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The last of the 1997 and 1998 players: What does this mean for the WNBA?

Tina Thompson's retirement at the end of the season means that not only are the 1997 players all out of the league, but most likely the 1998 players are out of the league as well.

Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

Every so often, I have run a feature called "The WNBA Tontine". This feature looks at the list of players from the earliest seasons of the American Basketball League (ABL) and the WNBA, and determines which of those players - if any - are still playing.

In September 2012, we determined that there were three active players from the ABL who were still playing in the WNBA - Katie Smith and Taj McWilliams-Franklin played all three seasons in the ABL (that final season was abbreviated due to the collapse of the league) and DeLisha Milton-Jones played during the last two seasons.

In March 2013, it was announced that McWilliams-Franklin had retired as a player. In the 2012 offseason, she was an assistant basketball coach at Rice University and is now working as an assistant coach for the New York Liberty. This leaves Smith and Milton-Jones as the only active players who have played for the ABL.

There is only one player from the 1997 WNBA roster who is still active - Tina Thompson, playing for the Seattle Storm. Furthermore, Thompson has just announced her retirement for the end of the 2013 season.

As for those players who entered the league in 1998, there were three players still (technically) active during the 2012 season - Ticha Penicheiro, Tangela Smith and Tully Bevilaqua. Penicheiro and Bevilaqua retired at the end of 2012, leaving Tangela Smith as the only active WNBA 1998 player, with plans to play in 2013.

However, Tangela Smith was waived by the San Antonio Silver Stars on May 2, 2013. This means that there is the significant chance that we will never see Tangela Smith play in the WNBA again. If this is the case, all of the players who entered the league in 1998 have now left, either by retirement, death, or through attrition.

We'll skip through 1999. Katie Smith and Delisha Milton-Jones entered the WNBA in 1999, and with Dominique Canty being waived by the Washington Mystics in 2012, that leaves only Smith, Milton-Jones and Becky Hammon as the only active players who arrived in 1999.

At the end of 2012, there were only two players still active from the 2000 WNBA roster. DeMya Walker played basketball in Liaoning (China) for four games in the 2012-13 offeseason. Ann Wauters won't be coming back in 2013, now focusing on her children. She was waived by the Seattle Storm, and her contract - if she had played - would have ended after this season. If Ann Wauters doesn't come back, this closes the book on those WNBA players arriving in the year 2000.

So what is the meaning beyond trivia? One of the goals of the WNBA - beyond making money and promoting women's sports - was to give players in the United States the chance to have a professional career in their own home country. And for the first time - ever - we have had a group of young women who were able to play professional basketball in the US and make a complete career of it. Maybe they didn't take full advantage of that opportunity, maybe injuries halted them or maybe other circumstances intervened. But despite the naysayers, despite the gatekeepers in the sports news media who tried to make light of the WNBA and hoped that the league would collapse, all of these women had a complete shot. They played as long as they were able to, and then they were no more.

That is nothing short of incredible. Young women now have the opportunity not just to have a career in pro basketball, but to see that career to completion. The number of women who have had a career - even a short one - in the WNBA is now in the hundreds, and that number can only keep growing. For these women of 1997 and 1998, the WNBA was not "fly by night". They saw both a sunrise, and a sunset. They are the counter-argument to anyone who might think women's professional basketball cannot make it in the United States.