Thursday, November 5, 2009

David "Skywalker" Thompson

An excerpt from Bill Simmons new book, "The Book of Basketball"

70. David Thompson

Lacks a conventional resume but aces the "Did he connect with fans on a spiritual level?" and "I've never seen anyone in my life like this guy!" tests. I remember attending a postmerger Nuggets-Celtics game and being so blown away by Thompson that my father's innocuous comment, "Too bad we only get to see him once a year," left me profoundly disappointed. Since we didn't have SportsCenter or DirecTV back then, for all I knew, Thompson was dunking on everyone's head ten times per game and I was missing it.

We'll remember Thompson as the Intellivision to Jordan's PlayStation 2, an original prototype for every high-flying two-guard who followed. Blessed with a lightning first step, a reliable jump shot, and a 44-inch vertical leap that had him handling jump balls for North Carolina State (not strange until you remember that seven-foot-four behemoth Tom Burleson played for them), Thompson had everything you'd want in your shooting guard except height. Listed at six foot four, Thompson was closer to six foot two and looks noticeably shorter than his contemporaries on tape. Didn't matter. The dude soared through the air like a Bud Light daredevil bouncing off a trampoline (Growing up in Carolina, Thompson shot hoops on a dirt surface in his backyard. Some wonder if this led to his freakish jumping ability, especially since MJ grew up playing on a dirt court. If my son shows any promise at all with hoops, I'm building a clay basketball court in my backyard.). What really separated him was his zero-to-sixty explosiveness in traffic. Surrounded by four or five taller players, time and time again Thompson took your breath away by springing four feet to block a shot or dunk on someone's head. He didn't need a running start and didn't need to bend his knees. Honestly, it was like watching a squirrel. In thirty-five years of attending NBA games, I've never seen anything remotely approaching the sight of Thompson's leaping ability in person; he made you feel like you were watching a lousy sports movie with bad special effects where the lead character gets magic sneakers or something. You don't earn the nickname "Skywalker" unless there's a really good reason. I just wish someone had told this to Kenny Walker.

The defining Thompson story: During the same afternoon as Havlicek's final game, Thompson was battling Gervin for the 1978 scoring title (That was one of the great random sports days: Havlicek's final game, Thompson exploding for 73 (a record for noncenters for 28 years), Gervin responding with 63 and Gary Player coming back from seven strokes to win the '78 Masters. If ESPN Classic had ever started a show called The Greatest SportsCenters We Ever Could Have Had, April 9, 1978, would rank right up there.)). Back then, the Boston Garden's PA announcer rattled of NBA scores during time-outs (remember, we didn't have T-shirt cannons and JumboTrons back then), so after giving the Nuggets-Pistons halftime score, he added, "David Thompson has 53 points," and everyone gasped in disbelief. I remember thinking, "He's gonna break 100! He's gonna beat Wilt!" He ended up with 73 points, but the fact remains, Thompson was so explosive that an eight-year-old NBA fan honestly believed he could score 100-plus points in a game. So what happened to him? He developed a monster coke problem like so many other rich celebs in the late seventies, battled a variety of injuries and eventually blew out his knee after falling down a Studio 54 stairwell (The Studio 54 incident happened in 1984, well after the likes of Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli had stopped hanging out there. Had Thompsons's career ended in '79 because he got flung down a Studio 54 stairwell by Bianca Jagger's boyfriend or something, now that would have been cool.). When Jordan arrived in November 1984, Thompson was already gone. And maybe it's impossible to capture the magnitude of Thompson's premature demise, but screw it, let's try.

David Thompson was...

1. The most underrated superstar of the past thirty-five years
2. The single biggest NBA tragedy other than Lenny Bias

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