Just another day for Tina Thompson
Businesslike veteran reaches scoring milestone but is focused on playoff picture
This just figures: That Tina Thompson would break the WNBA's scoring record -- would top the mark of that other former Morningside High and Southern California star -- in a tough loss.
Thompson had 23 points Sunday as Los Angeles fell to San Antonio, giving the last original WNBA player still in the league a total of 6,273 points (and counting) for her league career. But hold off on the party horns.
The injury-depleted Sparks are trying desperately to grab onto one of the three playoff spots that Western Conference-dominating Seattle has left in its wake. Phoenix seems to have secured one, so realistically just two are left.
The Sparks don't have Candace Parker or Betty Lennox. Lisa Leslie -- of course, we were referencing her earlier -- has retired. Jennifer Gillom is in her first year as L.A.'s head coach and has seemed out of sorts a fair amount of the time.
For the Sparks, this summer probably has been just like one long dentist visit. And if you want to talk about records well, whatever. Thompson really doesn't think about them. The rest of us, the observers who've watched a remarkable career, are the ones who are enthralled with her achievement.
Thompson is honed in, as always, on the process. It always has been like that with her. If she's making history, that's great. Inspiring people? Terrific. Proving her all-around versatility? Fabulous.
But the reality is, Thompson is not consciously thinking about any of those things -- not before, during or after games. Thompson's mind, as she prepares for and then engages in her work, is never clogged up with scenarios or milestones or flights of fancy.
"Basketball is a fun sport, and people come and watch and enjoy it," Thompson said. "But for me, it's my job. And at the end of the day, I always want to be respected and considered a consummate professional."
In some ways, the rest of this column is almost unnecessary. What Thompson said wraps up her essence as an elite athlete better than any thousand words I might come up with.
Still, I want to give it go. Because even if Thompson is not going to celebrate herself, even if she's immediately ready to say, "Let's move on; we've got a game against Indiana on Tuesday" those who follow women's basketball do want to pause and reflect.
You know how there are those actors who are so consistently good at their craft that you would think a movie had to be worthwhile simply because they were in it? Yet when you're talking with your friends about their favorite performer, they might not necessarily think of this person right off? But then when you say, "What about so-and-so?" they say, "Oh, yes! Of course!"
Great example? Laura Linney. I think she has been fabulous in everything she has done. I can't imagine any movie, television show or play she'd be in that I wouldn't want to watch.
Her signature film role -- if you had to pin it down -- is Sammy in "You Can Count on Me," but she has done so many parts so well on stage and on film that you really don't think of just one. She hasn't won an Academy Award yet -- don't even get me started -- but eventually, that simply has to happen.
Still, when talking about the best actors of my generation, I wonder if most people who love pondering such things would think of her right off. However, as soon as you'd mention her, they'd say, "Oh, sure! Obviously!"
And I think of Tina Thompson in much the same way. There is not that one thing about her game that stands out because she does everything well.
When people discuss great players of the first segment of the WNBA's history, names like Leslie and Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes and Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi might come up immediately and then quickly someone would say, "And, of course, Tina Thompson."
Of course! Obviously! Right! Duh! Who would argue that?
Nobody would. Still, Thompson has always supposedly been in the shadow of somebody else, the star who has never quite gotten her due. And to a degree, that's probably true. The thing is, maybe that's because it's how Thompson has wanted it.
I've never interviewed Laura Linney, but from everything I've read or heard her say in interviews, she couldn't care less about being a "movie star." She just wants to be excellent at her profession, and she is.
I have interviewed Tina Thompson, many times, and consistently -- from her days as a young Comet to her current time as a "senior" spokeswoman for the Sparks -- she has spoken about team success and commitment to her profession. Everyone likes to be appreciated, but not everyone can give the same effort whether they think the spotlight's on them or not. Thompson can, and always has.
Much as I like comparing Thompson to someone I consider great in the performing arts, you might point out the flaw: You really can't write scripts for sports.
Sometimes, everything is Hollywood perfect but more of the time, it isn't. It would be terrific if the Sparks were surging strongly toward the playoffs and had won on Sunday, thus Thompson's scoring record would have come on this wave of good vibrations out in L.A. But that's not what happened.
Instead, the Sparks lost at home. They were outrebounded by 17. They gave up 92 points to a Silver Stars team that entered Sunday averaging 76.2 points. Los Angeles had won four of its last five before falling to San Antonio. So this loss stinks and stings. Not a great day for setting a record.
Thompson, who turned 35 in February, has considered retirement from the WNBA the past few years. She'll likely think about it again this winter. She'll consider how her body feels, how committed emotionally she is, and then make her decision.
Coming into this season, she said she hoped to perhaps not log quite so many minutes. To be more of a complementary player and a mentor to younger rising stars. She thought perhaps that was how she'd be of most benefit to the Sparks. Instead, she's averaging nearly 33 minutes a game and a team-best 15.1 points.
"I think that's kind of my career," Thompson said recently, laughing. "I think I'm going to have to be resigned to the fact that's just who I am and what I'm going to have to do as long as I'm part of this league. It's not something I shy away from, but I'd like it to be a little easier -- especially in my older age.
"But I think a lot of it is just competitiveness and being motivated to do your job. No matter if you're winning or losing, there's a job that needs to be done. It's a job we're paid to do. It's something that I pride myself on, so even in the most frustrating moments, I still am always going to do my job."
And that's how she has become the league's all-time leading scorer. It just happened while she was really busy working.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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