On April 28, 1997, Tina Thompson waited for a call at the inaugural WNBA Draft. But when her phone rang, it wasn’t the call she hoped for.
“When I got that call that Houston was interested in picking me for the No. 1 pick, as crazy as it sounds now, I was devastated,” Thompson said.
Thompson had spent her entire life in California, most recently playing for USC from 1993 to 1997. The Los Angeles Sparks had the No. 3 draft pick and promised her she would be their choice if she was still available. The Los Angeles native believed her entire basketball career would center in California.
But the Houston Comets had other plans, and selected her as their first pick.
Thompson said she wasn’t happy about moving to Texas of all places. But her early success with the Comets made the transition smoother. The Comets won the 1997 WNBA Championship though they were overlooked early because of Sheryl Swoopes’ absence.
The Comets followed that championship with three more consecutive titles. Thompson’s move to Houston kicked off a 17-year WNBA career, which included nine WNBA All-Star appearances, four WNBA championships, an MVP All-Star selection and two Olympic gold medals.
Now, 18 years removed from that phone call, Thompson says the move wasn’t so bad after all.
“It turned out to be a wonderful experience,” Thompson said. “It was absolutely where I was supposed to be, but the idea at the time was total devastation.”
Once the Comets disbanded in 2008, Thompson finally got her chance to play for the Los Angeles Sparks. She stayed in L.A. for two years then joined the Seattle Storm, where she retired in 2013.
She spent two years mentoring a local AAU team based in Houston and Austin.
Then she got yet another unexpected call: Karen Aston offered her a job as an assistant coach at Texas.
“I was like, ‘no,’ right away,” Thompson said. “‘Thank you so much for considering me, but I humbly decline.’”
Aston persisted and convinced Thompson to visit. After meeting the staff, Thompson agreed to consider the offer. From that point on, Thompson said the stars just started to align.
“It just came down to being divine intervention, in a sense, that there were so many people I bumped into that I had relationships with,” Thompson said.
She had a relationship with John Lucas — whose son is on staff for the men’s basketball team — through AAU basketball in Houston. Fran Harris, who coordinates community engagement for the women’s basketball team, was Thompson’s teammate when she was with the Comets. Texas volleyball head coach Jerritt Elliott was at USC while Thompson played there. And former athletic director Steve Patterson was her first general manager with the Comets.
By March, Thompson was sold on the offer. March 18, Aston officially inked her as an assistant coach. In her first season, Thompson has accomplished a goal she always had as a player and continues to have as a coach: winning. The Longhorns are 5-0 and fresh off an upset over No. 4 Tennessee.
Thompson knows the game has changed since she began playing. But she said she still hopes to pass on wisdom from her successful career.
“You have to put in time and be patient, but for a generation of impatience, that’s really hard to instill,” Thompson said. “But when you have examples of actually doing it a certain way and having success, it makes it very believable.”