Growing up in Culver City, California, Virginia women’s basketball coach Tina Thompson said the game was serious business in her neighborhood.
Thompson was nine when she first stepped on the court with her older brother, Tommy, and his best friend David Fizdale, who is now the head coach of the New York Knicks.
She was 11 when she began to realize her skills were more advanced than other kids her age. By the time Thompson was 12, she made the men’s recreation league team that her brother played on, but playing time was sparse.
“I wasn’t playing because I wasn’t good enough,” Thompson said. “I had to work a couple of summers just to move from the outside courts into the gym. That’s how serious they took it.”
Thompson said she wasn’t interested in the mall or sleepovers. She doesn’t remember doing much else but playing basketball.
She left home early in the morning to meet Tommy at a gym or the neighborhood park, and they didn’t leave until well after the sun went down.
When their local gym — under new management — stopped allowing late-night sessions, Thompson and her brother would get someone to prop a side door open, then wait for everyone to leave and sneak in for workouts, which regularly lasted until 1 a.m.
Perhaps it was then that Thompson developed the trait that led to her retiring as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and a four-time league champion five years ago.
“She played with so much tenacity, and she is probably the most dynamic forward in WNBA history,” said former Purdue forward Dani Lawson, who announced on June 24 that she will transfer to Virginia.
“She wasn’t a flashy player, but she was tough and tenacious, and I’m excited to learn under her leadership,” UVa junior Jocelyn Willoughby added. “She’s very detail oriented, and she’s fine-tuning the small things that make a huge difference in the game.”
With four summer workouts now under her belt, Thompson is taking the same tenacious approach toward building on Virginia’s 2017-18 season, which produced the Cavaliers’ first NCAA Tournament win since 2009.
“At some point, you just have to decide you’re not going to be outworked,” Thompson said. “I’m not rebuilding a program. I am growing a program. The beauty of this group is I don’t have to coach work ethic or energy. They’re workers by nature.”
Thompson began her playing career at University of Southern California in 1993 with an Elite Eight appearance. She began her professional career in 1997 as the first draft pick in WNBA history. She retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer, and her 7,488 points in 496 career games stood as the record until 2017, when Diana Taurasi broke it.
At 6-foot-2, Thompson was smaller than many of the post players she faced, but whether it was in the WNBA, the Olympics or overseas, the bigger they were, the harder Thompson went.
“As post players, we get comfortable in our little box and we don’t want to move so much,” Thompson said. “But the harder I’m going at you, the quicker you have to react, and the tougher you have to be to combat what I’m bringing.”
It’s not difficult to understand how tenacious comes up any time anyone describes Thompson’s playing days. Who inspired her style of play?
“It took a village,” Thompson said.
It began on the blacktop with her brother and Fizdale. Another regular in the Culver City Park, Daniel Steward, helped her develop her shot.
She gleaned toughness and learned how to condition from a Virginia native named Al Birdsong.
When Thompson played for the WNBA’s Houston Comets, she spent a lot of time in the gym perfecting every nuance of the game with Brent Johnson, who is now with the Houston Rockets, and Melvin Hunt, who is a member of the Atlanta Hawks’ coaching staff.
Carroll Dawson, the former general manager of the Houston Rockets, helped her grasp the mental side of the game.
“He saw the game in a way and studied it in such a way that he could watch me play and give me subtle things here and there that tweaked my game and made me so much more efficient,” Thompson said.
She got a taste of tough coaching from Mary Anne Stanley, who recruited her to USC. While she was with the Trojans, Thompson soaked up every bit of knowledge offered by Fred Williams, who took over as head coach at USC in 1995. She also studied under Cheryl Miller, a USC player and coach who Thompson called the best player in the history of women’s basketball.
Professionally, she played with Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes.
“I’ve been blessed to be in these situations where I had some of the most accomplished people in the game add to my game,” Thompson said. “I was a sponge, and I was open to everything they were giving me.”
During her playing days, the coaching profession wasn’t all that attractive to Thompson. In fact, she never even gave it a thought until University of Texas head coach Karen Aston wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“While I was playing, I saw coaches who always looked stressed out, and they aged pretty quickly,” Thompson said. “I didn’t want that for my life.”
Alston persisted, though, and Thompson joined the Longhorns’ coaching staff. In three seasons at Texas, Thompson coached Imani Boyette, who was the first player in UT women’s basketball history to finish her career with 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 200 blocks. In 2016, Boyette was drafted No. 10 overall by the WNBA’s Chicago Sky.
In 2018, Texas forward Ariel Atkins was drafted seventh overall by the Washington Mystics.
“You have to meet the players where they are,” Thompson said. “I took the way I approached the game as a leader and a teammate when I was playing, and that’s the same way I approach my kids today.”
Just like coaching, Thompson never gave the hall of fame much thought, but that’s also become a reality. One June 10, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. On Sept. 7, she’ll be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.