Commentary

Retiring duo set standard for WNBA

Olympians, WNBA champs Katie Smith, Tina Thompson were consummate pros

Originally Published: September 13, 2013
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

One is the kid from Logan, Ohio, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio. She grew up in football country, and you'd think along with hoops, track and field and volleyball, she could hold her own on the gridiron, too.

One is the kid from greater Los Angeles, who was fueled by competition with her brother and other boys whom she went against in pickup basketball games in the big city.

Oh, wait …

Katie Smith and Tina Thompson aren't kids anymore. They haven't been for a while. Where does the time go? They are both about to say goodbye to playing professional basketball.

[+] EnlargeKatie Smith, Tina Thompson
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesThrough Thursday, Tina Thompson, right, leads the WNBA with 7,466 career points. Katie Smith is second with 6,439.

For New York's Smith, 39, it will end Sunday in Washington D.C., against the Mystics, one of the teams she played for in the WNBA.

For Seattle's Thompson, 38, it will end when the Storm's run in the playoffs is finished. That the Storm, who are without Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird this season, are even in the postseason is thanks in large part to Thompson finishing her career so strongly.

Smith and Thompson would be the first to count their blessings, not the least of which was the luck of good timing. They both attended college close to home; Smith at Ohio State (finished in 1996), and Thompson at Southern California (finished in 1997). They both began their professional careers when women were finally getting viable opportunities to play for pay in the United States.

And so we've seen the entire arcs of their playing careers -- from top prep recruits, to college standouts, to pro All-Stars, to Olympians, to revered veterans. Unlike so many players who came even just a little before them, they got visibility. And they really deserved it.

"I talk with our younger players about this," said Seattle's Brian Agler, who has coached both Smith and Thompson at the pro level. "Tina holds herself to high standards on a daily basis in regard to her work ethic, her diet, her approach to the game, her focus, her concentration, her competitiveness. It's all very, very consistent at an elite level.

"And Katie is the same way. Those are their similarities, along with that they are both great people who are very skilled at their craft. They both think the game -- they're probably two of the smartest players I've ever been around in terms of understanding not only what they have to do individually, but also the big picture."

Smith and Thompson have been WNBA foes and Olympic teammates. They've set a standard that any player today -- or any for generations to come, for that matter -- would be very fortunate to come close to matching.

Now, as they prepare to exit the playing stage, Smith was asked about her most lasting impression of Thompson.

"It's that she's a happy, genuine person," Smith said. "You see her, and it's always just a big grin and big hug. It's a mutual respect; I am proud of her for all she's done, and how she's carried herself. You respect her for doing her job the right way, and then being a great person on top of it. And a great mom to her son."

My life is forever different because of the experiences I've had through basketball. So I wanted to give it everything I had, because it's given me so much.

-- Tina Thompson

You ask Thompson the same question about Smith.

"She is carefree, one of those people that things just roll off her shoulders, and she doesn't let very much get to her," Thompson said. "Like when we're traveling abroad, and we get food that's maybe not to our liking. Katie would always be like, 'It's OK, just try it.' Or if we're delayed in the airport for a couple of hours, most of us would be like, 'Oh, this stinks.' But Katie will just find a quiet corner, prop her head against her backpack and read a book. She usually always has one -- which is something else we have in common."

Happy and smiling? Carefree and bookworm-ish? Well, yes, when they talk about each other off the court, because they know each other that way from so many years competing in the United States and internationally.

But if you asked those who've had to play against them, or the fans who might have rooted for or against them, the word "fierce" likely would come up very quickly, along with "intense" and "relentless."

"It's this drive that they both have," Agler said. "They both work tremendously hard in practice. It's this attitude, 'I'm going to commit here. I don't care if it's a shooting contest, a three-on-three drill, one-on-one, free throws, whatever -- my team is going to win this.' And they don't take off at the defensive end.

"And then away from the court, from the Storm's standpoint, we always enjoyed Katie going out and representing the franchise in the community, and the same for Tina now. They were the kind of players you always wanted available for the really important meetings or functions. They could communicate with the masses and connect with anybody. You knew they were going to come across as the true professionals."

And there you have it in two words. True professionals. Some of that was innate for both women, who seem to have been born to be high achievers. But it was also about their gifts of observation, desire, and a healthy amount of self-respect.

Katie SmithBill Baptist/NBAE/Getty ImagesCoach Brian Agler says Katie Smith and Tamika Catchings are the two best defenders in WNBA history.

Transforming into a champ

Smith recalls watching the Olympics when she was a child and in her early teens. She found the events and the grandeur compelling, and vaguely wondered how you went about becoming an Olympian.

"I didn't know the whole process," she said. "Really, a college scholarship was more what I was looking for. But I would tell anybody, the bottom line in life is working hard and trying things. I did all kinds of stuff. I was in ballet, tap dance, 4-H, sports. If you get involved and work at it, you'll find doors open and you can step through them."

Ohio State won the recruiting battle for the 5-foot-11 guard who mixed strength and savvy with a natural shooting touch. She was the Buckeyes' star as a freshman, combining with veteran players to make it to the 1993 national championship game. The next two years, the Buckeyes missed the NCAA tournament, but they made it back in Smith's senior year.

[+] EnlargeKatie Smith, John Smith Jr.
AP Photo/Julio CortezKatie Smith's dad, John Smith Jr., was on hand Tuesday as his daughter was honored in a pregame ceremony in New Jersey.

Smith won two American Basketball League championships in Columbus with Agler as coach, watching how veterans such as Andrea Lloyd and Valerie Still went about their business. When the ABL folded and Smith joined the WNBA in 1999, she was with a Minnesota franchise that struggled to be more than mediocre.

Her big moments, though, came in international competition, as she was part of gold-winning U.S. teams at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics, along with three world championship teams, two of which won gold and the other bronze.

When Minnesota dealt Smith to Detroit in a ludicrously one-sided trade in 2005 (the Lynx essentially got nothing), Smith at last found herself in the right WNBA home. At the behest of then-Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer, she got in better shape and took on the point guard role.

Smith won WNBA titles in Detroit in 2006 and 2008, and made the finals in 2007. She credits Agler for having transformed her into a very versatile defender -- "He taught me how to guard anybody," she said -- and Laimbeer for challenging her to become an effective point guard.

"I absolutely loved it. I was able to score, but I was in charge of making sure we ran the right plays," Smith said of being the floor general. "As the point guard in Detroit, I had way more impact on the game than I did when I was scoring 20 points a game as a shooting guard. I was involved in everything, not just scoring.

"You really had to be so locked in, and it was exhausting at times. But I really enjoyed it. And I'm as proud of what I was able to do defensively as anything I did on offense."

"From my vantage point, Katie and Tamika Catchings are probably the two best defenders ever to play in the WNBA," Agler said. "They're different. Tamika will create turnovers and get steals; Katie is more of a lock-down defender. She is so versatile; she really can guard 1 through 5, and do a great job of containing that individual or putting them in position where they are shut down by the team. Even at 38, she still has the ability to do that."

In 2008, at age 34, Smith had her pinnacle season as a player. She won her third Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Games and was named WNBA Finals MVP as Detroit won the league championship.

"I congratulate Katie Smith," Laimbeer said after the 2008 Finals. "I don't give her all the credit that she deserves throughout the course of the year. This was Katie Smith's series."

Smith played one more season in Detroit, then didn't join the franchise when it moved to Tulsa in 2010. That season, she signed with Washington as a free agent, and the Mystics finished first in the Eastern Conference for the only time in their history.

Then she spent two years playing for Agler in Seattle before finishing this year back with Laimbeer in New York.

"No matter if it's a rough day or your body hurts, once you're out there, you get going," said Smith, who has endured two ACL injuries and a herniated disk. "You know you're representing yourself and your team, and people are paying their money and giving their time to watch you.

"I don't even have to think about it. If you do something, you do it to the best of your ability. It just clicks. It's the way I'm wired, and Tina is, too."

Tina Thompson Steven Freeman/NBAE/Getty ImagesTina Thompson helped Seattle to this year's playoffs, where they will face West No. 1 Minnesota.

A foundation player

Thompson didn't get to play in a Final Four. Her best chance was as a freshman in 1994, when fellow Morningside High School graduate Lisa Leslie was a senior at USC.

But that team lost to Louisiana Tech in the Elite Eight. The next year, USC lost in the NCAA first round. The Trojans didn't make the NCAA field in her junior season, and senior year they fell in the second round.

However, winning big would soon become Thompson's calling card. Houston selected her first overall in the inaugural WNBA draft in 1997.

"That first season, we weren't expected to be a good team by most people," Thompson said. "Sheryl [Swoopes] was pregnant that year; she wouldn't be able to play most of that season. People counted us out because of that. But part of it also was the unfamiliarity they had with most of the players on our team.

"Like, as great as someone like Janeth Arcain was -- she was one of the best players in women's basketball, across the world -- but people in the United States didn't know who she was. We knew right away in practice, though, that we were a much better team than we were predicted to be."

Led by Cynthia Cooper, Arcain, Thompson and Swoopes -- who returned late in the '97 season -- the Comets won the WNBA's first four championships. Thompson didn't quite recognize in those early years just how important it was for the league to have a team that set the bar as high as the Comets did.

"I know it now," Thompson said. "Probably the third year, we more realized the impact that we had. We were recognized in the city, and people were talking about the team and what we could do."

[+] EnlargeBill Clinton, Tina Thompson
AP Photo/Joe MarquettePlaying with Cynthia Cooper (second from left) taught Tina Thompson some of the best lessons of her pro career.

Thompson said playing with Cooper -- who was also a USC alum, but 12 years older -- helped her achieve the level of professionalism she did, even as a rookie.

"I was 22, and she was 34," Thompson said. "But she was in extremely good shape. Always one of the first people to be in the gym and last to leave. When we had drills, her level of competitiveness was so high.

"I was like, 'Wow, she's 34 and this is what she can do. That's cool. I want to be like that, too.' But also, hey, I didn't want her to make me look bad."

Cooper had played for more than a decade overseas, mostly in Italy, before the WNBA launched. So Thompson followed Cooper's lead on how to approach the game overseas.

"It definitely makes you more patient," Thompson said of competing on foreign soil. "The sacrifice is big; you leave your family and friends and the comfort of your culture and things that you largely take for granted.

"It gives you a strength that, if you didn't have before, you will have once you complete an overseas season. It's not for everyone. The grind is tough, and you have to be able to adjust. Adaptation is part of the experience you take with you into the rest of your life."

Thompson had her son, Dyllan, in 2005, but still played in 15 regular-season games and five playoff contests for the Comets. She had won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA in 2004, and did it again in 2008. But in the months after the Beijing Games, the Comets folded after 12 seasons, and Thompson went back home to Los Angeles for three seasons to play for the Sparks.

In 2010, she became the WNBA's all-time leading scorer; she currently has 7,466 career points.

For the last few years, Thompson has weighed her options about returning each WNBA season, saying she had to be sure she could play at a high level. She helped Seattle reach the playoffs in 2012 and again this season as the team's leading scorer (13.7 ppg).

Thompson joked more than once over the last few years that she wanted to sort of "disappear" when it was time for her WNBA career to end, without any big send-off. She has never been about fanfare or getting the spotlight; in fact, those things tend to make her somewhat uncomfortable. Like Smith, Thompson is a future Hall of Famer, and one of the most important players in the foundation of the WNBA. But Thompson kind of squirms upon hearing such accolades.

"I guess I don't see myself like other people see me. Sometimes when people use certain words about me, I almost cringe," she said, laughing. "I'm like, 'That's me?' My intent was always just to be a professional, respect the game and do my job. I think when you have those things in mind, it's not hard to come to work every day prepared. It goes with the territory."

What's next?

Thompson wants to focus on being a mom for a while, watching Dyllan grow up and pursue his own ambitions. But she also plans to establish a second career. She has long considered law school, and isn't ruling that out. But she'd also love to be a basketball analyst, and there is no doubt she would excel at that.

Fans, in fact, might very much appreciate what Thompson calls her "kind of brutal honesty."

[+] EnlargeThompson/Agler
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonStorm coach Brian Agler says Tina Thompson and Katie Smith are "probably two of the smartest players I've ever been around."

She thinks it will be a refreshing challenge to be on the outside looking in, and that maybe there will be new ways that she can help the WNBA -- including offering constructive criticism.

"I've been here the entire time, and there was an extreme emphasis on marketing at the start," Thompson of the league's launch 17 years ago. "I know that no one markets throughout like they do when starting a business. But I think we've dropped the ball a bit in that we haven't invested in marketing as much as we should.

"The WNBA is an awesome product. I've never spoken to a person who, once they were in an arena and felt that energy, that they weren't pleasantly surprised and pleased by it."

Thompson wants to further strengthen the connection that fans have to players, and vice versa.

"I think we have a jewel," she said. "We have the best women's players in the world, and it's also about who we are as people. We are a fan-friendly league … we are not very much different from them. We are real people, in terms of our everyday lives."

Smith has figured out she really wants to coach, either at the pro or college level. In fact, she's so excited about the possibilities that it has lessened the sting of saying goodbye to playing competitively.

"I love the whole game, the intricacies about it," Smith said. "As you get older as a player, you find ways to make the big picture work, to make it be about other people.

"And now that you're at the end of your career, you appreciate everybody's journey. You know they're not you, and you're not them. But there are things that you can impart to help them -- maybe you've done things they want to do. You have the ability to be a solid person and lead by your example. You keep morphing and keep evolving."

Thompson said she will be able to leave playing the way she always wanted to: looking behind with joy, not the feeling that she could have done more.

"My expectation always was wanting to play without regrets," she said. "To never cheat the game. My life is forever different because of the experiences I've had through basketball. So I wanted to give it everything I had, because it's given me so much."

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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