10 years apart, Tina Thompson and Noelle Quinn may not have much in common on the surface – one’s a WNBA legend with four championships, the other is just starting her third season.
But entering this season – which starts Saturday at home against the reigning WNBA champion Detroit Shock – both have similar emotions about returning home to play for the Sparks.
“It’s a dream come true, I’m in a position where I can learn from the best everyday,” Quinn said with a grin.
“It’s great to be in your comfort zone among family and friends,” said Thompson.
The surreal nature of playing in their hometown was matched by seeing the personnel around them. Along with All-Star guard Betty Lennox, they were among key off-season additions made by general manager Penny Toler.
It’s no surprise the Sparks are favored to win the WNBA title, even with reigning Rookie of the Year/MVP Candace Parker out on maternity leave. And playing a role in that are the two local stars coming back to L.A.
Both grew up with different memories. Thompson was a fan of the Showtime era – she will wear Magic Johnson’s number (32) – and Quinn, who was drafted No. 4 overall by Minnesota in 2007 – is part of the new generation of that grew up watching the WNBA.
One of the city’s finest players this decade, she was a two-time All-State selection and four-time state champion at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance and a four-year starter at UCLA.
During her summers, she’d find herself attending Sparks games at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood before the team moved downtown to Staples Center. Her mother, a schoolteacher, has been a season ticket holder since the league’s inception in 1997.
Safe to say that she’ll be looking a bit more forward to game days now.
“She’s probably more excited than me,” Quinn said.
Thompson’s return has brought her career full-circle. She followed Leslie’s footsteps as and All-State player at Morningside High School and an All-American at USC before carving a legendary WNBA career.
Her resume speaks for itself – four WNBA titles, eight all-league selections, two Olympic medals, All-Star Game MVP in 2000 – but after the Comets suspended operations this summer, she jumped at the chance to return home and play again with Leslie.
“I don’t think that either one of us had the expectation that we would play together in the WNBA,” Thompson said.
Leslie admitted that she tried to convince her during the All-Star break to come back home. The two started together during the Beijing Olympics and it felt like a natural pairing.
“I would’ve been [mad] if she decided to play somewhere else,” she said jokingly, “We play well together, we have great chemistry and it just works.”
As far as wearing Johnson’s number, Thompson approached him about it during NBA All-Star weekend in February. The two had already known each other fairly well and when she asked him, the Hall of Famer gave her his blessing.
“He’s excited about it so I hope I can give it just due,” Thompson said.
Saturday’s game will have several subplots – the new-look Sparks and their chemistry, how they fare against the defending champions – but it will have a special meaning for Quinn and Thompson.
For that first few moments, it’s a reminder that there’s no place like home.