Series note: The Storm conducted exit interviews on Oct. 4, giving me the opportunity to ask players everything from views on their season to fashion and hair tips. This is the final installment. Centers Ewelina Kobryn (Poland) and Ann Wauters (Belgium) weren’t featured due to their quick return home. Here’s a conversation with forward Tina Thompson. The WNBA’s original No. 1 overall draft pick in 1997, Thompson signed with Seattle in 2012 as a free agent. She started one game but became a full-time reserve for the first time in her 16-year career as teammate Katie Smith meshed better in the opening lineup. Thompson’s three-point shot was an asset, shooting 42.7 percent from that range this season. She sprained her knee and ankle at Los Angeles in July and didn’t fully recover. Thompson averaged 8.9 points and 3.4 rebounds this season, scoring a WNBA-record 7,000th point on Sept. 18 against Chicago. She established a Twitter account (@ThomboiiNC) in October for her foundation that’s “Empowering young women to embrace their inner tomboy and outer lady.”
Q: You’re still not choosing to play in the offseason to raise your son in Houston. From playing overseas in the past, what did you tell rookie Shekinna Stricklen about her first trip?
Thompson: She’s going to Turkey, which is great, she’s playing in a competitive country. A lot of American players are there and the Turkish teams are pretty good as well. The players there in Turkey — a lot of their national team players play there, so the level of competition that she’ll face on a regular basis is going to be pretty good. I just gave her simple advice, you know. ‘You’ve gone through an entire season now, you have that under your belt. You know what the WNBA’s like, for sure it’s different from college, so work on the things that you feel like you need to get better at. A lot of the things that (Storm coach) Brian (Agler) said to you this season were for a reason. Not only did he feel that you could do them, but you could probably get better at them. Those things would help further your career and performance in the WNBA.’ She’s excited. She had a great rookie season and she played extremely well, especially when called upon. She, as well as Alysha (Clark), rose to the occasion going from not really playing at all to sometimes starting and playing big minutes. I was really proud of them.
Q: What were highs and lows for them this season from you perspective?
Thompson: For me, it was more mental things than physical things. We have a very veteran team and we started kind of shorthanded, then we had injuries and things like that. So you go from your dream of playing in the WNBA to getting there and being really hungry and anxious and not getting huge opportunities to having the biggest opportunity playing and actually doing well. But then your veteran players, they get better, they get healthy, they come back from the Olympics and your role changes, so it’s definitely an adjustment mentally, for sure. Just knowing kinda how to handle it and find a balance.
Q: You mentioned veteran players, where are you at as far as returning, knowing you have one more year left on this contract?
Thompson: For the last six years I’ve literally just kind of evaluated myself in the offseason. For me, this is the first time in my entire career that I was like injured. That was like, ‘Oh, wow! This is different.’ Something I’ve never experienced before, so it was just a lot mentally and physically going through that. I basically told (Storm president and CEO) Karen (Bryant) that I’m just going to kind of reevaluate. The last thing I want to do is to just come back simply because I have another year on my contract. I have personal expectations of myself. No matter how good it may look to everybody else, it’s how good it feels to me. If I don’t feel good about the effort and my abilities and the things that I did when I was on the court, then for me, I just kinda feel personally that I’m doing a disservice. You could probably call it obsessive-compulsive. It probably is. But (laughs), that’s just who I am. I’m going to go back to the drawing board, as I always do, and do the things that are physically taxing once I get rest and get kinda back healthy, again, and if I feel like I can do it at a level that’s comfortable for me, then I’ll definitely be back. I won’t be playing anywhere else (in the WNBA), for sure.
Q: You’re saying you have to rest your knee?
Thompson: I’m not totally physically healed. I don’t know how I’m going to be. I didn’t like how I felt physically (this season) at the end or just after the Olympic break. I was limited in things that I could do and stuff like that. Just to feel good, especially when your mind is telling you or wanting you to do other things and you get out there and try and do it and it doesn’t work. It’s frustrating. Especially when you’ve played at a really high level for a long time. That’s just not something I want to go through. It’s not something that I even want to put my teammates through either, whether they know it or not. For me, it’s not a comfortably place to be in.
Q: And that was a new feeling for you?
Thompson: Yeah, I’ve never been hurt. I mean, I’ve been hurt, but I’ve never been injured. So, yeah, it was tough. That was the first time that I could mentally process what my teammates in the past have gone through because it’s not something — the most serious injury I’ve had is that I broke my nose. It was two days before the first season of the WNBA and I played in opening day. And that was serious for me. I’ve pulled my calf muscles, tweaked an ankle or something like that. But I was better in like a matter of days. It was lingering, but it wasn’t something that totally stopped me from being able to compete the way I wanted to.
Q: You obviously missed games due to your knee injury before the Olympic break, but even up until Game 3 of the playoff series against Minnesota you were feeling the pain?
Thompson: Yeah, for three months…I probably haven’t had a good night’s sleep in three months other than being just completely exhausted. But even then, that’s not really good sleep. Right now, as we speak, my leg is still numb. My toes? I know that they’re there, but I can’t feel them. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve been going through for the last three months.
Q: There are good NBA physicians in Houston, do you utilize them or do you have your own people?
Thompson: For sure, but it’s actually something that you can’t rehab. As far as my ankle or MCL, Tom (Spencer), our trainer, is amazing and our team of doctors are great. I did all of the proper rehab I needed to do for that. But nerve damage is something totally different. It’s not something that you can rehab. They (nerves) have to literally generate themselves over a period of time. I could go as long as another six months before I completely get the feeling in my knee and in my leg. And it might not be exactly the same. They said I’ll have a full recovery, which is great, but the rate at which nerves regenerate is really, really slow.
Q: And you have no clue how your body does that because you’ve never been injured before?
Thompson: (Laughs) No. And I don’t think they really know. They know the amount that regenerates over time, but it depends on the body. You can’t really tell. The good thing for me is that I heal pretty quickly. I went from not being able to move my leg at all to being able to step on it in a matter of like a week or so. That was a good sign and mass improvement considering the situation. It’s all positive. It’s not something that I’m worried about. It just can be frustrating.
Q: The offseason is about seven months, so when that time period comes that you need to start doing the heavy work to get back into WNBA-shape, if you’re not feeling where you were in even 2011, is that when you say, ‘Eh, I’m not going to come back?’
Thompson: It’s more so…even though I was playing and running and stuff like that, it’s just me being able to go from side to side comfortably. It was all restricted, like I couldn’t lift weights, I can’t cross my leg to the right side. Just little things like that. I couldn’t put extreme pressure on it. I couldn’t do certain stretches and I couldn’t squat or do certain things that you actually need to do to physically to become stronger and stuff like that. It’s hard to not be able to do those things and still be completely prepared (to play). I’m sure in maybe two to three months I’ll be able to do those things without actually causing more damage or stopping the process, but that was the concern. Once I’m able to just run and just…I couldn’t even just go and do an extra workout on the treadmill and stuff like that just because the results of that — I’d probably be in more pain or my foot would be numb. So, I’d start the game where I would usually be at the end of the game. Even warming up, I warmed up a lot less than I usually did because I didn’t want to get too fatigued. Once (the knee) cools down, getting it back up and going was hard. I had to tweak a lot of stuff that I normally did in order to keep myself at a steady place.
Q: Is Camille Little similar to you at all? She even sounds a little bit like yourself as far as never having been injured.
Thompson: Work-ethic, for sure. I think our games are a little different. But it’s about attitude and how you approach the game. Camille is very mature for her age. I think she’s had a lot of great experiences in the players she’s played with and just the success that she’s found. But she kinda has one of those attitudes very similar to me about never having regrets. When she approaches the game, whether she makes shots or things like that, she’s not going to leave the floor regretting anything that she did because her effort is always the absolute best that she can actually like give. As a teammate, or being able to coach a player like that, it’s a joy because you always know what to expect every time she steps on the floor. I definitely think we’re similar in that respect. She’s just a competitor. She’s tough. You know that she’s going to go and she’s going to defend and beat people up. She’s not going to allow anyone to do anything easy. So, for sure, in that aspect I definitely see similarities in us — personality and game-wise.
Q: She said you’re a person she’s gone to a lot for basketball tips, was she constantly tugging at you since this is the first time y’all have played together?
Thompson: Not in an annoying or frustrating way.
Q: No, I don’t mean in a negative way, just advice. I don’t know what y’all talk about as teammates.
Thompson: We have an amazing relationship just as far as how we get a long as a team. From that perspective, this is the best team I’ve ever been on in my career in the WNBA as far as just the personalities and everyone getting along and liking each other. There is any pair on our team that can go and eat together or hang out, we can all hang out together as a group and no one feel left out or anything like that. It was a really amazing experience from that perspective. So when (you) say Camille came to me, it’s more kinda just conversations just shooting the breeze. If we’re talking about something or someone asked a question, it’s more like giving perspective. There were times where she may have asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ Then it becomes a conversation between the both of us — this is what I saw. OK, I can she how you saw that. It’s not like a tutorial or anything like that. It’s more just talk about the game.
Q: The practice before Game 1 in Minnesota, media was allowed to watch and you were giving Alysha and Shekinna tips on shooting while showing them a shooting drill and joking around. Is that how a conversation arises?
Thompson: Yeah, kinda sorta. If I notice from watching on the bench, like, ‘You’re going back this way when she (an opponent) is giving you this.’ Alysha is kinda a little different because she’s transforming her game. Camille has an identity already. She has a foundation that she’s completely sprouting and grown from whereas Alysha is sorta changing who she is. In college, she was a post player at her size (5 feet 10) and in a very short period of time, she’s turned into a small forward and being able to play from the wing. The way she’s getting shots is a lot different. She’s not used to facing-up and taking jumpers, so she’s been making adjustments with her shot and for whatever reason I just have this thing where I, just watching, can see, ‘OK, well you just shot five times and the three times you made it, it was like this and the other two were different. Percentages, if you keep shooting it like this (you’ll be more successful).’ That’s the conversation that Alysha and I were having (that day). And she was very receptive. All of my teammates are. It’s very weird.
Q: Very weird? You have four championships.
Thompson: No, I mean in general. It’s not normal for a group, especially 11 women that play on a team and are all very competitive, to so easily take constructive criticism and not be offended by it or have attitudes or anything like that. Any one of the players on our team can make a suggestion to the other. And that’s not normal.
Q: So then it’s true that some of those Houston Comets teams had some personality problems?
Thompson: Yeah, like, that’s not a secret. We had extreme issues.
Q: I know, but I’ve never asked you.
Thompson: It was a very weird dynamic of just finding success in dysfunction. At the end of the day, the goals were the same. No matter how we got there, everybody had a different way, but the goal was always the same and it was to win. That’s where we kind of all meshed. But we were very different.
Q: Back to Camille, what about fashion tips, did she ask you about that since you’re also regarded as one of the most-stylish players in the WNBA? She picked you as most stylish on the Storm roster.
Thompson: Yeah, we’ve talked about clothes and shopping and stuff like that. But Camille, she’s totally fashionable in her own right. She’s definitely coming into her own. I think Camille is kind of in a way her own evolution. As you grow, things change. She came from college (at North Carolina) where her team was sponsored by Brand Jordan. You play basketball and you’re into sneakers. I was never a sneaker person like that, that’s not like my thing. But now Camille is going from buying the latest Jordans to hot Gucci boots or something like that, you know what I mean? It literally is. But that’s part of kind of just maturing. She is a young lady now. Camille was never a tomboy or anything like that, but you’re in college and you’re wearing sweats and cool sneakers to school. Now she’s in a business setting. We have a dress code and things like that, so I think the focus has changed. We all, as a group, admire each others’ sense of style. It’s so funny, Sue (Bird) is going to kill me for saying this, but Sue has a very cool, laid back, girl-next-door sense of style. But she rarely wears color, you know. I made a comment early in the season and I’m like, ‘Birdy, you need to get some color in your life!’ Probably a game or so later she had on this yellow blouse and it was like so cute. She can totally wear almost anything. She has a great body or whatever. So she just started wearing more and more color. It’s just a sense of comfort. It might be a compliment or something like that that we always give each other all the time. It totally tweaked (Sue’s) style a little bit. She still dresses the same way but less kinda nudes and grays and whites to wearing a lot of color and she looks great.
Q: You mentioned Gucci boots, does Camille really have those? Do you have shoe envy?
Thompson: Oh, for sure. She has several really cool shoes. Camille has much higher heels than I do. I can’t function in shoes like that. I wear 3 or 4-inch heels. Camille will wear 5 or 6-inch. My foot doesn’t go like that. (Laughs) So, I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, those are so cute.’ But in my mind, I’m never even attempting to go there because I know myself.
Q: Her family coming out and cooking, what does that do for team?
Thompson: It’s great. Our team, in general, is very family-oriented. At some point everyone…Katie’s family was here. Shekinna’s parents were here. T’s (Tanisha Wright) grandmother was here. My mom and (son) Dyllan were here. Ann’s family (partner and two children) are always here. Eva’s sister came and her friends. So we have that group where we’re just open in that way. So when anyone’s family, like Alysha’s family was here as well, we embraced everyone whether we were going out to dinner after a game or whatever, it’s literally the personality of this team. It was easy. But Camille’s parents? Everyone (at that dinner) totally enjoyed it because we ate way too much in one setting. We had a good time and the food was amazing.
Q: Is kind of like a Thanksgiving kind of thing?
Thompson: Kinda sorta. There were literally eight or nine different dishes.
Q: What was your favorite?
Thompson: I don’t eat beef or pork, so I didn’t have that. But the baked chicken was really good, the macaroni and cheese was great. Camille makes this sweet potato casserole that’s a little too fancy for me. I don’t like nuts in my food and it had, I think, pecans in there. The sweet potatoes were really good, but visually I couldn’t get past the nuts. But everyone loved it. They were like taking seconds and thirds.
Q: How excited are you to get back to Dyllan and family.
Thompson: Extremely. Extremely excited. He’s the love of my life. He went to (Game 1) in Minnesota and actually missed school to come there. It’s easier to fly from Houston to Minnesota than it is here. It’s almost five hours to come from Houston to Seattle. With him coming to the games and getting here early and having to go back, I didn’t want him to have to deal with flying for five hours and then going to school the next day. He would have had to leave at 6 o’clock in the morning in order to get (back) to Houston in the early evening. The travel was way too tough for one game (Game 2 at KeyArena). And then we played on Tuesday in the third game, so it didn’t work. He had already missed a couple of days (earlier in the season) because they met us on the road, too. School is a priority in our family.
Q: That’s enough jet-setting for him.
*PHOTO CREDIT: WNBA legend Tina Thompson talks to the crowd after a Storm game by The Associated Press