Associate Virginia women’s basketball coach Karleen Thompson is comfortable with change.
One of 12 children, she was born in California but graduated from high school in Texas.
She went to Contra Costa College in northern California with the intent to join the track team, but overheard a pick-up game being played while walking past a gym and quickly changed her direction.
When the WNBA began its inaugural season in 1997, she had a well-paying job in Gatorade’s marketing department, but gave it up to become a manager for the L.A. Sparks.
“All they had to do was crack the door and I was kicking it open,” Thompson said.
When longtime friend Tina Thompson was hired at Virginia in April, Karleen sent her a congratulatory text, but she wasn’t thinking about getting back into coaching.
She was focused on playing soccer mom to her identical twin grandsons, Tyler and Kameron, until a text at 1:48 a.m. startled her out of bed.
Tina Thompson was at a conference in Atlanta when she saw on TV that Karleen, as part of head coach Michael Cooper’s staff, was let go by the Atlanta Dream. After seeing the news, she immediately texted Karleen.
“That sparked the conversation,” Karleen Thompson said. “Very seldom do you, more than 20 years later, end up with the chance to work with someone again.”
In July, Virginia announced Karleen as the final member of the first staff of Tina Thompson’s head coaching career. Assistants Katherine Graham and La’Keshia Frett Meredith, holdovers from former coach Joanne Boyle’s staff, were retained.
“The experience we all bring is diverse, but it lends itself to the future of our program and where we’re going,” Tina Thompson said. “I think it’s important that every single day, our girls have an example of what’s possible for them.”
Tina Thompson and Karleen Thompson played together at USC. Ten years later, they reunited in Houston, where Karleen was head coach and general manager of the WNBA’s Comets and Tina was nearing the end of her playing career.
“Karleen brings education,” Tina Thompson said. “She has held almost every position you can in women’s basketball, so her perspective is unique in the sense that there are a lot of things she knows that we, as a staff, don’t because of the positions she’s been in.”
Karleen was there when Tina was pregnant with her son, Dyllan. At USC, Tina was a regular in the rotation of teammates who babysat Karleen’s daughters, Ayesha and Keisha, while she was in class.
They share a last name, but they aren’t related, at least not in the traditional sense.
“You just kind of know when you meet someone you connect with,” Karleen Thompson said. “[Tina] is a competitor, and I’m excited to be working with someone again who is as competitive as me on and off the court.”
Partners in crime
Tina Thompson has Karleen to thank for the first benching of her career.
The Trojans were in Texas for a game against Stephen F. Austin. The duo went to dinner with several of Karleen’s family members, and even though both swear they were mere seconds past curfew, head coach Cheryl Miller was seated outside of their hotel room when they arrived.
They didn’t touch the court in the first half. By halftime, USC trailed by 20 points and the coach relented.
“Coach Miller might have wanted to bench us longer, but the game was getting out of hand,” Tina Thompson said. “After the game, she told us to never make her bench us again because it was bad for her health.”
It was close, but with the Thompsons on the court, USC rallied to win.
“I remember we kept looking at each other and wanting to get in so bad,” Karleen said. “But that showed what kind of fighters we were.”
The Thompsons led USC to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1994-97. In 1994, they made it to the Elite Eight.
Tina was an undersized forward who averaged a double-double in all but one season and put up more than 20 points a night as a junior and senior.
“Tina was a beast on the block, so I knew where to get the ball,” Karleen said. “If she had a double team, she kicked it out to me.”
Karleen was a shooting guard who joined the Trojans after a prolific JUCO career at Contra Costa, which included averaging 41.8 points and 19.5 rebounds a game as a sophomore. That season, she eclipsed 50 points in seven games.
“She was very tenacious and very hardworking,” Tina said. “For her size, she was a very powerful player, and she was always one of our best rebounders.”
A lingering back injury kept Karleen from playing professionally, but her coaching career took her around the world.
She was coaching a dream team in Prague when she was offered the Houston Comets job in yet another early morning text. This one came at 4 a.m., Prague time.
“In Houston, I learned so much about the business side of things,” Karleen said. “I got a crash course in what goes on behind the scenes from dealing with contracts to dealing with personal things that pop up in everyone’s lives.”
It was in Houston that Karleen first told Tina she should consider a career in coaching.
“She was very detailed, so you had to explain everything you were doing,” Karleen said. “If you didn’t, she would ask, so I knew she was going to be a good teacher. As a head coach, you’re a teacher first.”
‘My road wasn’t easy’
At Snyder High School in Texas, Karleen Thompson was all-state in basketball, track and volleyball and routinely heard from college coaches from around the country.
During her senior year, she got pregnant with Ayesha. Keisha followed soon after, and it wasn’t long before Karleen found herself as a single mother in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working three jobs to support her family.
More than four years after her high school career ended, Karleen and her girls hopped a bus bound for Contra Costa on the advice of her cousin, who knew a counselor there.
“We didn’t have anything but us,” Karleen said.
She couldn’t afford a car, so she bought a bike for $20 and put one daughter in a basket on the front and the other in a basket on the back. The bike was eventually stolen, and three or four hours of sleep a night became the norm as the realities of being a student-athlete and a single mother set in.
Those experiences left her with lofty expectations for her current players.
“My road wasn’t easy, so I don’t take many excuses,” Karleen said.
She has coached at the college, professional and international levels and she’s played with or coached players she calls “all-world” — Tina Thompson, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. She gleaned something from each of them.
“You have to work hard on the things you can control and rise above the things you can’t,” Karleen said.
Wherever she was coaching, Karleen always made a habit out of watching pregame warm-ups. So, she spent her first two days on Grounds simply observing practice.
“The first thing I noticed is the girls work hard for Tina,” Karleen said. “They have great personalities, and they’re all here for each other.”
She sees a lot of herself in UVa third-year guard Dominique Toussaint.
“She’s tenacious, tough and has the ability to finish,” Karleen said.
With Toussaint and fellow juniors Jocelyn Willoughby and Felicia Aiyeotan leading the Cavaliers in what they hope is a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, Karleen Thompson feels good about her first season in Charlottesville.
“When you have a strong core group and you put pieces around them, you’re going in the right direction,” Karleen said.