Thompson will be honored Saturday at the Legends of Hardwood breakfast in Detroit, the site of the weekend’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. He will receive the Keys to Life Award for emulating the characteristics of iconic UCLA coach John Wooden.
The award will be a footnote to a career that saw Thompson fall from the pinnacle of the basketball world to a jail cell and a life wracked with drug and alcohol abuse before coming to Christ and reversing the course of his life dramatically.
Thompson played for North Carolina State in the mid-1970s when the Atlantic Coast Conference was surpassed only by Wooden’s remarkable success at UCLA. At that time only conference champions were allowed into the NCAA Tournament, a far cry from today’s bracket of 65 teams peppered with small-enrollment schools – often referred to as mid-majors – sprinkled throughout.
In 1974 Thompson led N.C. State past top-ranked Maryland in the ACC Tournament. The Terrapins’ defeat led to the eventual expansion of the tournament, but in the meantime N.C. State won the national championship, ending UCLA’s seven-year reign atop the sport.
“It was an exciting time on so many levels,” Thompson recalled in a phone interview from his office in Charlotte. “We had three All-Americans on one team and having the chance to defeat UCLA was incredible. The way things have changed in college basketball, I don’t think you’re ever going to see the dominance of a program like UCLA again. It was amazing.”
Thompson parlayed his college success as a dominant center into a lucrative deal with the Denver Nuggets of the American Basketball Association, at the time an upstart rival of the NBA. When the ABA folded and the Nuggets were one of a handful of teams which transitioned over to the NBA, Thompson’s scoring and rebounding abilities maintained his superstar status.
During the 1978 playoff he signed a five-year, $4 million contract, at the time the most lucrative in professional sports.
However, things were about to spiral downward quickly for Thompson. He fought a losing battle with alcohol and drug abuse while playing with Philadelphia and Seattle, including a well-publicized fall down a flight of stairs at popular New York City disco Studio 54 which resulted in surgery and closed the book on most of his playing days.
“I had a problem with drugs during my career, and after my career it got progressively worse,” Thompson said. “I ended up in jail for a short period of time. I knew I had to turn my life around.”
While in prison Thompson met pastor Doug Murren, whom he credits with helping get him steered in a better direction.
“I made a decision during that time to accept Jesus Christ into my life and into my heart as my Savior,” Thompson said. “For the last 20 years I’ve worked to put God first. Over the years I’ve felt closer to God by serving and giving freely to others. It is a process. I’ve had 20 years of sobriety, but it’s still something I have to take one day at a time.”
Thompson’s turnaround has led him to create 2XSalt, an urban sports ministry that seeks to reach out to youth through the positive benefits of athletic competition and faith. Through the ministry, Thompson’s group has sponsored camps and activities for players including current Davidson University star Stephen Curry. Thompson also had the opportunity to speak to LeBron James’ high school team before the star was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thompson said that he wants to help young players avoid some of the same pitfalls he encountered in his career. He credits the NBA with doing a better job in recent years of addressing temptations with incoming rookies. Staying out of trouble still primarily lies with the individual players.
“It wasn’t always so much with me, but with younger guys they have their own posse, they hang out with,” Thompson said. “Your friends want to party all night and then you have to go to practice and take care of your job. You may have guys you were friends with growing up that don’t necessarily mean to hurt you, but they end up living off of you.
“The other bad situation guys get themselves wrapped up in is carrying guns and then going out to the clubs. There are a lot of problems that can always happen that way.”
Through the work of 2xSalt–named after Matthew 5:13-16–Thompson hopes to steer young players away from problems before they take happen.
He is looking forward to the Final Four and the award, although he has light-hearted concerns about N.C. State’s rival, North Carolina, emerging from the field as national champions.
“The four best years of my life were at N.C. State and to get an award connected to someone I respect and admire like John wooden means a great deal to me,” Thompson said.
As for the possibility of another national championship for the Tar Heels: “I don’t think I can live around here in this office if they win,” he laughed. “They are a well-balanced team. There are just so many ways they can beat you.”
David Thompson biography: http://www.nba.com/history/thompson_bio.html
Legends of the Hardwood Breakfast: http://www.legendsbreakfast.net/