By In Stuff

The Forgotten Legend

ATLANTA — So the NCAA quietly released their “All-Time March Madness Players” on Friday. I don’t think they meant to release it quietly, but that’s the NCAA for you. When it comes to embarrassing a player for collecting an unwarranted fries and Coke, they can make a whole lot of noise. When it comes to announcing something cool like an all-time NCAA Tournament team, they can’t get anyone to pay attention.

In any case, I’m going to list the 15 players below in alphabetical order. I believe there’s an obvious omission. See if you can spot the player I’m thinking about:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at UCLA)

Larry Bird, Indiana State

Bill Bradley, Princeton

Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

Grant Hill, Duke

Magic Johnson, Michigan State

Michael Jordan, North Carolina

Christian Laettner, Duke

Jerry Lucas, Ohio State

Danny Manning, Kansas

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati

Bill Russell, San Francisco

Bill Walton, UCLA

Jerry West, West Virginia

Now, remember, this is only supposed to be for players during the NCAA Tournament. Do you see the missing player? Heck you probably see a bunch of missing players … but there’s one I think rises above.

Before I get into that, let’s talk for a moment about Michael Jordan. I believe that he’s the greatest basketball player in the history of the game — I see good arguments for Wilt and Magic and Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and I think LeBron James, if he maintains this level for a while longer, will have a powerful argument too. I still think Jordan’s the best.

With that said … what in the heck is he doing on THIS list? Yes, Jordan at North Carolina made the jump shot that ended up as the difference against Georgetown in the 1982 championship game (though you will remember that Georgetown had the ball with a chance to win and Fred Brown threw the pass away). But Jordan was a freshman then and was probably the third best player on that team behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. He averaged 13 points a game during that tournament. Not exactly legendary stuff.

The next year, North Carolina was shocked by Georgia in the regional final — Jordan did score 26 in the loss on 11-of-23 shooting, but he also fouled out of the game.

The next year, North Carolina was REALLY shocked by Indiana in the regional semifinal — that was the game when Dan Dakich famously got in Jordan’s grill, spooked him somehow, and Jordan scored just 13 on six-of-14 shooting.

I”m sorry, am I missing it? How in the heck does this get Michael Jordan on the all-time tournament team?

It gets him on the team because he’s Michael Jordan … and people get lazy about their history. Jordan was a superb college basketball player — he won the Wooden Award his junior year. But he wasn’t a legendary one. Remember, he WAS the third pick in that NBA Draft. The legendary stuff came later, as a pro in Chicago. When the ACC named Jordan the best conference’s best player over the last 50 years, real ACC aficionados shook their head in dismay. It was a ridiculous choice. And now, when the NCAA makes a list of the best tournament players and includes Jordan, well, it’s the same thing all over again.

The worst part is, the player who is forgotten is the player Michael Jordan himself idolized.

* * *

When it comes to being remembered and celebrated, David Thompson pretty much had everything stacked against him. He was in the last class of players to be ineligible as freshmen — so he lost a year when he might have already been the best player in the country. He also lost one postseason when his N.C. State team was declared ineligible … this because of some remarkably petty rules violations involving the Thompson recruitment.*

*Thompson was so heavily recruited, he actually put TWO schools on probation — N.C. State and Duke. There were always rumors that he received a boatload of money and cars and everything else — maybe he did. But the ACTUAL violations at N.C. State were so minor, you almost can’t believe they stuck — the violations included housing during a basketball camp (Thompson, apparently, slept on the floor) and playing in pickup games with an assistant coach. The ACTUAL Duke violation was a sport coat given to him for graduation.

Perhaps more than anything, Thompson played his three college years when the NCAA made the dunk illegal. There is no telling how many classic David Thompson dunks were lost to time. Thompson had a 44-inch vertical jump. They would say about him that he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and replace it with two dimes and a nickel. He was probably the greatest dunker on earth — in the ABA he was one half of a legendary dunk contest against Julius Erving. Dr. J eventually won with his now-famous jump-from-the-foul-line dunk, but many people who watched them both all night would say that Thompson’s dunks were superior and had he not missed one of them, he would have won the contest.

In any case, he had only one dunk in college. We’ll get back to that one.

Thompson was more than a dunker, though. He was an unstoppable scoring machine. He was a defensive force of nature. His sophomore year, his N.C. State team went 27-0, and Thompson averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and he made 57% of his shots. They might have been the best team in America. They did not get to go to the NCAA Tournament to prove it — and UCLA won its seventh consecutive national championship.

The next year, N.C. State played UCLA in the regular season — and got destroyed by 18. Thompson was overwhelmed by the moment. But this time, they were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. And Thompson had a tournament for the ages.

In the regional semifinal against Bad News Marvin Barnes and Providence, Thompson scored 40 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, played all 40 minutes and led N.C. State to a 92-78 victory.

Two days later, the Wolfpack played Pittsburgh. When Louisville’s Kevin Ware had that horrible injury against Duke over the weekend, many people remembered the terrible Joe Theisman injury because they were both so horrible to watch. But a much more apt comparison was David Thompson against Pittsburgh. He had taken a shot and felt like he was fouled. When there was no call, he grew angry and chased down a Pittsburgh player to block his shot.

He took off — he would often say he never jumped higher. Thompson’s leg connected with the shoulder of a teammate Phil Spence, and he crashed to the floor. There was blood everywhere. He was knocked unconscious. As the Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff — who was there as a young N.C. State fan that day — would say: “Everybody thought he was dead.” He was taken off the court on a stretcher. He needed 15 stitches.

One week later, in the national semifinal game, David Thompson was back to play against UCLA. He scored 28 points. He grabbed 10 rebounds. But perhaps what people remember more than anything was that that twice — TWICE — he blocked Bill Walton’s shots. And N.C. State beat UCLA in double overtime — the first time UCLA had lost a tournament game in eight years.

Thompson completed the miracle by scoring 21 in the final as N.C. State beat Marquette for the national title.

It is beyond my understanding how that remarkable series of games could not land David Thompson on the All-Time Tournament team. He dominated the game. He came back from an impossibly gruesome injury. He ended a dynasty. He won a championship. Nobody in the history of the NCAA Tournament has ever done anything like it.

But … David Thompson wrecked his life after he left N.C. State. He averaged 30 points a game his senior year and won the Naismith Award. In his last game, he found himself open on a breakaway and he threw down a ferocious dunk. It meant a technical foul, but Thompson didn’t care. It was the right way to end the career. He didn’t know then that, in many ways, he really was ending a career.

Thompson was the first pick in the NBA Draft and the ABA Draft. And, he really was a dominant pro basketball player his first four seasons — he averaged 25.8 points a game, wowed many with his fabulous dunks and amazing blocked shots, and might have been the best player in the league in the 1977-1978 season. He signed a massive contract (well, massive for the time). But he had a serious drug problem that was getting worse every year. He could not handle his fame. He rather famously fell down the steps one night at Studio 54, badly hurting his knee. He tried to come back. He was not able to make it back. His life descended even further into a drug-addled hell.

In time, David Thompson found some balance in his life. He found faith. He reached out to help kids so that they would not make the same mistakes he made. I went to a couple of his sessions with kids. He would start by saying:

“How many of you have heard of me?”

Only a handful of kids would raise their hands, and those — I thought — out of kindness.

“OK. Now, how many of you have heard of Michael Jordan.”

Every hand in the place would shoot up.

“Well,” he would say (with a little sadness in his voice, I thought) “I was Michael Jordan’s hero.”

In so many ways, David Thompson’s basketball career was a story of what might have been. But, that doesn’t nullify what he did. He has a real argument as the greatest college basketball player ever. And, if they are going to make lists like these, they shouldn’t put the best names. They should put the right players. David Thompson should remembered.

Look at the list again: Jerry West was once a Final Four MVP even though his team lost. Oscar Robertson was an amazing player who put up amazing numbers but could never quite lead his team into the national championship game. Michael Jordan hit an NCAA Tournament game-winning shot. Larry Bird played in one NCAA Tournament and was amazing, but in the championship game he shot 7 for 21 and his team lost. These players and other are on the NCAA list not because of their NCAA tournament heroics but because, years later, in the NBA, they became legends.

David Thompson squandered his years later. But by then he was already a legend. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

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35 Responses to The Forgotten Legend

  1. tarhoosier says:

    I judge a player against his peers. How much better is he than other players of his time? As eras change the game changes; the rules change; the court and ball and uniforms and coaching and conditioning change.
    David Thompson at NC State was so much better than the other players of his time. More so than any one else in the list above, perhaps excepting Bill Russell as I was not a contemporary and cannot judge his time.

  2. Martin F. says:

    West isn’t on the list due to his pro career, but because of his Tourney play. As you said, MVP of the Final Four even though his team lost.

    • True. But B.H. Born was also the MVP of the FInal Four even though his team lost … and he had a triple double in the championship game. I don’t think he was anywhere close to this list.

    • BobDD says:

      oh, Born again

      didn’t he play for that Christian school?

      so anyway wow! a rare comments reply from Joe

  3. Dan says:

    Any list of all time tournament players without Joakim Noah is a farce.

  4. Seiya says:

    Great story. You know, I was wondering why Pete Maravich wasn’t on that list, and… he never even appeared in the NCAA Tournament.

  5. Jeff Harris says:

    Where is Glen Rice? He still holds the record for single-year scoring in the tournament.

  6. _ says:

    Austin Carr. No other omission comes close.

    • Mark says:

      I agree. Awesome scorer in NCAA games; does anyone come close? I believe he holds the record for most points scored in an NCAA tourney game (61 points against Ohio in 1970; amazingly, there is YouTube video showing it).

      I would imagine there are two reasons he didn’t make it:
      1) He did not have a great NBA career (good, but not great) so no one remembers him…
      2) His team underachieved in the NCAA tourney. Heck, when he was a senior he put down 46 on UCLA and dealt them their last lost for 88 games-the Bruins won it all that year. ND lost in the regional semis to Drake and Austin “only” had 26 points. It was probably his worst game of the year (he averaged 38 that year).

    • Mike Bennett says:

      First name that came to mind when I read the list. 41.3 ppg in the NCAA tourney, breaking Bill Bradley’s old record of 33.7 ppg. Carr has three of the six 50+ point games in tourney history.

  7. I think a bigger crime is “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison not on there. He won a title his first year and won the MOP as a freshman. He went on to play 6 more tournament games, and I think he averaged right around 17 points a game in those other six games. He had an amazing tournament career, far better than Michael Jordan’s tournament career.

  8. Slimchicken says:

    Elvin Hayes and Larry Johnson strike me as other notable snubs.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Yes, although “E” got his comeuppance against Kareem. So, I think he’s off the list for the smackdown he got in the UCLA rematch. Larry Johnson was a beast. If not for injuries he would have been a great NBAer too. Definitely agree on him.

  9. David Allan says:

    What about Stephen Curry? 2008 was incredible. How can he not be considered if that is his body of work in the NCAA tournament?

  10. Tom says:

    Jack GIvens.

  11. Tom says:

    Best ACC player, all-time has to be Ralph Samson.

  12. mboling says:

    What about Clyde Lovellette? Still the only player to lead the nation in scoring and win the title the same year. The fact they had his stats wrong on the balloting website didn’t help either.

  13. prophet says:

    My first thoughts were Glen Rice and Goose Givens as well, although Givens tourny was mostly about his 41(!) points in the championship against Duke. I watched that game having heard of most of the Duke players and few Kentucky folks (Jim Spanarkel! Mike Gminski!) and was mesmerized by how often Givens flashed to the middle of the lane, caught a pass and hit a short jump hook/jumper before the defense could react.

    Rice, though … he was awesome. He took a good team and put them on his back for a national championship run, including going through the Illinois team that had dominated them in their last meeting. Always a good shooter, he turned it up a notch for those six games.

    David “Skywalker” Thompson … I remember seeing him running the floor and having a teammate way overthrow a alley-oop pass – it was nearly headed over the backboard! Thompson just took an extra step and launched himself up, grabbed the pass with one hand and stuffed it. Sports Illustrated ran a photo where it looks like his hand up the wrist is over the top of the backboard as he cups the ball. I always wondered what had happened to that guy who scored 73 points in the last game of the year and lost the scoring title because George Gervin poured in 63 to take it back.

  14. I am no Duke fan but Bobby Hurley had the best NCAA tournament career of anybody mentioned above. 3 Final Fours, 2 National Titles, 1 time Most Outstanding Player at Final Four, a key player in the classic Regional Final against Kentucky. This is another guy whose college career is forgotten a bit because it did not work out in the pros.

  15. I’m also going to chime in and support all-time Michigan great Glen Rice. What a tournament monster.

  16. yoyodyne says:

    David Thompson, far and away.
    Tom Gola – NCAA Champ, NIT Champ, MOP, got back to the NCAA Finals before losing to Russell
    Tyler Hansbrough
    Glen Rice
    Ty Lawson, avg 21-7-3 steals per gaem, with only 7 turnovers in their title run, and, most importantly, the engine of the team.

  17. yoyodyne says:

    Also, [along with Austin Carr] how about Jeff Fryer? 38 3s in only 7 games, and the record 11 3s vs defending champ Michigan!

    Compare to JJ Redick with 39 3s in 14 games.

  18. KHAZAD says:

    To me this list should be called “Famous NBA players who also did well in the NCAA tournament….& Christian Laettner”

    • Ed says:

      Danny Manning is another one (besides Laettner) who definitely belongs on the list for NCAA accomplishments, but yeah — lot of these guys are on here because of their NBA careers.

  19. invitro says:

    The official list is crap. I believe that it makes sense to place a requirement of playing in at least two final fours. I am having a hard time checking stats, but come up with a list like:

    – Laettner, Alcindor, Ewing, Hill, Walton, Russell, Olajuwon, Manning, and Lucas are all ok.

    – Elvin Hayes (1st in rebounds and 2nd in points in the tourney) is an obvious choice, and who I thought Joe was talking about before reading the article.

    – Bobby Hurley (1 MOP, 2 natl champs, 3 final fours).

    – Corliss Williamson (1 MOP, 8th-most tourney points, 1 natl champ, 1 runner-up) is the most forgotten tourney superstar.

    – and three of: Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, Tom Gola, James Worthy, and Sidney Wicks.

    Bradley is a more ridiculous choice than Jordan.

    • MCD says:

      When Bill Bradley was the MOP of the 1965 tourney, he scored 177 points in 5 games (35 PPG). Not only did Jordan never win the MOP, his very best point total in *ANY* single game in college (32) was less than Bradley’s average in the 1965 tournament. I am not saying you have to include Bradley, but to say he is a more ridiculous choice than Jordan is itself ridiculous.

      This doesn’t even take into consideration that Bradley was on a team that disallowed basketball scholarships, which all but guaranteed him to be at a disadvantage in terms of level of play from his teammates.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Who’s the only guy that could hold Jordan under 30 points? Dean Smith.

  20. Ed says:

    And by the way, yes, David Thompson should obviously have been on the list. Strong argument as the greatest college basketball player ever.

  21. David says:

    Another vote for Austin Carr. Even if he’d had a great pro career instead of an excellent one, it was the 1970s NBA in Cleveland.

    I love basketball, but hate how it discards its past. It deserves better custodians.

  22. Shane Latham says:

    This is interesting! I enjoyed reading your great post.Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have shared here.Shane Latham

  23. Matt Wallace says:

    The committee probably just didn’t want Jordan initiating an undying vendetta against them for the rest of his life.

  24. Rob Smith says:

    I tell my kids about Thompson (they have no idea who he was). In college, he was what Jordan only wished he could be …. and never was. I was a huge UCLA fan, and he personally took that game from UCLA, which I think, was the only loss they had while Walton was on the team. UCLA was great, as usual, in that game. NC State and Thompson were just better. It was frustrating that UCLA brought their “A” game and lost. That didn’t happen for about a dozen years. Double OT. What a crazy unbelievable great game!! Why isn’t it mentioned among the greatest NCAA games ever? Everyone knew that semi final game was for the title…. and Thompson was just that good. It’s really sad that a guy of his talent, a guy who could have been named along side or in front of Jordan for best player ever (and was in the process of proving it early in his NBA career), just pissed away his potential.

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