someone will be motivated to work harder to make the necessary steps to right things that will guarantee success. I truly believe that. On top of the fact that we work pretty darn hard and we are pretty good basketball players to boot.
David Stern to me is an innovator—he see’s things that most people don’t naturally see. Does everyone always agree with his vision? No. But that’s not the point. The point is that he saw something with the WNBA, something good, something great. He sees the big picture and we are all in this situation because of that vision. From what I see, he is a man who does not like to fail, so I doubt that No Mas! is an option any time soon. I do believe that the WNBA can be respected on a national level. We are already being viewed across the world and have a very broad fan base. I do believe that the key to getting people in the seats is marketing. Making people more aware of the player’s and when we play. What I can say about a WNBA is once we get a non-believer into an arena to witness a game, they become believers.
J.P.: You were born and raised in Los Angeles, and you learned the game on the courts at Robertson Park. You first started going there at age 10 and, the narrative has it, earned your way into games. I’m not 1/1,000 of the player you are, but I’m guessing—at that stage in our lives—I’d have had a much easier time getting a run. In fact, I’ve never really seen a girl earn genuine pickup props at a playground filled with men. So how the heck did you?
T.T.: Lol, you’re probably right. The first thought is to always choose the guy first if the other choice is a girl. The assumption is that the guy is always better. And it wasn’t easy to change that perception. I had to put in a lot of work and received tons of rejection. But I didn’t give up and I guess out of sheer respect for the fact that I put in the work they gave me a chance. I took advantage of that opportunity. I competed and I earned the right to play. Still to this day a guy will automatically assume that he is better simply because he is male by gender. Ridiculous. If I had a dollar for every time a guy said he could never let a woman beat him at any anything, I would be earning an NBA-like salary. Call it male ego or just plan ignorance for this assumption on their part. But I call it silly and can attest to the untruth. I know I’m better not because I’m “Tina Thompson” but because I put in the work and I know the game. So Mr. I Play Every Couple of Sundays—please give me a break and stop being so disrespectful. I will smash you.
J.P.: My daughter is 8 and extremely tall (She projects to somewhere around 5-10). You’re 6-2 and, I’m guessing were always “the tall girl” growing up. It strikes me as a rough burden to hand a young female, based on societal expectations and all. So, well, was it? And did your height steer you into basketball?
T.T.: I’m a product of relatively tall parents. My mother is about 5’9″ and my father is 6’4″. All of my siblings are pretty tall. I’ve played basketball since I was about nine or 10. So I don’t think I ever went through a stage where I felt awkward or different because of my height. I was always around people for the most part (athletes) who were also tall. Even though I was taller than a lot of my peers I’ve always been able to still go shopping and find clothing pretty easily. I have an average size foot for my height so that wasn’t a problem either. My older brother always expressed to me the importance of being very ladylike and basketball shouldn’t have an impact on that. I learned really early that basketball was what I enjoyed doing but I didn’t define who I was. So I embraced my height and I felt rather normal around my friends. My height had no effect on my choice to play basketball. I was a huge Lakers fan of the 80s teams and my older brother played. So more than anything I would say my basketball influence came from admiration of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, “Showtime” and wanting to hang out with my older brother.
J.P.: You’re staring down your 37th birthday. Last season you averaged 9.9 points for the Los Angeles Sparks—obviously an excellent output, but the lowest of your career. I’m fascinated by aging in professional athletes, and how it impacts their physicality. I think of it this way: I’m almost 40, but I can still compete at a relatively consistent level because I’ve never maxed out my abilities (in other words, I play in the YMCA and playgrounds when I can). You, however, maximize your abilities every year. It’s what you’re paid to do. So how has aging changed things for you? What arer the difficulties? The complications? And how much longer do you want to play?
T.T.: I didn’t know that last year was my career-worst performance. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you my stats from any season let alone compare my career outputs. I just know that it didn’t feel good. I could probably say that about the last three years of my career. I haven’t performed the way that I know I can. And I don’t believe it’s because of age or was it due to lack of effort. I have always played in a way that I void myself of regrets. Meaning that I give all I have to give to my team so that when I leave from in between those lines, I have no regrets. So I do not regret the way I played. I do regret the other non-basketball things that did come into play and had an effect. I have aged for sure—at 36 I am no spring chicken, but I am still able to compete at this level. Where I have noticed the age having an impact, though, is mostly in my recovery. I just don’t bounce back as quickly as I used to but that’s normal.
I have the most complications in adjusting to the new athlete—the personality more than anything. I’m old school so I come from the mentally that you put in the work and you gain the reward. No sense of ownership, you don’t claim anything you haven’t worked for nor do you expect it. In my opinion the two mentalities just don’t meet at the same juncture. You live and you learn.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by sexuality in sports and, particularly, homosexual athletes and the reaction to their presences. I once did a lengthy piece on the subject, where a pitcher told me he didn’t want to play with “those people” and Ken Griffey, Jr. told me his best friend was gay and he could care less. It seems in women’s sports, homosexuality is much, much less taboo than other places. It also seems much less taboo among African-American athletes than in, generally speaking, the African American communities across America. Do you agree? And does sexual orientation ever come into play in the WNBA? Can it hurt a team?
T.T.: I personally don’t get into anyone’s personal life unless they involve me in some way. I believe that personal lives are just that, personal. What people do in there private lives should remain private. I don’t ever think that anyone should bring their personal lives to work—that’s not for the workplace. It can become an issue if anyone’s personal life has an affect on work place affairs. In sports, well, at least team sports, we rely on each other to be focused and be at our best. So to think that things non-sport related are having an affect on the sport, problems in the team are sure to follow. I do my best not to judge. We all have are beliefs and some of us agree and others don’t. That’s the way of the world. It’s possible to see things differently and no one be wrong.
J.P.: I have an odd perspective on women basketball players and dunking. It seems whenever a female can dunk, people go crazy, waiting, waiting, waiting for the magical moment. Then it happens—almost always a straight-ahead one-handed jam—and it’s, well, sorta dull. I mean, it’s merely putting a ball forcefully in a basket. I also think it sorta demeans women’s basketball. Forget the crisp passing, the sharp shooting, the intelligence of the game—SHE CAN DUNK! Do you care when women dunk? Does it interest you? And should it matter?
T.T.: I personally think dunking period is overrated. Maybe I feel that way because I can’t dunk myself. I do find it fascinating at times to see certain guys defy gravity and do these amazing athletic things but at the end of the day it’s just two points. I believe it takes more work and skill to shoot with the accuracy of a guy like Ray Allen or Dirk Nowitzki. Athleticism in most cases comes from genetics. Things you can’t teach and are few and far in between. Some are offended by the statement that women’s basketball is played below the rim and men’s basketball is played above the rim. Well, not me! It takes much skill to separate yourself from everyone operating on the say level as you. Michael Jordan is who he is because of an extreme work ethic and great genes. Take away the athleticism—are the possibilities of his greatness still possible? I’m not so sure.
J.P.: You were with the Houston Comets during the team’s glory years—then the franchise was killed. How did that impact you, emotionally? It strikes me as if, when a franchise is erased, it could almost feel as if it never happened …
T.T.: I was definitely bothered by the fact that the Houston Comets franchise disbanded. It was where it all started for me, I accomplished so much there and had so many great memories. I am most bothered by the fact that my jersey will not be able to hang in the rafters with Kim’s and Cynthia’s. But the memory of that franchise is impossible to forget. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to. People will remember and so will I! Too much greatness happen during the period, not just for the Houston Comets but for the WNBA as well.
J.P.: I read somewhere that, pre-WNBA, you were planning on attending law school. Is that true? And what would you be doing right now—and what would your life have been—had the WNBA never existed?
T.T.: Yes, it is true that pre-WNBA I was planning on attending Law School. I’m not really a what if type person. But I would guess that I would be practicing law as a criminal defense attorney, and working on a judgeship. It was something that I always wanted to do as a young person. I still aspire to receive a degree in law, not so sure if I would practice in a court room. But the feelings are still there. I image that my life would be pretty exciting and full of accomplishments, just not in an athletic way.
J.P.: There’s something in sports that’s long fascinated me—and I’m going to ask you. A huge number of college and professional athletes share attributes to you: African-American, from the city, established their love for basketball on the playgrounds. Many, many, many come from poor households, often with single parents and little support. They thrive thanks to the goodness of others; on YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs and the like. Yet, from my experiences, most college and pro coaches—despite seeing (and capitalizing) on such environs—are extremely conservative, politically. They’re anti-social programs, anti-long unemployment benefits, anti-government subsidizing of the arts and community clubs. Frankly, I don’t get it. Tell me, Tina, am I wrong? Am I off? Or is there a major contradiction? And have you ever had this debate?
T.T.: I’m not sure what you mean exactly. I wouldn’t say I grew up poor. If I did, I wasn’t aware of it. I grew up with both of my parents in our household, my parents were married for 35 years. As far as inner-city athletes not being cultured if that’s what you mean? I personally think that is more of a media-driven thing. In sports we’re all about selling things to whomever is buying. And the rags to riches story is what appeals to people and they enjoy it. They are extremely fascinated with it in my opinion. I know many of athlete’s that have interest out side of the sport. I have a great relationship with Baron Davis from my home town. I remember seeing a special on him when he was with the Golden State Warriors. The crew was interviewing him from his home and asking him about the artwork on his walls and the books in is library. I was disheartened by the fact that people assumed that he was playing a part, that he was not cultured enough to collect art and or be an avid reader. If you know Baron you know that he is very intelligent, he is an extremely out-of-the-box kind of guy. He is one of many. So I would say, it’s more how we choose to market city kids who become professional athlete’s versus their lack of being culture or the inability to be cultured. I mean, you assumed that I lacked culture, grew up poor and came from a single parent household. In fact the only assumption was that I was African-American, but that’s pretty obvious. [*Writer’s note: I followed up later with Tina on this. The question was clearly poorly phrased. I didn’t mean to imply to Tina—or readers—that she came from a poor or rough upbringing, or that being African-American means one derives from such a background. What I meant was that many athletes do come from rough pasts—and that coaches seem to have no sympathy for the plight of so many]
J.P.: I hate asking these questions—but it does, admittedly, fascinate me. Will a woman ever play in the NBA? Not merely as a stunt or a training camp PR deal. Can it happen? Why or why not?
T.T.: I feel the question of will a women ever play in the NBA is no longer relevant. Considering she doesn’t have to now that we have a league of our own in the WNBA. Great debate question 15 years ago, no longer necessary.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Celine Dion, Oreo cookies, Swen Nader, your cell phone, Lyndon Johnson, Stuart Scott, the big toe on your left foot, cranberry juice, Shawn Green, Emmanuel Lewis: Lyndon Johnson, Oreo cookies, Stuart Scott, Emmanuel Lewis, cell phone, Celine Dion, Cranberry Juice, Swen Nader (good basketball player, but he was a Bruin—too bad), Shawn Green, big toe on left foot.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, do tell: I believe it has crossed my mind before, during turbulence, but nothing I thought far enough into to elaborate. I prayed and moved on.
• In your mind, percentage chance that there’s no such thing as an afterlife and we all just turn into dirt (feel free to elaborate)?: I believe there is life after death and I most definitely want to go to heaven.
• If you started at small forward for the Knicks against, oh, Indiana tonight, what would you line be?: I’m not really a stats person like that, I actually don’t even look at the stat sheet. What I know is that I would have to shut down Danny Granger in order to win. I’m up for that.
• Five things in your purse: Wallet, cell phone, anti-bacterial, lip balm, camera.
• I thought Cindy Blodgett was gonna light it up. What happened?: So did I … not sure what happen to Cindy. I played against her when she was at Maine. Awesome talent.
• I’m Jewish. Can I come over to the Thompson household for Christmas. And what would you like me to bring?: Of course you can come over for Christmas, I would prefer you bring chicken matzo ball soup (love it).
• Least-favorite movie of all time: Zoolander
• You attended USC—an absolute sports powerhouse. I can name 100 Trojans off the top of my head—no problem. I attended the University of Delaware, home of 0 professional basketball players. As we speak, however, the best college player in the country is Elena Delle Donne, a Delaware Blue Hen. Can I hold that over your head?: Absolutely not! Lol.