Tina Thompson's storybook career takes her all the way to Naismith HOF

Tina Thompson, a four-time WNBA champion, retired in 2013 as the league's all-time leading scorer, with 7,488 points in 496 games. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

When Tina Thompson was a youngster, she envisioned her grown-up self a lawyer, sitting inside her Los Angeles office, framed Harvard degree on the wall.

She didn't dream USC would offer her a basketball scholarship. Nor could she have predicted that she would be the first pick in the inaugural WNBA draft, or that she would be integral to the Houston Comets winning the first four league championships.

Thompson didn't picture herself in a USA basketball uniform. Even as recently as a few years ago, she had no plan to coach, either, but after working as an assistant and later associate head coach at Texas, she's in the early months of her first head-coaching job at Virginia.

As for being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a nine-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist -- that's storybook stuff.

"I never ever thought at one point in my life that this would be my reality," said Thompson, 43, who will be inducted this weekend in Springfield, Massachusetts, as part of the 13-member 2018 class that includes seven-time WNBA All-Star Katie Smith and NBA legends Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.

"It's overwhelming, all aspects of it. The building is overwhelming. Being nominated is overwhelming. The idea of being housed in a place with so much greatness, players and people I've looked up to or admired my entire life. ... It's not something you think of."

Thompson will receive the ceremonial orange jacket Thursday -- and no, she's not planning to match it with a lipstick shaded Naismith orange. She'll stick to the traditional ruby red that is her signature.

"I tried pink once and it was a disaster," she said, laughing. "Or nude. I can always go with nude."

Thompson's 13-year-old son, Dyllan, and mother, Lady, will accompany her from Charlottesville. Several other extended family members and friends plan to attend. Cheryl Miller, a Naismith inductee in 1995, will present Thompson at the official ceremony Friday.

Admittedly, Thompson hasn't had time to dwell on the honor given several months of change in her own life. After three seasons assisting Texas coach Karen Aston, Thompson was hired by the Cavaliers in April. She is settling into a four-story colonial house near the Blue Ridge Mountains and getting Dyllan ready for seventh grade. She added WNBA coaching veteran Karleen Thompson to the staff as associate head coach and is in the midst of her first preseason with the Cavaliers.

"I've literally, since the moment I got the call, have thought about the induction as little as possible," Tina Thompson said. "There's so much going on in my life that I can't deal with the emotions of what it all means. I'm saving it for the ceremony. I know I'm going to be a complete and utter wreck."

Thompson is grateful to have Miller, a friend she considers family, doing the honors. And Miller -- a fellow USC alum whom Thompson says is the "best basketball player on earth" -- will have plenty of biographical material to choose from in reflecting on Thompson, a trailblazer in the sport despite those early days when she failed to see greatness in herself while playing opposite her brother, T.J., and his friends at Robertson Park in West Los Angeles.

"I was terrible," Thompson cringes.

But she studied the game, not overlooking any details, embraced repetition and worked at it tirelessly, powered by a determination to be the best that still fuels her today.

"I didn't know I could get a scholarship to play basketball until I was in the ninth grade," Thompson said. "I planned to go to college; I wanted to go to Harvard, which did not give out scholarships. Receiving a basketball scholarship was not a vessel for me."

But when the recruiting letters poured in, she realized it was -- and USC was her choice. She took her studies there as seriously as basketball. The "Law and Order" and cop-show junkie studied for the LSAT while at USC and aspired to be a judge after talking with her uncle, a lawyer.

Law school was the plan. Instead, when Thompson graduated in 1997 as USC's fifth all-time leading scorer with 2,248 points, she was drafted first in a new professional women's basketball league, the WNBA. Even then, the 6-foot-2 forward thought professional basketball would be a small part of her future.

"I thought I'd spend three to five years in the WNBA just so I could collect enough money to pay for law school free and clear," Thompson said.

But she was part of a dynasty in Houston, starring alongside Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Sheryl Swoopes. Along with Thompson, they became known as the league's Big Three. The Comets won four championships in a row, becoming the first women's professional team to visit the White House.

Van Chancellor was coach for all of them.

"When we drafted her as the first pick, we knew how aggressive she was, how hard-nosed and smart she was, but more importantly, we didn't know how well she could shoot the 3 ball," he says. "There's no way you thought you were taking a player with her height who could shoot the ball that well from the outside."

Today, it's not unusual for bigs such as Elena Delle Donne and Candace Parker to bury 3-pointers. Twenty years ago, Thompson was a pioneer.

Cooper-Dyke, who was inducted into the Naismith Hall in 2010, said she admired Thompson for her winning mentality.

"She had a fearless pursuit of greatness. She would put in the work; she would listen," Cooper-Dyke said. "It's almost like she would do her research to bring something new to the table every single year. She never felt like she arrived. She always felt like there was more to learn, and she was in relentless pursuit of that."

Thompson, the 2000 WNBA All-Star Game MVP, played in Houston until 2008, giving birth to Dyllan prior to the 2005 season. She spent three seasons with Los Angeles (2009-11) and two with Seattle before retiring in 2013 as the league's all-time leading scorer, with 7,488 points in 496 games. Today she ranks second behind Phoenix's Diana Taurasi. In 2016, Thompson was named to the WNBA's Top 20@20 in celebration of the league's 20th anniversary.

"Each year in the league was different; I learned something different," she said. "When you've had the experience I had without intention of having any of it, it was all great. It was an amazing experience that I wouldn't trade for anything."

Thompson said the same about being part of two Olympic teams, in 2004 and 2008.

"I dedicated a large part of my life to it," she said. "I'm very happy and full of pride that I was able to represent my country and win two gold medals. There are so few who can say they've had that honor. It was a huge part of my career and brought everything together."

Thompson rejected early opportunities to coach following her retirement from professional ball, until Aston repeatedly nudged her to join the staff at Texas.

"I credit her out-of-box mentality for seeking someone like me, because I know I was probably very different than everyone else on her staff in the past," Thompson said. "I'm a lot. I'm very opinionated and strong in my opinions and efforts when I believe in them."

When Virginia athletic director Carla Williams hired her to replace Joanne Boyle in April, she touted Thompson's commitment to and passion for developing strong, confident, successful women.

Cavalier junior guard Jocelyn Willoughby knew many of the details behind the Thompson legend.

"I do remember her in the Olympics watching with my mom," Willoughby said. "Some of us Googled her story, but we knew who she was. But when she introduced herself to us, she said, 'Yes, I am Tina Thompson, but I am not the Tina Thompson you know me as. I'm your coach.' And that was nice for us because we were in awe."

The fall is a hectic time for any coach to be away from her team for four days. Thompson is disappointed to miss that much time with the Cavaliers to attend her Naismith induction, but grateful she can trust her staff in her absence.

That will allow her to savor every bit of the festivities in Springfield.

"Everything is a reward for the work," she said. "It's just that there wasn't an open plan for any of it. I enjoyed it a whole lot. I wanted to be the best I could be. So I worked over and over and over, and I think all of it was possible because of the work. If I had been a little more passive in nature, I probably wouldn't have accomplished what I have."

Added Chancellor: "I wanted to see her be recognized because she was just as important as Cynthia and Sheryl. And the greatest recognition you can have as a player or a coach is to be elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame. That's the ultimate and Tina Thompson has reached it."

Thompson has an expression she uses regularly in describing her approach to life: Lead from the front.

"You have to be the things you teach and you preach," she said. "You can't say things without them being the things you truly believe. When I say I enjoy leading from the front, I am very aware of everything that's behind me."

That's greatness talking.