Top Moments: George Gervin, David Thompson battle for 1978 scoring title

David Thompson erupts for 73 points on the last day of the season but loses the scoring title to George Gervin.

George Gervin (left) and David Thompson are forever linked by their scoring chase in 1978.

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Excerpted below is David Thompson’s account from his book Skywalker of his 1978 duel with San Antonio’s George Gervin for the scoring title.

There was only one game left before the playoffs. It would be the last game the Detroit Pistons would ever play in Cobo Arena, as the club would begin using the new and spacious Pontiac Silverdome the following season. But the unsentimental Detroit fans were in no mood to send the fourth-place Pistons off with a fond farewell in the building that had been their home since 1961.

On a cool Sunday afternoon, April 9, 1978, those 3,482 fans more than got their money’s worth.

I had been locked in a scoring duel with George Gervin of the Spurs for much of the year. Only 14 points separated us at the top of the league scoring chart heading into our last games that Sunday.

“Do you want to go for it today?” Coach Brown asked me before the game. Whether we won or lost, we were still headed for the playoffs. So the coach was willing to let me shoot to my heart’s content to win the NBA scoring title. If I put up astronomical numbers, then Gervin, playing in New Orleans that evening, would be chasing me.

The truth of the matter was that I didn’t much care. I wasn’t ever about individual accomplishments. From my high school coach, Ed Peeler, to my college coach, Norman Sloan, and then my professional coach, Larry Brown, I had consistently been taught a team concept. Lead, but leave the one-man-band stuff to The Gong Show.

So I told Coach Brown that I just wanted to play, and whatever happened was up to the fates.

There were no camera crews at Cobo that afternoon for two primary reasons. First, our game was truly meaningless as far as both teams were concerned. Second, the network saw bigger ratings in John Havlicek’s farewell game at Boston Garden, the Celtics versus the Buffalo Braves. No argument there. The individual scoring title really wasn’t that big a deal, to me or the media. Later on, I confess, it did occur to me that the outcome could affect my immediate future with the Nuggets.

During the 1976-77 season, when Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz racked up 68 points against the New York Knicks, Pete was in the midst of contract negotiations. I remember thinking then that timing was everything. While I had no plans to attempt something so grand as the regular season was coming to a close, the fact was that I was in the same position as the Pistol. My contract was up due to the “convenience clause” that allowed me the chance to become a free agent at the end of my third year if I so desired. So subconsciously, who knows?

Detroit started M. L. Carr and John Shumate at forward, rookie Ben Poquette at center, and Chris Ford and Eric Money at guard. Robert Kauffman was at the helm for the Pistons. The Motor City was about to witness NBA history.

I hit the first eight shots I took, mainly medium-range jumpers from 15 to 18 feet. As the quarter wore on, I also got a few dunks on alley-oops.

The 6-foot-9 Poquette stuffed me cleanly on one dunk attempt, but I connected on my last five shots of the first quarter, and we took a six-point lead into the second stanza, 42-36.

Not realizing what had just occurred — it all happened so fast — I was amazed to learn later that I had set an NBA record for most points in a quarter with 32. That beat Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962 mark by one, set in that historic game where Wilt scored 100 points. Equally stunning was my accuracy in that first quarter. I went 13-14 from the field (Poquette’s block being the only shot I missed) and 6-6 from the foul line.

My 13 field goals were also a new NBA record, and it still stands to this day.

I was definitely in the zone; I felt like Superman on steroids. There wasn’t a shot I put up that I didn’t think, as soon as it left my hands, would go anywhere but in the hoop.

The feeling continued in the second quarter. The first seven balls that I sent toward the rim went in, and the Pistons were starting to look a little nervous. I completed the second frame with 21 points, giving me 53 points in the first half. You could see it on the Detroit players’ faces — something like, “There’s no way we can let this guy get 100 on us.” A hundred points? Heck, I was just a 6-foot-4 guard with a hot hand. I nailed the first 20 of 21 shots I had taken and was 20-23 at the half. I’d caught fire before, but never anything like this. We were also keeping the Pistons at bay and held a dominant 14-point advantage at the half, 83-69.

By now word had found its way out, and the camera crews and TV reporters were pouring into Cobo Arena. Brent Musberger was anchoring the CBS Game of the Week, and he cut into the scheduled telecast to report what I had done in the first half in Detroit.

The Pistons came out determined to shut me down in the third quarter, and Chris Ford, Eric Money, M. L. Carr, and Al Skinner all took turns double, triple, and sometimes quadruple-teaming me. I felt like a caged rat, but still somehow managed six third-quarter points. It wasn’t a lot, but there wasn’t much I could do. Even worse, the Pistons had closed the gap to 106-104. It wasn’t about me any more; it was about trying to win the game.

The Pistons scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter to take a commanding 121-112 lead, and then they held off a late Nuggets surge to win the game, 139-137. I scored on a three-point play in the final minute, but it wasn’t enough.

I finished with 73 points — the third highest total ever, the most ever by a guard, and the second most in a non-overtime game. The Big Dipper — Chamberlain — scored the 100 in 1962, of course, then amassed 78 in a 1961 triple overtime contest and hit for 73 twice in 1962. Of course, Wilt was also 7-foot-1. I was a mere mortal at 6-4. My final line for the game: 28-38 from the field, 17-20 from the free-throw line, seven rebounds, and I played 43 out of 48 minutes. When I came out for those five minutes, my teammates treated me like the way baseball players treat pitchers throwing a no-hitter late in the game — they wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t even sit near me, fearing some sort of basketball voodoo jinx.

Here’s some food for thought: It has been speculated that had I had the benefit of today’s three-point line, my total would have been in the high 80s.

A crowd of 300 people showed up at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport that Sunday night. Bob King, executive VP of the Nuggets, was the first to greet me and Coach Brown as we exited the plane. Carl Scheer was there, too. As I was walked down the runway, microphones and tape recorders were thrust in my face. “I just feel great being associated with a player like Wilt Chamberlain,” I said, signing autographs on all sides.

When I finally made it home, I scanned the dial on the radio and attempted to pick up the San Antonio versus New Orleans broadcast. If it had been any player other than “The Iceman,” I wouldn’t have even bothered. But George was ultra-competitive, and he already knew what I had done earlier in the day. He needed 58 points to win the scoring title, and I knew that was not far from his reach. George could fill up the bucket so fast you would swear it was raining basketballs.

I caught the game early into the second quarter, and by halftime Gervin had fired in 53 points. I knew then that my 73 had been in vain. George scored 63 points on 23 of 49 shots from the floor and ended up winning the scoring title in the closest race in NBA history, 27.22 to 27.15.

George’s 63 points that night in New Orleans meant that I had only held the scoring lead for about seven hours. Gervin’s Spurs lost, 152-132, but George had already broken my mark for most points in a quarter with 33 in the second frame. That has to be a record in itself. It took me 16 years to break Wilt’s mark, but it only took Gervin seven hours to break mine.

Did I feel bad? Maybe for a moment or two. But Monte put things in their proper perspective when he told me that night, “You have nothing to be ashamed of, David. Let’s face it, 73 points in one game is quite an accomplishment. Not too many people will ever score 73 points in a game.” Of course he was right.