Tina Thompson was one of 12 basketball honorees, and one of two former WNBA stars, to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 7. Now the head coach of the University of Virginia Women’s Basketball team, Thompson continues to collect accolades in recognition of her outstanding playing career. In June, Thompson was also inducted in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Thompson’s illustrious playing career includes being a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2004, 2008) and a four-time WNBA champion with the Houston Comets. In 2011, she was acknowledged as one of the top-15 WNBA players of all time. Thompson was the No. 1 overall pick of the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft, by the Houston Comets.
Thompson’s 2018 enshrinement class included: Ray Allen (player), Grant Hill (player), Jason Kidd (player), Steve Nash (player), Maurice Cheeks (player), Charles “Lefty” Driesell (coach), Ora Mae Washington (player), Dino Radja (player), Rod Thorn (contributor), Rick Welts (contributor), Katie Smith (player) and Charlie Scott (player).
Tina Thompson was overwhelmed by the induction:
Of all the things you think about doing in your career: I wanted to be an Olympian and hopefully and All-Star … I wanted to win championships. Those are the goals that I felt like I could possibly reach. To be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is never something I thought about. So, when it happens, you’re amazed, and I am every day, amazed. I literally try not to think about it too much because it is overwhelming. Just thinking about all the players that I absolutely loved watching and admired throughout my career. To be mentioned in the same breath as them is just, unfathomable.
It was only fitting that Thompson was supported by the other two-thirds of the WNBA’s first “Big Three,” from the dynasty of the now-defunct Houston Comets: Hall of Famers Cynthia Cooper (Naismith class of 2010) and Sheryl Swoopes (Naismith class of 2016).
In 1997, then-thirty-four-year-old rookie Cynthia Cooper set the tone for the Comets and the WNBA. Cooper led the league in scoring consecutively, from 1997-1999, she was a two-time WNBA MVP (1997, 1998) and was awarded the WNBA Finals MVP for each of the Comets’ championship titles, from 1997-2000.
Sheryl Swoopes was an incredible talent and unmatched impact player on the women’s game. Swoopes was a three-time league MVP, a six-time All-Star and the first woman basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her — the “Air Swoopes.”
Houston Comets: A dynasty of unmatched greatness
Thompson, Cooper and Swoopes each brought something different to the team and their dominance with Comets is something that has not been replicated throughout the league’s 22 seasons. The most recent dynasty in the WNBA has been the Minnesota Lynx, which has won four championship titles, but not consecutively: 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
The Houston Comets won the first four WNBA Championships in the league, 1997 through 2000. “The Comets were the impact,” Thompson said about the team’s importance to the WNBA and women’s basketball. “They made people stand up and watch. They made skeptics of the league and its ability to survive into believers. Houston set a tone. It created awareness and excitement, like a curiosity of, ‘What’s going on over there in that league?’”
The franchise folded in 2008.
The Houston Comets definitely helped launch the excitement at the inception of the WNBA, but they faded out almost as quickly as they ascended to dominance.
After Cooper retired in 2001, following the Comets’ fourth and final championship season, the team struggled in postseason play. In 2004, the Comets missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and, even though they returned to the playoffs in 2005, the 2006 season would be their last franchise appearance in the postseason.
The team continued to struggle on the court — and in the front office. Leslie Alexander sold the Comets to Hilton Koch and head coach Van Chancellor resigned in 2007. The Comets had an abysmal start in 2007 and finished 13-21 on the season. Koch put the team back up for sale in 2008 and the WNBA took over the front office duties only to announce in the same year that the team was being disbanded and suspending operations.
It’s still incredible to consider that a team that had such an incredible impact on women’s basketball and women’s professional sports, in general, would just ... go away. One of the top producing and most attended WNBA franchises in a heavily populated metropolitan demographic just ceased to exist, with Thompson feeling the league did not fight hard enough to save it.
“It was a very big misjudgment on the league’s behalf, in the sense that I just don’t think that they really do business properly and didn’t value what that franchise brings,” Thompson said, of the Comets’ extinction.
After the Comets disbanded, Swoopes would sign with the Seattle Storm, only to be waived the following year. In 2011, Swoopes finished out her professional career with the Tulsa Shock. After Cooper’s retirement in 2001, she returned to the WNBA in 2003 for the Houston Comets, only to subsequently retire a final time in 2004. Thompson went on to play with the LA Sparks from 2009-2011, and she played two more seasons, with the Storm (2012-2013), before retiring from an outstanding professional career.
Cooper was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010, Swoopes in 2016 and, finally, the “Big Three” have been fully reunited with the induction of Thompson in 2018. Although it was an unfortunate demise for the first WNBA powerhouse franchise, the Houston Comets, the contributions that these three women made to women’s basketball is something that will never expire.