TACOMA, Wash. -- After Minnesota beat the Seattle Storm 58-55 Sunday afternoon, the Lynx asked the league's all-time scoring leader if she would honor them by posing for a team photo with them. This is not the way teams generally celebrate sweeping a first-round playoff series. But then, teams don't usually end opponent's careers that are as old as the very league in which they play.
"It was a bigger-than-basketball moment,'' Lynx forward Maya Moore said. "We have so much respect for her, and we just battled it out with her. And we just wanted to get a picture. 'Hey Tina, can we get a picture?' It was really kind of childlike and beautiful. And she was great. She said, 'Go ahead and win the whole thing guys.'''
Coaches generally don't break down in tears after a victory while talking about an opposing player, either, but again, that's how important Thompson has been to the WNBA. "I'm sad to see Tina go,'' Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said, choking back tears. "She's a great player. I want her to keep playing.''
Well, you could have lost Sunday to extend Thompson's season at least one more game.
" I didn't feel that strongly about it -- we wanted to send her on a fishing trip,'' Reeve said, smiling briefly before tearing up again. "It's hard. She's been in the league a long time. A long, long time. Coaching against Tina, in Houston and L.A., I've seen a lot of Tina. So you might think these are tears of joy to see her gone, but she's special. For our league to be moving on & it's hard.''
It is hard. Thompson has been with the WNBA since its very beginning when she was the league's very first draft pick in 1997. The only player to play all 17 of the league's seasons, she won four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets and scored more points than any other player. But her career ended abruptly Sunday when time expired before she could take a final shot at another basket.
"I always tell myself and my teammates to play with no regrets,'' Thompson said. "The thing we absolutely know is that we left everything out there. When you do that and you've lost and there are no more games, the fact remains that we played with absolutely no regrets, and when you give it everything you have, you can sleep at night.
"I sort of live my life that way. Not just as a basketball player but as a person. As a mother. Each experience I have, I try to get the most out of it. I think that's what has allowed me to be the best basketball player I can be. Because, at the end of the day, it's about effort. What you give anything is what you'll get back, and I think that I've given as much as I possibly can when I was part of this game. And I was able to reap the benefits.''
Indeed. In addition to the scoring record, Thompson is second in rebounds. She also won two Olympic gold medals (2004 and 2008) and played on championship teams in Europe.
Thompson nearly extended her career another couple days and one more road trip when she drove through the lane for a layup to put the Storm up 55-54 with 1:20 left, giving her 13 points and nine rebounds. After the Lynx took a three-point lead with 17 seconds left, the Storm failed to get a decent shot off, though, and futilely passed the ball to Thompson beyond the 3-point arc as time expired. By the time the ball was in her hands, the buzzer had sounded and Thompson's career was over.
"It's not that tough. I always knew there was going to be an end,'' Thompson said of saying goodbye. "I decided months ago there was going to be a final game. I couldn't predict what it would be, but I knew it was going to happen. & When you mentally prepare for something, it's easier. I've always wanted to retire from the game and not the game retire me. So when I leave on my own terms, it's easier to settle with.''
A career that has literally spanned the globe ended at the Tacoma Dome because Seattle's home court, KeyArena, was booked for another event by team sponsor Microsoft. Thompson said she wouldn't remember the venue -- just one of so many she has played in -- but the experience.
As will every player who had the pleasure of being a teammate or an opponent.
"Tina's been amazing,'' Storm guard Tanisha Wright said. "I will remember how she's played 17 years. I'm tired now, absolutely exhausted after my ninth season, so I'm absolutely floored how she's been able to have such longevity.
"But more important than that, I'll remember her character, her dedication to the game, what she has given to so many of us younger players. She's really taught me that it's not all about the basketball. That's something I can pay forward and instill in younger kids.''
That's the key for great players. That they pass a torch for others to carry and continue to light the way.
"I think the league is in a great place,'' Thompson said. "I've been here every single season, and the one thing I can say is that the product has never changed. The talent level has always been very high. The effort to give everything we have has always been there. I think the WNBA is in a great place.
"I would just challenge the players to remember that there always needs to be maintenance. We're not in the clear yet. There is still work to be done for this league to have longevity. Instead of coming in and taking ownership, come in here ready to work because we need it. We need to continue to add to the foundation of this league, so we will continue to grow and be here for years to come."