Before Michael Jordan, there was David Thompson. This fact is largely buried today under the mountain of attention heaped upon Jordan, an athlete of enormous ability who leads the Chicago Bulls against the Seattle SuperSonics in the current National Basketball Association Finals.
In the sport's ancestral line of high-leaping superstars, however, Thompson was the heir apparent to Julius Erving before it became clear that Jordan would earn "His Airness" rights.
Thompson resurfaced several weeks ago in Springfield, Mass., where he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that he calls the capstone to a career rich in awards and accomplishments, especially as a collegian at North Carolina State University (1973-75).
In introducing Thompson, Robin Deutsch, the hall's director of public relations, reminded reporters that Thompson, not the University of North Carolina's Jordan (1982-84), was considered the greatest basketball player in the history of the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I'm very proud of that," says Thompson, who like Jordan is a North Carolinian known for his 40-inch liftoffs. Both led their college teams to national championships and were twice named College Player of the Year.
"There have been so many great players to come through the conference, including Michael, Bob McAdoo, and Grant Hill, to name a few," Thompson says. "To be considered above those guys, I'm very happy about that."
While Thompson's countenance may bear a "life is good" look of contentment now, it hasn't always been that way. He's been through a lot, including a tailspin that saw him do time for domestic abuse at a prison work camp and come through several drug rehabilitation programs.
Today he works with Unlimited Success, a speakers bureau of mostly "Christian athletes," retired from pro sports, who deliver motivational messages. He also does community relations work, including a four-state youth basketball program, for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets.
"They wanted me to tell my story to young kids, to help them avoid some of the things that I had to go through in life," Thompson says. His talks focus on the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the need to make intelligent life choices.
"It's been real helpful in terms of my recovery," he says. "When you help someone else you help yourself, and by God's grace I have been clean and sober for over eight years."
Thompson's turnaround was not the only one on display during the Hall of Fame inductions. George Gervin, another high scorer, also took his basketball enshrinement bows while sending a message of hope with his personal transformation.
Gervin experienced his own bouts with drugs, but he broke with his addictive past after entering a rehab center operated by John Lucas, a former NBA player and coach. Now Gervin runs the George Gervin Youth Center in San Antonio, where he spent the majority of his 14-year pro career with the Spurs.
The center offers dropouts what Gervin calls "a beautiful program" of training in trades, such as plumbing and electronics. Those who enroll must complete their General Educational Development or high school equivalency test.
Gervin says he makes more than 300 school visits a year to spread the stay-in-school message.
"You've got to be able to think," he says. "I don't care what kind of jumper you can shoot."
A dropout from Eastern Michigan University, he says not having a degree partly motivates his work. "That's why I speak so much about school," he says, "because I was one of the fortunate ones to come from the streets [of Detroit] and survive."
Thompson, too, espouses the importance of education and expresses concern about the growing number of college and even high school players leaving school early to enter the pro draft.
"I think a kid denies himself something when he doesn't go to college at least three years or so, because that experience is something you can never get back," he says.
"Going through with people your own age, meeting people from different cultures, and just growing as an individual, I think these things are very important."
The joint election of Thompson and Gervin to the Hall of Fame not only unites individuals who have weathered personal crises, but players who once engaged in an unforgettable NBA scoring race.
They entered the last day of the 1977-78 season in a virtual tie. Thompson's Denver Nuggets played in an afternoon game that closed Detroit's Cobo Arena. Denver had already wrapped up the division title, so coach Larry Brown told everybody to feed Thompson the ball.
"I guess you could say I was in the zone that day," he recalls of his 73-point performance before a sparse crowd. The final statistics were so spectacular that he owns a bronzed copy. He made 20 of his first 21 shots and broke Wilt Chamberlain's record for points scored in a quarter, registering 32 in the first 12 minutes.
"Larry Brown took me out for a while, but once I got that many I thought I had enough," he recalls. He never bargained that Gervin would engage in a similar scoring spree that night, countering with a 63-point game that gave Gervin a miniscule advantage. In the record book, Gervin and Thompson are both listed with 27.2 points a game, but Gervin's name is first because he actually averaged 27.21 points to his rival's 27.15.
"He edged me out in the closest scoring race in the history of basketball," says Thompson, who jokingly adds that "Gervin should have let me have that one [scoring crown] because he got three more after that."
Thompson left his mark on the pro game in other ways: becoming the first overall draft pick to spurn the NBA and accept an American Basketball Association offer. He also was the only player to be named the Most Valuable Player in both the ABA and NBA All-Star Games (the Nuggets, Spurs, and two other ABA teams were absorbed by the NBA in 1976).
Because he never won a pro championship, Thompson says his greatest basketball memory occurred in 1974, when North Carolina State prevailed in double-overtime against mighty UCLA in the semifinals of the 1974 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
The victory snapped UCLA's six-year run as national champion. NC State went on to beat Marquette University in the final.
Thompson says he "missed out on some good rules in college." Freshmen were ineligible when he played, and the ban on dunking wasn't lifted until the season after he graduated. As a result, he became the master of the alley-oop play. Teammate Monte Towe would loft a high pass near the basket that Thompson would catch and drop through the hoop.
"When I look back at some of my highlights in college," he says, "they don't look quite as impressive as going in and slamming."