LOS ANGELES -- Tina Thompson had set her sights on law school. She took the necessary entrance exams and began to assemble a list of possible postgraduate institutions. It was all shaping up nicely until, suddenly, an opportunity to play professional basketball presented itself. Thompson changed plans, trading in a possible career inside the courtroom for one on the court. Fifteen years later, the Los Angeles Sparks forward is the only player to play in every WNBA season.
"I definitely didn't think I'd be playing basketball other than for Team USA or in the Olympics," Thompson said Tuesday on the 15th anniversary of the league's first game, between the Sparks and the New York Liberty. "Just to have the opportunity to do something I love to do and get paid for it is pretty incredible. I didn't know how long I'd play in the WNBA -- I definitely didn't expect to play 15 seasons."
Despite some harsh critics, Thompson, a Los Angeles native and USC graduate, saw potential for longevity because the WNBA offered "an incredible product" to a new, untapped market. Rookie Jantel Lavender, the Sparks' youngest player at 22 years old, said she aspired to play professionally after meeting Thompson at a youth skills academy.
"She probably doesn't even remember," said Lavender, who was 7 years old when the league launched. "Everybody was like, 'Oh my God, that's Tina Thompson!' Now to play on the same team with her is crazy. I'm grateful for the players who started it. They believed in this game so much."
Sparks guard Noelle Quinn, a UCLA alum, was another young believer. She and her mother, a season-ticket holder, attended the inaugural game at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood.
"It's great to see this league has lasted," Quinn said. "Little girls who watch the league now have something to dream for, something to aspire to."
League pioneer and Sparks all-time leading scorer Lisa Leslie, a teammate of Thompson's at USC, addressed fans prior to Tuesday night's game at Staples Center, thanking supporters and calling for 15 more years. Thompson, the WNBA's all-time leader in scoring and games played, envisions continued advancement.
"I see it being prosperous [in the future], continuing to be successful," Thompson said. "There were a lot of skeptics that thought we wouldn't get past the first few years. Now that we're here, 15 years later, I think the sky is the limit."