Friday, May 28, 2010
To most basketball fans, David Thompson is synonymous with squandered talent. He’s a reckless symbol of the cocaine-addled NBA that was self-destructing in the late 1970s. But to the majority of hoops fans from Thompson’s home state of North Carolina, the “Skywalker” is viewed in a kinder light as one of the greatest players ever who ran into a few personal problems.
I grew up in Greensboro, N.C., long after Thompson had washed out of the NBA. When I was in middle school and getting indoctrinated into hoops culture, Thompson came to talk to our student body. I don’t remember the speech besides being the usual stay-in-school/don’t-do-drugs boilerplate. What I remember is that the gymnasium was packed; parents had ducked out of work at the chance to hear Thompson speak. The physical education teachers wore suits and ties. I was left with the impression that Thompson was on par with the president of the United States.
Thompson became embedded in my hoops consciousness, and his name started cropping up everywhere. When I would write research projects about Michael Jordan, I’d read about how the young MJ patterned his game after Thompson and longed to wear an N.C. State jersey like his idol. When the ACC tournament would hit town, the Greensboro News & Record was chockablock with tales of Thompson’s exploits with the Wolfpack: 26.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and a 79-7 record in three college seasons.
It must have been tough for Thompson to come to Greensboro to talk about his personal failures because that city played host to the three biggest victories of his college career in the 1973-’74 season. After watching video of Thompson scoring 42 points in the ABA’s swan song, I realized that I had never seen any of his college work besides the obligatory highlight packages. To understand why all those Carolina folk got starry-eyed when talking about Thompson, I viewed tapes of N.C. State’s victories over Maryland (in the famous ACC championship game), UCLA (in the Final Four) and Marquette (in the NCAA championship game).
I never thought Thompson could live up to the images I had created in my mind since back in the day. But he might have exceeded expectations.
As expected, Thompson’s athleticism is the first thing that jumps out at the viewer. Depending on whom you believe, Skywalker’s vertical leap was somewhere between 35 and 44 inches. N.C. State coach Norman Sloan tailored the offense to fit Thompson’s gifts. This team basically made the alley-oop a staple of the modern game. Everyone on the team could loft that pass to a hard-cutting Thompson, from 5-foot, 7-inch point guard Monte Towe to 7-2 center Tom Burleson.
Against Maryland in the ACC championship, the Wolfpack’s signature play was on full display in what by common consent is the greatest game in that conference’s history. Since each conference got only one bid to the NCAA tournament, one of the nation’s best teams would have its season end early. Thompson made sure it wasn’t N.C. State. His back-door cuts were a thing of beauty: He would lazily bring his defender to the free-throw line, then sell hard like he was sprinting out to the perimeter to get the ball. Before his defender could blink, Thompson would plant his feet and cut like lightning back to the basket. Since dunking the ball was outlawed by the NCAA at that time, it made each of Thompson’s alley-oops a separate art performance. Only 6-4, Thompson would glide over the rim, gather the ball then smoothly drop it into the basket. He scored a large chunk of his 29 points in this manner in the dramatic 103-100 overtime victory.
Dunking became what Thompson has been best remembered for in his professional career. That is definitely historically noteworthy, but it also obscures Thompson’s whole game. In the 80-77 double-overtime victory against UCLA (which ended the Bruins’ seven-year stranglehold on NCAA titles), Thompson made several jaw-dropping blocks against Bill Walton that proved to N.C. State that the upset was possible. Thompson’s 28 points and 10 rebounds helped, too.
Thompson made sure the Wolfpack avoided a letdown against Marquette in the national championship by displaying his total game in playing all 40 minutes. With intimidator Maurice Lucas roaming underneath the basket, the alley-oops were largely choked off. Thompson went to work with his mid-range game, finishing with 21 points in the 76-64 victory to cap off his Most Outstanding Player performance at the Final Four. Another underrated part of Thompson’s game was his defense. Especially at the college level, where Thompson’s athleticism was far superior to the competition, he would soar for rebounds and sprint into passing lanes for steals.
So watching Thompson did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that he is one of the greatest players ever. You can’t gloss over the fact that his personal demons likely robbed him of a more noteworthy professional career, but you also can’t ignore those plays that still make grown men in my home state shake their heads in awe.