Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest player in the history of professional basketball. Even 17 years after retiring, Jordan remains a hero to virtually every young player who steps on a court. Jordan’s legendary status sometimes makes it hard to remember that he too was once an unproven youngster with basketball heroes of his own.
One of the young Jordan’s biggest heroes was shooting guard David Thompson. Although Thompson was inducted into the Hall of Fame back in 1996, most fans today are not familiar with his name. Here we take a look back at Thompson’s trendsetting professional career, as well as the impact he had on Jordan and other notable NBA figures.
David Thompson’s impressive basketball career
Thompson went pro in 1975, and was taken with the first pick in both the ABA and the NBA drafts. Yet he didn’t end up signing a deal with either of the two teams that drafted him, instead choosing to join the ABA’s Denver Nuggets.
During his rookie season, Thompson put up impressive numbers of 26.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game.
The 6-foot-4 shooting guard would continue to put up similar numbers for the prime years of his career. He averaged a career-highs of 27.2 points and 4.5 assists per game during the 1977-78 season.
That season included his masterpiece performance: a 73-point game against the Detroit Pistons. Thompson ultimately spent seven seasons with the Nuggets. In that stretch, he was a four-time All-Star, a two-time All-NBA First Team selection, and a two-time All-Star Game MVP.
Following a dip in Thompson’s production during the 1981-82 season, the Nuggets traded him to the Seattle SuperSonics. There he played for two more seasons, making one All-Star team but failing to live up to his earlier scoring prowess. He retired following a knee injury sustained during the 1983-84 season.
Injury and drug issues were a problem for David Thompson
David Thompson was known for his electrifying dunks, which helped set the template for subsequent generations of NBA players. Despite his high-flying style, Thompson managed to avoid injuries for his first four seasons in the league. That run of good health ended in the 1979-80 seasons, when a foot injury kept Thompson out of the final 36 games.
That injury played a key role in a drug problem that would dog Thompson for the rest of his career. As he admitted to UPI near the end of his playing career, Thompson turned to drugs — primarily cocaine — as a way to deal with the “loneliness and isolation” of his injury. Even once he had recovered, the drug use continued.
Thompson finally checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic in 1983, although he wasn’t able to kick the problem. A 1984 knee injury ultimately forced him out of the league, but his drug problems continued for several more years.
According to The Washington Post, Thompson’s cocaine habit cost him upwards of $1,000 per day by 1986. Only after a 1987 jail sentence did Thompson finally kick the habit and turn his life around.
Praise from Michael Jordan and other notable stars
Although Thompson’s name has largely been relegated to the annals of basketball history, his impact during his time in the league cannot be understated.
He was a huge inspiration to many up-and-coming stars — most notably, Michael Jordan. Jordan has spoken about his respect for Thompson’s game on numerous occasions.
According to Preacher Abe, Jordan once commented that “the whole meaning of vertical leap began with David Thompson.”
Jordan is far from the only former star to sing Thompson’s praises. Hall of Famer Bill Walton once referred to Thompson as “Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James rolled into one,” according to Belly Up Sports.
While the newer generation of fans might not be as familiar with David Thompson, his legacy continues to evolve through the praise he’s received from other stars.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference