David Thompson: The ACC's Greatest Player
Editor's note: This excerpt originally appeared as a chapter in "Legends of NC State Basketball," by GoPack.com managing editor Tim Peeler (SportsPublishing LLC, © 2004). It is reprinted here with permission.BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. – Ida Thompson always worried about her baby flying too high. She, like everybody else in the world of college basketball in the early 1970s, marveled at how the youngest of her 11 children could just take off and fly, higher than anyone had ever seen. But, while others were awed by her son's unique talents, she was never able to hide her mother's concern.
"That boy is going to hurt himself," she said many times to Norm Sloan.
But, as David Thompson found out in his game-changing, above-the-rim career, it wasn't the flying that was the problem. It was coming down safely.
So on that March afternoon in 1974, as Thompson lay on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum in twin puddles of blood and urine – a sure sign of a devastating head injury – the world thought the greatest basketball player in ACC history was dead, having outsoared his many talents. CBS News' Walter Cronkite was on the phone with the emergency room personnel at Rex Hospital as they checked out the Wolfpack's fallen star, ready to give somber reports to the nation about the player who leaped to fame a year earlier simply because he was so much better than everybody else.
The thing about this tumble, and the much more sinister one that came years later, was that it was so unlike David, the soft-spoken, polite-as-a-preacher young man who never got angry. But on this afternoon, competition took over. The Wolfpack had to get to the 1974 Final Four. It had been denied the opportunity the year before, because of a probation that came from Thompson's recruitment. It had to get a rematch with UCLA, the most dominant program in college basketball history that had embarrassed Thompson and Wolfpack earlier in the year in a made-for-television special in St. Louis. And if the officials were going to let Pittsburgh slap Thompson on the arm on every shot, then he was going to do what he needed to on the other end of the floor to make sure Pittsburgh never got off another uncontested shot.
Midway through the first half of the NCAA East Region final at Reynolds Coliseum, someone slapped Thompson's arm yet again, and his shot came up about two feet short. He was enraged. He ran down the court with one goal: to block the next Pittsburgh shot taken. And he did, tipping the ball well after it left Keith Starr's hands. As an official called goal-tending, Thomson's foot caught the corner of 6-foot-8 teammate Phil Spence's shoulder. It may have been as high as Thompson, whose 44-inch vertical leap had been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, ever flew on the basketball court.
He flipped in mid-air, landing with his neck perpendicular to his body. When Tommy Burleson saw the replay, he got physically ill.
"That was a reckless act on my part,'' Thompson says. "That just shows that you shouldn't lose control on the basketball court. I had always been cool under pressure. I got a little upset, which was out of character for me, and I paid a huge price for it."
He was carried off the floor on a stretcher, the crowd silenced and terrified. He regained consciousness just behind Case Athletic Center, and the first person he recognized was his mom.
"My mother always said one day I was going to hurt myself," Thompson said. "And I guess I did."
As it turned out of course, that fall to the wooden floor didn't come close to killing Thompson, whose muscular physique probably spared him a massive head trauma. He was well enough a week – and 15 stitches to his head – later to block Bill Walton's shot twice in the Wolfpack's double-overtime victory over UCLA in the semifinals and to score 21 points in the championship game against Marquette.
But a different kind of fall did ruin Thompson's career and reputation. It just wasn't on the court. Basketball and his talents in the game brought him the fame, the money and the notoriety that steered Thompson into the worst of all the athletic clichés: drug addiction. And the drugs dropped Thompson flatter than the fall that afternoon against Pittsburgh. Now, nearly 20 years after Thompson survived the humiliation of jail and financial ruin, he believes that was God's plan all along.
"God brought me to my knees so I could look up to him," Thomson says in his often repeated inspirational speech. "When I was at the top of my career, the more successful I became, the further I got away from the Lord."
Drugs cost Thompson nearly everything: his unmatchable talent, his personal fortune, his family and his friends. Even after he was given another chance to land safely on his feet, thanks to his position as the director of community relations with the Charlotte Hornets, he nearly gave it all back again, needing another round of rehabilitation in the late 1980s to fight an alcohol problem that came with returning to the spotlight in his home state.
Thompson, professional basketball's first million-dollar player, remembers the first time he did cocaine. He tells the story every time he stands in front of a group of young people, as he tries to put his talent into the only context they might understand: he was Michael Jordan's hero.
It was during the 1976 ABA Championship series against the New York Nets, as Thompson tried to match Julius "Dr. J'' Erving dunk for high-flying dunk. He had already played more than 100 games that season, and he carried the fatigue like ankle weights.
"I tried it and I liked it,'' Thompson says. "That was the first time I tried cocaine. I was a little apprehensive. That next year, at a lot of the parties and a lot of the functions I went to, it was readily available. Once you break down and give in, it's a lot easier to do it the next time. Before you know it, it becomes a habit.
"It started on a social level and it became an addiction.''
This was not the same David Thompson that played at N.C. State. The talent was still there, all the skills were the same. But the high-flying life of professional basketball changed him.
"The thing that happened with David, I think, is that he didn't know how to say no to people,'' Norm Sloan said in a 1999 interview. "That was fine when he was with his friends. They knew how to take care of him. But when he got to the pros, he didn't know how to say no.''
And those new friends cost Thompson his old friends, at least for a while.
For eight years, Thompson and Tommy Burleson did not speak to each other. It's something that's unfathomable to both of them now, because they have become even close after their basketball careers ended than they were in college. In the late 1980s, while Thompson was serving 180 days in jail for assaulting his wife while free-basing cocaine, Monte Towe had completely lost touch with his teammate at both State and the Denver Nuggets.
Burleson, who developed some drinking issues and personal problems of his own while playing for the Seattle SuperSonics, blames himself for some of Thompson's troubles. Without realizing it, he was harshly judging his old friend.
"I turned my back on David,'' Burleson says. "He and I didn't speak for about eight years there when he got involved in drugs. I was technically not into drugs, but alcohol is just as bad.
"I feel bad about that. I just stopped calling him. I can't believe I didn't try to help him. We finally got back together, and our friendship is as strong as it ever will be.''
Thompson has never felt let down by Burleson, or any of his other Wolfpack friends. He simply blames his own weaknesses for the things that happened to him during what started out as a spectacular professional career but ended up on a broken path of injuries and drug addiction.
"When I was going through my personal problems, I didn't stay in contact with a lot of people during that time,'' Thompson says. "When I came back to Charlotte and got reconnected with a lot of my North Carolina State teammates. We started having more things in common. We turned our lives over to Christ. We try to make a difference in young people's life through basketball.
"Tommy never let me down. I was in my own little world. You know with a true friend, he will always be there to talk to. The love has always been there. Sometimes, the communication has not been. Mainly, that was on me for not being accessible. Communication is two ways.''
Both Thompson and Burleson are now deeply religious, and share their message about the highs and lows of their basketball career to young people.
"We were at a meeting of retired basketball players not long ago and David referred to me as one of his best friends,'' Burleson says. "To me, that was the greatest honor I have ever received, for a player and a person of that caliber to consider me his best friend.''
Perhaps it was the shared experiences, the pressure to live up to the greatness of their two-year run at N.C. State, in which the Wolfpack lost only one game, that took them down a treacherous road to addiction and other problems. Perhaps it was just being part of the NBA culture of that era that nearly killed the league.
Whatever the reasons, both Thompson and Burleson believe it all happened for a reason.
"When I watch the UCLA game, especially on that one tip-in, I am sure God had a hand in us winning,'' Burleson said. "He was rewarding our parents and our grandparents and Mr. Case and the generations of N.C. State people who built the foundation of the program. But I think he had another plan for us.
"I turned my back on Christ for a while, and David turned his back on Christ. God brought us back with humility. It was just part of the deal.''
"We were at a meeting not long ago and David told me, "Burl, if we hadn't traveled the paths that we did, our testimony would not be as strong today,'' Thompson told Burleson during that meeting. "" "If we had not made the mistakes that we made, then no one would listen to our message.'
"Those are some of the best words that David has ever said to me.''
For those who watched him and played against him, Thompson is still remembered as the ACC's greatest player, even if the league did honor Michael Jordan as the ACC's Greatest Athlete during its 50th anniversary celebration in 2003. That offended Burleson, who believed his friend should win the honor without much debate.
"I still think David Thompson is the greatest player ever in college basketball,'' said former Maryland All-America Len Elmore, who watched as Thompson, Burleson and the rest of the Wolfpack cut down the nets at the Greensboro Coliesum following the 1974 title game that still ranks among the best college contests ever. "David was the queen on the chessboard. He could go everywhere, inside, outside, rebounding. His impact was felt all over the floor. He changed the game.
"Everyone from then on wanted to be a Skywalker.''
Looking back, there are really only two regrets Thompson has about his college career: that he only dunked the ball once and that the Wolfpack won only one national championship.
Thompson believed when he met Burleson in high school that the two could combine to create a national power in Raleigh. But State was slapped with a one-year probation in the aftermath of recruiting Thompson, primarily for minor infractions committed after Thompson signed. The NCAA found no substantive abuses that allowed the Wolfpack an advantage in recruiting Thompson, though there were numerous allegations of cash and special benefits, from a new house for Thompson's parents to the paving of the pot-hole filled dirt road that led to the Thompson's cinder-block home in a pasture in Cleveland County.
Duke also landed on probation for one season because a Blue Devil booster, an executive at a Shelby textile mill, gave Thompson a sports jacket as a graduation gift.
Here, boiled down, are the primary violations that landed the school on probation: the school did not charge Thompson $8 a week for providing him housing while he participated in a basketball camp. He had slept on the floor of a dormitory with two friends from Shelby, Jerry and Larry Hunt. And, after Thompson signed with the Wolfpack, he played pickup games at Carmichael Gym with his future teammates. A few times, assistant basketball coach Eddie Biedenbach joined the games. The NCAA ruled those pick-up games as an illegal try-out, which Thompson considered an absurdity, considering he was one of the top recruits in the nation at the time.
"I think it was all a bunch of nitpicky stuff,'' Thompson said, "and I think it kept us from winning two national championships, to be honest with you.
"I think we had the team to win the championship in 1973, too.''
The NCAA also prevented Wolfpack fans from seeing Thompson dunk for three years. (Or four years, for that matter, since Thompson's class was the last one that was not eligible to play as freshman, in part because of the success and interest of the N.C. State freshman team in 1972 that featured Thompson, Monte Towe and Tim Stoddard.)
"It was tough not to be able to dunk the ball when you are way over the rim,'' Thompson said. "It would have been way easier to catch it and dunk it in one motion. I think in a lot of ways an alley oop without a dunk was a little more artistic play. You have to have body control and be able to hang in the air a little bit and make sure you didn't get it in the cylinder. It was a good play, but I would have much rather been able to throw a couple of them down and shatter a few backboards.''
But in his final home game during his senior year, against UNC-Charlotte, Thompson found himself in a breakaway situation late in the contest. He swooped in for a tomahawk slam, one that he made famous when winning the first ABA All-Star Game Dunk contest. And he gladly took his punishment of a technical foul, after giving the frothing fans a taste of what they had missed during his career.
"I got a technical foul and a standing ovation at the same time,'' Thompson says. "Coach Sloan took me out of the game right after that, and it was a great way to end my career at N.C. State.''
From the time he signed his letter of intent on the hood of Biedenbach's car on a spring day in Shelby, there was never any question that Thompson would become a Wolfpack legend. But three decades after his last game, there was some concern that Thompson might never become an N.C. State graduate. He left the school in the spring of 1975 two electives short of getting his degree in Sociology.
But as he watched his two daughters, Brooke and Erika, plug away at their college degrees, the old competitive fire that made Thompson so unbeatable in college began to burn again. He had to get his degree before they did. So he enrolled in the first session of summer school in 2003, then walked across the stage that December, at the same time Erika accepted her degree. A few days later, Brooke graduated from UNC-Asheville.
"It was something that bothered me for a lot of years,'' Thompson says of his lack of a degree. "My plan was to stay my senior year, possibly win another national championship, and get my degree. The main focus for coming back my senior year was to get my degree and graduate with my class. But when you get to the NBA, a lot of things come up...''
Thompson says he was surprised at just how many people were inspired that he went back and got his degree. They still send him letters. They come up to him after one of his motivational speeches. Some of them are as old as he is. Some of them are much younger. Some of them, like Marcus Melvin, played basketball at N.C. State too.
"I guess I just didn't expect it to be that big of a deal,'' Thompson says.
But it hangs on the wall in the living room of Thompson's house in Charlotte, just a little higher than Brooke's and Erika's diploma. On another wall are all the awards and honors from a life devoted to basketball.
"People who come to the house, they tend to look at all the basketball stuff,'' Thompson said. "But the diploma is something I am more proud of. I don't know how to explain it. It's just a feeling of completion, that's all. It completes me.''
Ah, finally, a safe landing.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.