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David Thompson: The Forgotten Superstar

By: Vinny @sailboatstudios

When a writer struggles to find a topic to discuss, he (me) delves into the fictional, comforting arms of alternate history. Where I (you) don’t have to take anything (or anyone) serious. Just like in real-life. But what always bugs me is the lack of imaginations on some what-if scenarios, there’s a crazy gear missing for us lowly internet bloggers. I feel we try to stay within the bounds of reality somewhat, rather than go full “Alien Space Bats.” The countless what-ifs in the NBA are relatively bland. Mostly bogged down in “What-if The Blazers Took KD”, “What-if Player X Played for Team Y”, usually the writer says something along the lines of “well, then team Y wins X championships!” and that’s it. One of the most boring takes I read is “What-if The Celtics selected Kobe Bryant”, as if his five-championships were destined to happen it was just a matter of where. In the summer of ‘96 GM Jerry West did untold of gymnastics to get around the salary cap to sign Shaquille O’Neal and snag Kobe. You think Celtics GM Chris Wallace had the same intelligence? Probably not. Chances are Rick Pitino trades Bryant for one of his former players from Kentucky.

One draft pick going differently doesn’t just alter that lone scenario, it can radically change the thinking of another team. It probably leads to a worser record for Boston in 1997-98 if Pitino gave Kobe enough burn and maybe they’re bad enough to draft Dirk Nowitzki… Kobe and Dirk on the same team? Yup, all plausible, nobody touches this. Most likely because the Celtics have had their fair share of obnoxious success six out of the last seven decades how much can you really add to the mystic of the franchise. If you can’t polish a turd of a franchise into the class of its league then it isn’t an interesting what-if.

Same rules apply to the Los Angeles Lakers. What’s the most intriguing what-if in the history of the franchise? “What-if they drafted Dominque Wilkins in ‘82 over James Worthy?” Meh. So ‘Nique is the third-best player on a couple championship teams while Worthy becomes poor man’s Alex English in Atlanta.

People forget how close the Lakers came to drafting the man Michael Jordan revered, guard David Thompson from North Carolina State. Watching the old grainy footage from the 1970’s, Thompson’s leaping ability reminded me to a younger Blake Griffin before several knee surgeries ruined him. But Thompson didn’t stand at an impressive height, standing at a listed 6’3 1/2, had to have been smaller than 6’2. Watching the “Skywalker” documentary the guests they bring on say the phrase “he played above the rim” six-thousand times. But it was true. Second only to Julius Erving David was the ABA’s main superstar in its twilight years and also gave the Nuggets a sense of legitimacy. Coming in second to Dr. J in a watershed dunk contest, converting the famed “double pump” dunk before Aaron Gordon and Blake Griffin gave us endless clips of them doing it. It’s amazing a dunk contest fielding three of the most electrifying athletes in the ABA did not utilize instant replay.

Sporting a 44-vertical inch leap Thompson earned the moniker “Skywalker” before the movie Star Wars was but a twinkle in George Lucas’ eye. Thompson battled George Gervin and the all mighty Dr. J in the last season of the ABA, joining a star-studded Denver Nuggets roster with Ralph Simpson, Pre-76ers’ Bobby Jones and Dan Issel pushing the franchise into the NBA over the Kentucky Colonels. Rookie David Thompson left his mark on the NBA landscape forever. The man we hardly mention is the main reason there is a Denver Nuggets franchise.

The ABA/NBA from 1975 to 1978 was pretty competitive until cocaine nearly sunk the entire league before two guys with nouns for names saved it. But the middle-seventies don’t get a lot of credit for being deep in the talent pool. David Thompson made two All-NBA First Teams beating out George “Iceman” Gervin and Pete “Pistol” Maravich. In 1976 and ‘77 “Skywalker” bumped off Pete, George, Doc and Walter Davis, and in 1978 nearly lead the Nuggets to the NBA Finals in an MVP caliber season. All of this before he turned twenty-four.

1977-78 was Thompson at his zenith. Battling Iceman for the scoring title, climaxing in an astounding final night of the season – also John Havlicek’s last game – Thompson scored 53 in one half of play, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record for most points in a quarter (32) and held it for a mere five hours until Gervin broke it (33) – the record now is held by Klay Thompson (37). David finished with 73 and Gervin with 63.

You’d think the James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s of their days would’ve been frontrunners for the MVP, but both fell to Bill Walton… the best center for a two-year period, but played only 58 games.

Here’s a stat-by-stat comparison of Thompson and Gervin…

* I am using Bill Simmons’ infamous “Stocks” statistic, combining steals and blocks.*

Thompson: 51.2 FG%, 8.4 FTA, 27.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.5 APG, 2.4 stocks, 23.2 PER, 12.7 WS

Gervin: 53.6 FG%, 7.6 FTA, 27.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.7 APG, 3 stocks, 24.7 PER, 12 WS

Neck-and-neck, amirite? Both of their rebounding and assists numbers are great for a shooting-guard. Thompson excelled in getting the free throw line frequently. Thompson was only twenty-three at this time; Gervin was longer in the tooth… an old, useless twenty-five-year old man.

Anyways, here’s Kevin Durant’s statistics from his age twenty-three season from 2012:

KD: 53.5 FG%, 7.6 FTA, 28 PPG, 8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 Stocks, 26.2 PER, 12.2 WS – also runner-up in a contested MVP race. 

And just an added bonus here’s Blake Griffin’s age 23 season: 53.8 FG%, 5.3 FTA, 18 ppg, 8.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.8 Stocks, 22.4 PER, 10.6 WS

So in 1978 we had two shooting-guard versions of Kevin Durant in a time when the league undervalued guards that weren’t named “Cousy”, “Oscar” or “Jerry.”

Before Magic Johnson the NBA had Thompson, Walton and Gervin to hang their hats on for the future of the league. Like all things though, it all got complicated real fast. Injuries took Bill Walton’s career; white powder and expectations cratered Thompson, sending the NBA into a tailspin. Dominated by questions like “is the NBA too black?” we couldn’t even begin to comprehend the backwardness of the time. Conservative white fans lusted for a white face to relate to after Bill Walton’s career hit the gutter. There’s a bunch of other stuff that went into the NBA’s decline outside of just race and drug issues; the finals were aired on tape delay until the mid-80s, it came off as if the league was indifferent towards growing the game.

David Thompson was a mere twenty-four-years old when he signed his name on to the piece of paper that made him the richest professional basketball player. 5-years, $800,000 per, amounting to a whopping $4,000,000 – a lot of money back then. It’s the classic case of too much too soon. The story of David Thompson ran similarly to Michael Jordan, except where M.J’s dad had roots in baseball, Thompson’s burned his son’s dreams by telling him to go to NC State because the school offered the family god knows how much money (allegedly). The school gets caught red-handed and is ineligible for the tournament in the season they go undefeated. The next year Thompson (with Tom Burleson and good friend Monte Towe) NC State dethroned John Wooden’s UCLA en route to an NCAA title.

Again… the sky was the limit for Thompson. Selected by the Atlanta Hawks in 1975, he decided to go to the ABA in part because the Nuggets would sign Monte Towe to a 2-year contract. Every year expectations were escalated and Thompson up until his big payday exceeded them.

Alas… it wasn’t meant to be. Thompson’s career ended falling down the stairs inside Studio 54 when the establishment was past its due date.

So what if another organization snagged Thompson? Atlanta… eh, kinda pointless. The team was dead after they traded “Pistol” Pete for a jar of used dental floss. Milwaukee? How would’ve that been possible? Well, L.A flipped the second pick in the ‘75 Draft for Kareem – along with Brian Winters. Say if the Lakers won the lottery and did the Kareem trade only with David Thompson involved. The late-70s Milwaukee teams set the stage for the decade of silver medal finishes in the 1980s (this sounds like sarcasm, but it isn’t)… Don Nelson took over in 1978, the Bucks won 44-games that season with Brian Winters, Marquess Johnson and Alex English coming off the bench. I’ll be favorable to Milwaukee and give them the third pick in the ‘77 Draft (Johnson) and say they retain English in free agency. And believe Milwaukee is such a wasteland, not even a MVP runner-up exciting as Thompson gets any attention.

1979-80 Milwaukee Bucks starters are…

Quinn Buckner
David Thompson
Alex English
Marquess Johnson
Bob Lanier
Woof… prime Thompson, English, and old but still useful Bob Lanier is that good enough to beat the Los Angeles Lakers helmed by the greatest center and point guard in NBA history? Well… no. Thompson’s window for title contention closes around the moment Kareem is paired with Magic. The western conference those days played little defense, the only hope you had in defeating those “Showtime” era teams were to stifle their fast paced offense. Maybe if Milwaukee remained in the West they’d eventually develop the defensive personal to do just that. But Thompson wouldn’t remain productive after injuries and addiction undid him. There’s always a roof for these sorts of scenarios.
But say if the Lakers won that lottery and took and didn’t trade Thompson – either because they simply failed or didn’t want to. It isn’t inconceivable to believe a top flight prospect like Thompson could consider a small-market like Milwaukee beneath him. L.A was going to sign Kareem come hell or high water. It was just a matter of when, not if. Being set to become a free agent in 1976, the Lakers could’ve just taken their chances on signing the big man then rather than trade for him. Back then teams didn’t value draft picks… they were just traceable assets of little value to a team wanting to contend for a championship quickly.
After one season where Thompson wins Rookie of the Year over Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, the Lakers fail to contend for the postseason just like in OTL with Kareem, only winning less than 42. The Lakers fully move on from the Jerry West/Wilt Chamberlin era by signing Kareem in free agency; pundits tag the duo of Thompson & Kareem to lead the Lake Show back to prominence. Entering 1976-77, the Lakers have Lucius Allen, David Thompson, Cazzie Russell, Kermit “I Am Neither a Muppet or Political” Washington and Kareem Abdul Jabaar. Coached by Jerry West by the way, the greatest shooting guard arguably up until Kobe Bryant (gimme West over Kobe).
The real Lakers snuck into the West-Finals over  the Golden State Warriors in the second round, before falling to the eventual champion Blazers. People forget how great that team was outside of Bill Walton… Maurice Lucas averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds, might’ve been the second best center at the time but injuries ruined him. Lionel Hollins running the point was alright and Jack Ramsey was more than just a guy who lucked out coaching Bill Walton’s lone healthy season. The Nuggets in OTL were better than the Lakers, featuring Dan Issle, younger Bobby Jones and Paul Silas. For the Lakers Cazzie was a serviceable starter, but past his prime in the early-70s when on the Knicks; Kermit was tragically a bust; and Walton was Kareem’s equal before 1978.
In ten games against Kareem, Walton averaged 18.1 points, 15.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.7 blocks, came in second to Kareem in MVP voting in the ‘77 season, the next year he beat not just him, but also Gervin and Thompson in a season where Walton played only fifty-eight games(!). While I wouldn’t have bestowed the honor on to Walton that year, I have to give credit where credit is due, Walton was awesome and it’s a damn shame what happened to him.
No changes in the 1976-‘77 season Portland still stands atop of the world.
1977-‘78 and 1978-‘79 seasons are where we get the idea the NBA was at a nadir. With the subsequent fall of the Trail Blazers the Warriors, and Philadelphia too dysfunctional to return to the finals with their current core, the East became open to teams we wouldn’t consider led by the kind of superstar we’re used to. The Seattle SuperSonics were led by point guard Gus Williams, Marvin Webster and sixth Man Dennis Johnson; the Spurs soldiered on (in the East) with George Gervin, Larry Kenon and James Silas; Denver in OTL with David Thompsonshould’ve made it to the finals but fell to Seattle in six-games.
The Lakers were an Erving Johnson away from being serious contenders. Kareem was still an MVP caliber player no doubt, playing alongside Jamaal Wilkes, Adrian “asshole” Dantley, And Norm Nixon. 1978, 1979 are the two-years the Lakers could’ve absolutely won… even though I’m sure they’d trade Dantley midway thru ‘79 like OTL for coked out Spencer Haywood because he was that big of an asshole. Throw in David and it’s basically the greatest team of the that decade, right?
I don’t know what playing alongside Kareem does for Thompson’s career, or if the influences in L.A would prevent or accelerate his fall from grace. The Great Western Forum doubled as a nightclub in those days and god knows the debauchery that went on inside. We probably remember him more than we do now. Los Angeles still drafts Magic easing the pain of losing Thompson… if there was time to reflect on such a thing.
He probably hangs around well into the early phases of the “Showtime” era, maybe even until 1984 when James Worthy is selected as his replacement in 1982. 1983 was the last gasp Thompson’s career, an All-Star for the SuperSonics OTL. Can you imagine a 1983-‘84 Lakers squad with Magic, Worthy, Wilkes, McAdoo, Thompson (I’m butterflying the events of Studio 54 in ‘84), Kareem… is that enough to get by the Celtics? Who inbounds the pass Henderson stole in Game 2 when the Celtics were on the verge of going to L.A down 2-0? Anybody but Worthy equals a successful inbounds. Do the Lakers still win with an aging Kareem in ‘85, ‘87 and ‘88 or does Magic coast afterwards and squander his potential without the needed kick in the pants? Does what happened to Magic after losing the close series happen to Bird instead?
Despite the turbulent career Thompson managed two appearances on All-NBA First teams, one second team and managed an election to the Hall of Fame in 1996.
I don’t know if you change one thing in David’s life does it butterfly almost everything from OTL… I do know he was a great player and has been unjustly forgotten.
For Thompson his story does have a happy ending. He found Jesus. Fixed his relationship with his wife and kids. A silver lining considering those who experienced the same issues had darker endings.

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