College: North Carolina State
Drafted by: Virginia Squires (ABA) and Atlanta Hawks (NBA), 1975
Weight: 195 lbs.
NBA Career Statistics
On the court, David Thompson did things with his body that made opponents stop in their tracks. Off the court, Thompson did things to his body that stopped him in his own tracks. In public appearances after his playing days had ended, he would begin by saying, "I had the ability to be one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game.and I blew it."
Tragically, cocaine and alcohol problems plagued Thompson throughout much, if not all, of his too-brief pro career. What led this brilliant, once-in-a-generation player to turn to drugs? People who knew him said it was a combination of stress, exhaustion, relentless pressure to excel, an inability to handle being the highest-paid player in the history of team sports, and his changing role while playing for the Denver Nuggets. Thompson, soft-spoken and highly sensitive, acknowledged that he had always had a problem venting his emotions. Drugs became his outlet.
"I would try to stop completely, but I just didn't have the willpower," Thompson told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer toward the end of his career. Ironically, a tumble down the stairs at Manhattan's Studio 54 nightclub was the straw that broke the back of Thompson's nine-year pro career.
Thompson grew up in rural North Carolina. He lived with his parents and 10 siblings in a shack on a dirt road in a small town 40 miles outside of Charlotte. His father was a Baptist minister; both parents cleaned buildings to help support the family. Before long, this poor boy became a veritable legend in his home state -- "the Sweetheart of Tobacco Road."
At North Carolina State in the mid-1970s, Thompson was a three-time All-American and two-time College Player of the Year. It was Thompson who popularized the "alley-oop." Dunking in college games was against the rules at the time, so guard Monte Towe would toss the ball high up over the rim for Thompson to deposit into the basket.
As a sophomore in 1972-73, Thompson led the Wolfpack to an undefeated season. The next year he helped lift North Carolina State over Marquette in the NCAA Championship Game. Thompson's game-winning jumper over Bill Walton in the second overtime of the semifinals matchup against UCLA helped earn him tournament Most Outstanding Player honors and ended the Bruins' seven-year hold on the title.
Needless to say, Thompson left college as a hot prospect. The NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the American Basketball Association's Virginia Squires each made him the first overall pick in the drafts for their respective leagues. Thompson chose the upstart ABA and signed with the Denver Nuggets, who had acquired his draft rights from Virginia in a five-player trade.
Thompson was almost too good for the ABA. He averaged 26.0 points, third in the league, and was named Rookie of the Year. He scored 29 points in an experimental All-Star Game that pitted the Nuggets, the first-place team at midseason, against a team of stars from around the league. Denver, with game MVP Thompson scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter, defeated the best of the rest, 144-138.
The last ABA Finals was one of the most exciting in the league's nine-year history: it was Erving's New York Nets against Thompson's Nuggets. Both men put up 40-point games. Thompson scored 42 in Game 6, but the Nets won the game and the series, four games to two.
Denver, along with three other surviving ABA clubs, joined the NBA for the 1976-77 season, in which the Nuggets shocked the league by winning the Midwest Division. Thompson finished fourth in scoring (25.9 ppg) and first in the All-Star balloting. In a game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the electrifying Thompson shattered a backboard when he delivered a powerful dunk over old nemesis Bill Walton, who got his revenge in the playoffs when the Trail Blazers eliminated Denver in six games.
Thompson and the San Antonio Spurs' George Gervin provided memorable drama in the 1977-78 season, as the two battled for the league scoring title right down to the final game. Before the games of April 9, the last day of the regular season, Thompson and Gervin were in a virtual tie for the scoring lead, with Gervin holding a slight edge. The Nuggets faced the Detroit Pistons that afternoon, and Thompson poured in 73 points. It was the third-highest output ever in an NBA game; only Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 in one game and 78 in another, had scored more. But Gervin, not to be outdone, scored 63 that evening against the New Orleans Jazz. It was just enough to give Gervin the scoring crown, 27.22 points per game to Thompson's 27.15, the tightest one-two finish ever.
Once again a starting All-Star, Thompson led the Nuggets to another division title. During the playoffs, Thompson signed a five-year, $4 million contract. At age 23, he was the best-paid player in the history of team sports.
In the offseason the Nuggets acquired high-scoring forward George McGinnis from the Philadelphia 76ers. The addition of McGinnis threw off Thompson's rhythm. Also feeling pressure from his new contract, Thompson began to have troubles. He was late for practices, missing some entirely. Rumors began to circulate. Still, Thompson continued to tear up the league, finishing sixth in scoring (24.0 ppg) and winning the MVP Award at the 1979 NBA All-Star Game with a 25-point performance. He became the first player to win All-Star MVP honors in both the ABA and the NBA.
More trouble hit Thompson in 1979-80, in the form of torn heel ligaments, which limited him to 39 games. But he charged back in 1980-81, averaging 25.5 points and placing second in the Comeback Player of the Year voting. The next season, however, more missed practices and injuries, spotty play, and disruptive behavior led Coach Doug Moe to bench Thompson. In the 1982 offseason the increasingly troubled superstar was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics for low-scoring forward Bill Hanzlik and a first-round draft pick.
Thompson, swearing off drugs after the trade, enjoyed a modest resurgence, averaging 15.9 points in 1982-83 and starting in another All-Star Game. Unable to keep his temperance vow, Thompson entered a Denver drug-rehabilitation clinic after the 1982-83 season. He returned to the team during the 1983-84 campaign. Then came the final blow. On March 11 Thompson fell down a flight of stairs while partying with a few Sonics teammates at the trendy Studio 54 disco. Surgery repaired the extensive ligament and cartilage damage, but Seattle waived the 30-year-old Thompson just before the next season. A comeback attempt with Indiana in 1985 failed.
In 1988 the expansion Charlotte Hornets hired Thompson to be their community relations director. Three months later he suffered another drug relapse. He recovered and returned to the Hornets, serving as the team's youth programs coordinator until 1993.
The Denver Nuggets retired Thompson's uniform No. 33 in a tearful ceremony at McNichols Sports Arena in November 1992.
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