As Tina Thompson, WNBA legend, retires at the end of this 2013 WNBA season, we remember her contributions to the league and her very first WNBA team..the Houston Comets.
By Jayda Evans – WNBA columnist
What to do with the Houston Comets?
What to do with the WNBA’s only dynasty? What to do with pro women’s basketball’s inaugural pillar – Tina Thompson, the first No. 1 overall draft pick in 1997 to Houston.
Thompson, a 6-foot-2 forward, will retire this fall after an illustrious 17-year career that statistically is defined by four WNBA championships with the Comets, nine All-Star appearances, and as the league’s all-time leading scorer and minutes played with 7,294 points and 15,734 minutes – and counting.
When Thompson, 38, plays her final regular-season game Sept. 14 at KeyArena, it’ll be the last reminder of the WNBA’s beginning. Not having a tangible team or place to document its history is like tossing all land lines because of the popularity of mobile phones.
“It never occurred to me that that could happen. If Seattle were to disappear, I would really not have a WNBA home,” Storm All-Star Sue Bird said of Thompson’s pending situation. Bird won an Olympic gold medal with Thompson and now is her Storm teammate for the icon’s final season.
“It (brings) it home when say Tina or Sheryl (Swoopes) will never have their jersey raised in the rafters,” Bird continued. “All of great things did happen there. But to not still have a team in Houston, it does kind of take away from it. I don’t doubt they (WNBA) will do something to recognize them. That’s just my gut and I wonder if not enough time has gone by. But now that those players aren’t in the league anymore, you want to celebrate them.”
Pieces will still remain of Comets. The team abruptly disbanded in December 2008 when Hilton Koch, a former football player turned furniture dealer, couldn’t juggle his private business with a financially struggling sports franchise.
After purchasing the team from Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander in January 2007, Koch turned the team over to the league in protection of his $10 million investment in 2008. The WNBA was in the midst of signing a deal with ESPN for its broadcasting rights – a first – and selling “marquee” sponsorships where companies like LifeLock and Farmers replaced names like “Mercury” and “Sparks” on jerseys. But then-president Donna Orender couldn’t find an owner quick enough to spread the wealth in Houston.
There was a dispersal draft a week after the Comets folded, rookie Matee Ajavon going to Washington, Sancho Lyttle getting picked up by Atlanta and Roneeka Hodges eventually resurfacing in Tulsa. All are still playing today.
But Thompson is the last of the glory years.
“All of that winning, it was amazing,” said Thompson’s mother, Lady, of her eldest daughter’s Comets teams.
Some thought Thompson would simply retire then, having established Houston as her home and giving birth to son Dyllan in the city. Instead the native Angelino returned home to play three seasons with the Sparks.
When that experience didn’t result in a championship, Thompson signed a two-year deal with Seattle in 2012. With Bird (knee) and Lauren Jackson (hamstring) out due to offseason surgeries, Thompson has taken on an unexpected leadership role in her twilight season. She’s averaging team highs in scoring (13.0 points) and rebounds (5.5).
And, as of Aug. 14, Seattle holds the fourth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. It would be the Storm’s 10thconsecutive berth – another WNBA record Thompson would link to.
“She never stopped trying to get better,” said her agent, Aaron Goodwin of Seattle-based Goodwin Sports Management. “She never rested on the accolades she did before. Here we are 17-years in and she’s still out there competing and trying to win. That’s Tina.”
That’s also what makes not having the Comets so confusing. We’re just talking about Tina. But the team also had Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper on the same roster for four seasons. It’s a “Big Three” the WNBA still hasn’t matched.
Sure, there’s young Minnesota’s lineup of point guard Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore. But they’ve only won one league championship together.
And Thompson’s lineup wasn’t even predicted to win.
“The league had already picked certain teams to be in the championship game – preferably New York and LA,” Thompson said of the inaugural season in 1997. “That year we weren’t even picked to make the playoffs. Sheryl was pregnant, so they didn’t expect us to be good at all. We knew different after a couple of days of practice but nobody was really talking about us. Won (the season-opener) at Cleveland and that was all she wrote.”
The same season the Comets dissolved in 2008, the WNBA subsequently stopped requiring teams to print media guides and ended printing its own official guide and register. So, even the record book the Comets wrote is a relic that’s existence is hard to find.
“I really hated for Tina to have to go through that because she – along with Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and all of them – they set the standard in the WNBA the first four years,” said former Houston coach Karleen Thompson (no relation), who’s one of Tina’s closest friends. “To see that go away and she’s still playing, that was the sad part about it. All of Houston wanted to see Tina retired in Houston, no doubt. She helped build that house there.”
Third-year WNBA president Laurel Richie is still learning her league. Her focus is strengthening the 12 existing teams and growing the brand. The league’s collective-bargaining agreement will expire at the end of the 2013 season, too, which is a higher priority than reflecting on the past.
Richie isn’t opposed to cultivating the league’s history, however. She attended the 2013 NBA All-Star game in Houston and held a WNBA reception. The attendance was so large, people were turned away.
Perhaps that’s where the responsibility lays – with the Rockets. Alexander had his reasons for selling. Still, the Comets championship banners and retired jerseys for Cooper and point guard Kim Perrot remain.
It’s time for Thompson (and Swoopes) to join them and the lure of the WNBA’s only dynasty to be trumpeted by its league.
“It’s important because,” Goodwin said. “It would be a great gesture for the Rockets organization to acknowledge Tina once her career is over with. That’s a conversation we’ll have with them, too.”