The Forgotten Legend
ATLANTA -- So the NCAA quietly released their “All-Time March Madness Players” on Friday. I don’t think they meant to release it quietly, but that’s the NCAA for you. When it comes to embarrassing a player for collecting an unwarranted fries and Coke, they can make a whole lot of noise. When it comes to announcing something cool like an all-time NCAA Tournament team, they can’t get anyone to pay attention.
In any case, I’m going to list the 15 players below in alphabetical order. I believe there’s an obvious omission. See if you can spot the player I’m thinking about:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at UCLA)
Larry Bird, Indiana State
Bill Bradley, Princeton
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
Grant Hill, Duke
Magic Johnson, Michigan State
Michael Jordan, North Carolina
Christian Laettner, Duke
Jerry Lucas, Ohio State
Danny Manning, Kansas
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati
Bill Russell, San Francisco
Bill Walton, UCLA
Jerry West, West Virginia
Now, remember, this is only supposed to be for players during the NCAA Tournament. Do you see the missing player? Heck you probably see a bunch of missing players … but there’s one I think rises above.
Before I get into that, let’s talk for a moment about Michael Jordan. I believe that he’s the greatest basketball player in the history of the game -- I see good arguments for Wilt and Magic and Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and I think LeBron James, if he maintains this level for a while longer, will have a powerful argument too. I still think Jordan’s the best.
With that said … what in the heck is he doing on THIS list? Yes, Jordan at North Carolina made the jump shot that ended up as the difference against Georgetown in the 1982 championship game (though you will remember that Georgetown had the ball with a chance to win and Fred Brown threw the pass away). But Jordan was a freshman then and was probably the third best player on that team behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. He averaged 13 points a game during that tournament. Not exactly legendary stuff.
The next year, North Carolina was shocked by Georgia in the regional final -- Jordan did score 26 in the loss on 11-of-23 shooting, but he also fouled out of the game.
The next year, North Carolina was REALLY shocked by Indiana in the regional semifinal -- that was the game when Dan Dakich famously got in Jordan’s grill, spooked him somehow, and Jordan scored just 13 on six-of-14 shooting.
I”m sorry, am I missing it? How in the heck does this get Michael Jordan on the all-time tournament team?
It gets him on the team because he’s Michael Jordan … and people get lazy about their history. Jordan was a superb college basketball player -- he won the Wooden Award his junior year. But he wasn’t a legendary one. Remember, he WAS the third pick in that NBA Draft. The legendary stuff came later, as a pro in Chicago. When the ACC named Jordan the best conference’s best player over the last 50 years, real ACC aficionados shook their head in dismay. It was a ridiculous choice. And now, when the NCAA makes a list of the best tournament players and includes Jordan, well, it’s the same thing all over again.
The worst part is, the player who is forgotten is the player Michael Jordan himself idolized.
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When it comes to being remembered and celebrated, David Thompson pretty much had everything stacked against him. He was in the last class of players to be ineligible as freshmen -- so he lost a year when he might have already been the best player in the country. He also lost one postseason when his N.C. State team was declared ineligible … this because of some remarkably petty rules violations involving the Thompson recruitment.*
*Thompson was so heavily recruited, he actually put TWO schools on probation -- N.C. State and Duke. There were always rumors that he received a boatload of money and cars and everything else -- maybe he did. But the ACTUAL violations at N.C. State were so minor, you almost can’t believe they stuck -- the violations included housing during a basketball camp (Thompson, apparently, slept on the floor) and playing in pickup games with an assistant coach. The ACTUAL Duke violation was a sport coat given to him for graduation.
Perhaps more than anything, Thompson played his three college years when the NCAA made the dunk illegal. There is no telling how many classic David Thompson dunks were lost to time. Thompson had a 44-inch vertical jump. They would say about him that he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and replace it with two dimes and a nickel. He was probably the greatest dunker on earth -- in the ABA he was one half of a legendary dunk contest against Julius Erving. Dr. J eventually won with his now-famous jump-from-the-foul-line dunk, but many people who watched them both all night would say that Thompson’s dunks were superior and had he not missed one of them, he would have won the contest.
In any case, he had only one dunk in college. We’ll get back to that one.
Thompson was more than a dunker, though. He was an unstoppable scoring machine. He was a defensive force of nature. His sophomore year, his N.C. State team went 27-0, and Thompson averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and he made 57% of his shots. They might have been the best team in America. They did not get to go to the NCAA Tournament to prove it -- and UCLA won its seventh consecutive national championship.
The next year, N.C. State played UCLA in the regular season -- and got destroyed by 18. Thompson was overwhelmed by the moment. But this time, they were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. And Thompson had a tournament for the ages.
In the regional semifinal against Bad News Marvin Barnes and Providence, Thompson scored 40 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, played all 40 minutes and led N.C. State to a 92-78 victory.
Two days later, the Wolfpack played Pittsburgh. When Louisville’s Kevin Ware had that horrible injury against Duke over the weekend, many people remembered the terrible Joe Theisman injury because they were both so horrible to watch. But a much more apt comparison was David Thompson against Pittsburgh. He had taken a shot and felt like he was fouled. When there was no call, he grew angry and chased down a Pittsburgh player to block his shot.
He took off -- he would often say he never jumped higher. Thompson’s leg connected with the shoulder of a teammate Phil Spence, and he crashed to the floor. There was blood everywhere. He was knocked unconscious. As the Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff -- who was there as a young N.C. State fan that day -- would say: “Everybody thought he was dead.” He was taken off the court on a stretcher. He needed 15 stitches.
One week later, in the national semifinal game, David Thompson was back to play against UCLA. He scored 28 points. He grabbed 10 rebounds. But perhaps what people remember more than anything was that that twice -- TWICE -- he blocked Bill Walton’s shots. And N.C. State beat UCLA in double overtime -- the first time UCLA had lost a tournament game in eight years.
Thompson completed the miracle by scoring 21 in the final as N.C. State beat Marquette for the national title.
It is beyond my understanding how that remarkable series of games could not land David Thompson on the All-Time Tournament team. He dominated the game. He came back from an impossibly gruesome injury. He ended a dynasty. He won a championship. Nobody in the history of the NCAA Tournament has ever done anything like it.
But … David Thompson wrecked his life after he left N.C. State. He averaged 30 points a game his senior year and won the Naismith Award. In his last game, he found himself open on a breakaway and he threw down a ferocious dunk. It meant a technical foul, but Thompson didn’t care. It was the right way to end the career. He didn’t know then that, in many ways, he really was ending a career.
Thompson was the first pick in the NBA Draft and the ABA Draft. And, he really was a dominant pro basketball player his first four seasons -- he averaged 25.8 points a game, wowed many with his fabulous dunks and amazing blocked shots, and might have been the best player in the league in the 1977-1978 season. He signed a massive contract (well, massive for the time). But he had a serious drug problem that was getting worse every year. He could not handle his fame. He rather famously fell down the steps one night at Studio 54, badly hurting his knee. He tried to come back. He was not able to make it back. His life descended even further into a drug-addled hell.
In time, David Thompson found some balance in his life. He found faith. He reached out to help kids so that they would not make the same mistakes he made. I went to a couple of his sessions with kids. He would start by saying:
“How many of you have heard of me?”
Only a handful of kids would raise their hands, and those -- I thought -- out of kindness.
“OK. Now, how many of you have heard of Michael Jordan.”
Every hand in the place would shoot up.
“Well,” he would say (with a little sadness in his voice, I thought) “I was Michael Jordan’s hero.”
In so many ways, David Thompson’s basketball career was a story of what might have been. But, that doesn’t nullify what he did. He has a real argument as the greatest college basketball player ever. And, if they are going to make lists like these, they shouldn’t put the best names. They should put the right players. David Thompson should remembered.
Look at the list again: Jerry West was once a Final Four MVP even though his team lost. Oscar Robertson was an amazing player who put up amazing numbers but could never quite lead his team into the national championship game. Michael Jordan hit an NCAA Tournament game-winning shot. Larry Bird played in one NCAA Tournament and was amazing, but in the championship game he shot 7 for 21 and his team lost. These players and other are on the NCAA list not because of their NCAA tournament heroics but because, years later, in the NBA, they became legends.
David Thompson squandered his years later. But by then he was already a legend. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.