Tina Thompson, last original WNBA player, has carried Los Angeles this season
Veteran Tina Thompson was the key to the Los Angeles Sparks' turnaround at midseason. The Sparks face an elimination game Saturday against the Storm.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle @ Los Angeles, noon
LOS ANGELES — Pressure? What pressure?
"I don't feel pressure. I think pressure is self-imposed," said Los Angeles All-Star Tina Thompson. The WNBA's last original player from the inaugural 1997 season will lead the Sparks in a must-win Game 2 against the Storm at noon Saturday at Staples Center.
A loss could be the final glimpse of the four-time champion, although Thompson typically waits to her announce her future.
"You've just got to get it done," she said.
The Southern California native has been "getting it done" for 14 years in the WNBA.
She applies her Diva lipstick by MAC and methodically bangs inside for rebounds and deadly jump shots. There's not a post player in the league who hasn't been burned by both — the dark red makeup stain on their jersey or the memory of a dagger jumper in their face.
"It became part of my uniform," Thompson said of the lipstick. She forgot to remove it once as a freshman at USC, scoring 23 points in a win. "I was kind of like, 'Oh, it must be the lipstick,' and it stuck."
Anyone will tell you it's more than the lipstick that makes Thompson great.
She was the league's first draft pick, playing in the shadow of charismatic stars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes in Houston. Each season Thompson, 35, would add a tweak to her game, becoming one of the league's most respected players.
"I knew two weeks before that (former) coach Van Chancellor was going to pick her," said Renee Brown, WNBA senior vice president of player personnel. "It was important because we were establishing the league. Now, her name will go down as one of the most important to help get this league started and help sustain it. Wherever she goes, there has always been success. Without her, I don't think these teams — whether it be Houston or L.A. — would be as successful."
When Houston folded in 2008, Thompson joined rival Los Angeles to close out her career in front of friends and family, not saying when that end would come. With the Sparks, she became the WNBA's all-time leading scorer on Aug. 8, surpassing Lisa Leslie. The feat, however, was in the midst of one of Thompson's hardest seasons as a professional.
Sparks leading scorer Candace Parker (20.6) suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in June, shifting the entire offense through Thompson, a 6-foot-2 forward, who has scored 6,413 points.
Thompson helped turn Los Angeles' 4-13 start into a playoff bound 9-8 finish. She averaged 21.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in August as the Sparks (13-21) clinched the No. 4 seed in the West.
"She was the MVP of the league. She really put us on her back and carried us to the playoffs," Sparks point guard Ticha Penicheiro said of the run. "We were 4-13 going into the break, which for this franchise is embarrassing. We all came back with a different attitude knowing we had to do more, and it started with Tina."
But the work isn't done.
Facing top-seeded Seattle's pressure defense in Game 1, Los Angeles made too many errors. The Sparks allowed 10 points off six turnovers in the opening quarter and were surprised by rookie Jana Vesela's three-point shooting, although the Czech Republic star has had solid games for the Storm in the past. Vesela was 4 of 4 from the field for 11 points in the second quarter.
Thompson, often matched up against MVP candidate Lauren Jackson, also had a rough night, making just two field goals in the second half, playing every minute due to the team's lack of depth. By the end of the game she was hunched over and breathing heavily.
In the KeyArena locker room, with fans' ear-piercing screams after the 79-66 final still vibrating in L.A.'s ears, Thompson was the first to speak to her team.
"It's not time to panic," Sparks reserve Kristi Toliver said of Thompson's postgame message. "She said we don't need to play like our backs are against the wall, but we know this is a must-win game. It's time to regroup, get it together and go get a win at home. We know how to beat Seattle; we just need to execute it."
And you can bet Thompson will provide the example.
"I don't expect them to roll over and die," Storm guard Sue Bird said.
Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or email@example.com
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