Even in retirement, David Thompson is still the Skywalker
They associate it with Luke or Anakin, not with the NBA legend standing right in front of them. None of them is old enough to know the story about how Thompson could grab quarters off the backboard.
And then Thompson gives them a glimpse of why he served as Michael Jordan’s inspiration.
In response to the inevitable question about whether he can still dunk, Thompson doesn’t disappoint. At 57 years old, Skywalker remains a Jedi master, spinning in mid-air before slamming the ball through the hoop.
“You have to be able to show kids stuff at basketball camps,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “I can do a 180. Not too bad. I don’t see too many guys my age doing that. Considering how many knee surgeries I’ve had, I’m surprised I can still do it.”
Thompson brought his 44-inch vertical leap from North Carolina State University to Denver when the Nuggets acquired his draft rights from the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association in 1975. He had also been selected No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1975 NBA Draft but opted to join the ABA – a decision the endeared him to Nuggets fans right from the start.
“When I came out there, it was a big deal,” Thompson said. “McNichols Arena was brand new. They sold a bunch of season tickets when they signed me. The fans liked my style of play. It was high-flying. When I come back, they still remember me. It’s fun to see the people who said they got season tickets because of me.”
Thompson’s legend grew when he squared off against Julius Erving in the inaugural slam dunk contest at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game at McNichols Arena. Erving prevailed when he soared to the rim from the free-throw line, but the Skywalker was named All-Star MVP.
“That was pretty exciting,” Thompson said. “To be involved in the All-Star game in front of the home crowd is something you never forget.”
The Nuggets joined the NBA the following season, and Thompson thrived at altitude. He made three straight All-Star appearances from 1977-79 and averaged 24.1 points on .507 shooting in seven seasons in Denver. On Nov. 2, 1992, he became the third player in Nuggets history to have his jersey retired.
“That was pretty emotional for me,” he said.
A knee injury forced Thompson to retire at just 30 years old, but he found a way to stay around the game by conducting youth clinics in his native North Carolina. He still plays pickup games at the YMCA with former NBA guard Mugsy Bogues and he takes part in community events and promotions for the Charlotte Bobcats.
Thompson also travels to Denver for two or three Nuggets games every season. He marvels at the city’s growth and development in the 36 years since he first arrived in 1975.
“I don’t think there were many tall buildings at the time,” he said. “To see where Denver was then and where it is now … it’s amazing to see the growth. It was a booming city (in 1975) and beginning to turn into the great city it is today."
His Denver visits allow Thompson an annual opportunity to needle Nuggets coach George Karl, who played basketball at the University of North Carolina. Karl was a senior when Thompson and North Carolina State beat the Tar Heels three times during their undefeated 1972-73 season.
“I do still have that over George,” Thompson said. “I had bragging rights. The schools are so close together, you want to beat those guys as much as possible.”
Though Karl still considers Duke and N.C. State public enemies 1a and 1b, he always appreciated the athletic gifts that Thompson brought to the court.
“He was definitely special,” Karl said. “He was one of those guys like Julius and Connie Hawkins who had an incredible flair for the game.”
Thompson tries to bring that same flair and inspiration to his speaking engagements through MVP Speakers, a North Carolina-based company whose list includes former Broncos defensive lineman Karl Mecklenburg; Hall of Fame NBA players Rick Barry and John Havlicek; Hall of Fame baseball players Gary Carter and Ryne Sandberg; and Hall of Fame college basketball coach Denny Crum.
“It’s good to be able to relive your life and share your life stories and help others,” Thompson said. “It’s been a blessing.”