Tina Thompson and Katie Smith were the foundation for WNBA greatness
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Tina Thompson and Katie Smith were the foundation for WNBA greatness

Twenty-one years ago, Tina Thompson was in a law school prep class at the University of Southern California, focused on her future as an attorney. Then the WNBA came calling. Quite literally.

The 6-foot-2 forward, who was a superstar at USC, received a voicemail from WNBA officials, inviting her to play for the upstart league. She wasn't sure at first if she was prepared to upend her life plan, but a few hours before the WNBA draft she decided to give it a go. She ended up being the first overall pick in WNBA history.

This weekend, Thompson will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame along with another WNBA legend, Katie Smith. It's fitting that this induction comes amid one of the most exciting WNBA seasons in league history; Thompson and Smith have paved the way, on and off the court, for the future of the sport.

Thompson's WNBA success came swiftly. The Houston Comets drafted her, and in Texas, she formed the first WNBA dynasty. Alongside Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, Thompson won four straight WNBA championships.

But her career didn't end when the Houston dynasty fell. Thompson played in the WNBA for 17 years, finally retiring after the 2013 season. She was a nine-time WNBA All-Star, three-time member of the All-WNBA first team, four-time member of the All-WNBA second team, two-time Olympic champion and is the only player in league history who was named to an All-Star team in three different decades.

With her famous Diva lipstick and legendary confidence, Thompson became the first WNBA player to notch 7,000 points and 3,000 rebounds. She retired as the leading scorer in WNBA history and is currently second, after Diana Taurasi passed her last year. Thompson paved the way for the versatile power forwards we see today, such as Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart, with great defense in the post, a killer three-point shot and a delicate touch around the rim.

Today, she's fifth in league history in three-point field goals and fourth in total rebounds. She could do it all.

In 2008, after the Comets folded, Thompson went home to Los Angeles to play for the Sparks. There, she got to play alongside her high-school teammate Lisa Leslie and burgeoning star Candace Parker. She spent her final two years playing for the Seattle Storm, where she teamed up with Sue Bird. Her final year, Thompson was 38 years old and still averaging 14.1 points per game. She never lost her touch.

In the 2012 season, Thompson actually played with Smith on the Storm. Smith's journey in the WNBA was much more winding than Thompson's, and she didn't find success as quickly. Overall, the 5-foot-11 guard played for five WNBA teams: the Minnesota Lynx (1999-2005), Detroit Shock (2006-2009), Washington Mystics (2010), Seattle Storm (2011-2012) and New York Liberty (2013).

However, just like Thompson did, Smith's pro basketball career started out with consecutive championships; they just didn't come in the WNBA. When she finished her legendary career at Ohio State, she joined the American Basketball League, a short-lived women's pro league in the United States that launched in 1996 and folded in 1998. Smith was an integral member of the Columbus Quest, which won titles in 1997 and 1998.

In the WNBA, most of her success came with the Detroit Shock, where she won two WNBA championships under head coach Bill Laimbeer. She was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time WNBA first teamer and three-time Olympic champion.

Whereas Thompson always exuded prestige and greatness, Smith was more unassuming. She was an athletic, tenacious guard who would outcompete everyone on the court and then preferred to live life outside of the spotlight off it. She actually announced her retirement in 2013 in a tweet to a random fan.

But Smith's numbers demand attention: She is currently the fifth-leading scorer in WNBA history. There's no way to be unassuming with those numbers.

Still, as gaudy as Thompson and Smith's statistics are, they tell only part of the story of their impact. Thompson wasn't the first WNBA player to give birth during her career, but the way she seamlessly integrated her son, Dyllan Thompson-Jones, into her life as a basketball star, both domestically and overseas, really paved the way for future mothers in this league, such as Candace Parker and Tayler Hill, to thrive. Thompson-Jones traveled the world with his mother; he was on the bus rides and in the hotels and simply became a part of the team. She gave birth before the 2005 season and was back playing with the Comets just two months later. When she retired, Thompson-Jones was 8 years old.

And now, after paving the way for women basketball players, Thompson and Smith are paving the way for female coaches. Both legends have seamlessly transitioned into the coaching ranks. After retiring with the Liberty in 2013, Smith worked as an assistant under Laimbeer for three seasons. This season, she took over as head coach.

Thompson spent a few years as an assistant at the University of Texas, before being promoted to associate head coach in 2017. Earlier this year, she was named the head women's basketball coach at the University of Virginia.

Though she doesn't coach in the WNBA, she still has a huge influence on the league, and not just because of the post moves she taught Parker when they were teammates on the Sparks. Thompson coached and mentored Ariel Atkins of the Washington Mystics — the breakout rookie star of this year's WNBA playoffs — during her time at Texas.

Thompson would have made an excellent attorney, I'm sure. But we're certainly lucky she checked her voicemail.

Lindsay Gibbs is the Sports Reporter at ThinkProgress, contributing writer at High Post Sports, and co-host of the sports and feminism podcast, Burn It All Down. You can follow her on Twitter @linzsports.

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