David “Skywalker” Thompson from Shelby-to-Raleigh & Beyond

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It’s quite an honor when a person like Michael Jordan gives you the credit for being his inspiration, calls you his idol and explains that he may have never played basketball if you didn’t inspire him as a child. David Thompson was a 6-foot-4, 195 pound leaper with a complete game. This is his story from Shelby-to-Raleigh-to the NBA.

48″ Vertical leap

David “Skywalker” Thompson had a 48″ max vertical leap and a standing vertical of 44″.

The legend was I could take a quarter and leave two dimes and a nickel. I didn’t quite have that much hang time but I could get the top of the backboard.

David Thompson

Many people are said to be able to get the top of the backboard but I think this image shows that with Thompson, he wasn’t exaggerating.

Look where he is in the above image and he’s got an opposing player jumping into him. David Skywalker is literally about to grab the top of the backboard.

His vertical leap was recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records as a Freshman at North Carolina State.

“Like Sky”

Michael Jordan idolized David Thompson growing up as a kid in North Carolina.

“Wanna be, wanna be like Sky, like Sky, I wanna be like Sky”. No, Michael Jordan wasn’t singing this to himself as he hung like a bat in his bedroom as a kid, attempting to stretch himself to grow.

For those that don’t know, M.J really did this. As to did it work, all the men in his family are around 6-foot-0-inch tall except Mike who stands 6-foot-6. So…, can’t say it didn’t work. HA-HA, on some possibly. Kevin Garnett said what? “Anything is possible”.

MICHAEL JORDAN STARTED PLAYING BASKETBALL BECAUSE OF DAVID THOMPSON. Mike’s friends were shocked that “His Airness” chose Thompson to introduce him at his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame induction but they shouldn’t have been. Not really.

People all over the world wanted to be like Mike but Mike wanted to be like Skywalker.

Jordan patterned his game growing up in North Carolina after David Skywalker’s. He was Mike’s idol, his inspiration, and his favorite player.

He’s my inspiration, my inspiration growing up. The whole measuring of vertical leap began with David Thompson.

He vaulted off the ground, exploded off the ground.

Michael Jordan

Skywalker

David Thmpson wasn’t called “Skwalker because of Star Wars. The movie used “Skywalker” because of David Thompson.

“Skywalker because it looked like he was walking through the air when he leaped. Luke Starkiller was the original name to be used in the Star Wars films for Luke and his kin.

Putting 73 on them

David Thompson scored 73 points on April 9, 1978

It was the last night of the 1977-78 NBA season and the Denver Nuggets were already going to the NBA Playoffs. David Thompson could’ve rested and not played in this Sunday afternoon game but he was only trailing in the scoring race by a fraction of a point.

Nuggets head coach Larry Brown wanted to know “Do you want to go for it today”? “It” was referring to the scoring title for the 1977-78 season. Thompson was trailing George “Ice Man” Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs by two-tenths of a point (.21).

It was April 9, 1978 and the Nuggets were in Detroit playing the Pistons. It was the last game at Cobo Arena for the Pistons. They would play their games at the Pontiac Silverdome the following season.

Record Breaking 1st quarter

David “Skywalker” came out and went ape****. He hit his first 8 shots and was 13-14 in the first quarter with a perfect 6-6 from the line.

The Shelby, North Carolina native broke the record for points scored in a quarter. Breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s 31 points that was set the night he scored 100 points in Hershey, Pennsylvania on March 2, 1962.

Probably no one scores 100 points in a game again but it’s possible, especially with the three point line.

What won’t ever be duplicated or topped is in that game against the New York Knicks, Chamberlain took 63 shots. 63 MOTHERF***ing shots. He was 36-63, hitting on 57.1 percent go his field goal attempts. It wasn’t like he shot 80 percent from the field.

In the second quarter, Thompson dropped another 21 points, giving him 53 at halftime. The Pistons doubled, tripled and quadruple teamed “Skywalker” in the 2nd half. He only scored 6 points in the 3rd quarter.

Stating in his 2003 autobiography that  “I felt like a caged rat,” Thompson said, “but still somehow managed six third-quarter points. It wasn’t a lot, but there wasn’t much I could do.”

28-38

David Thompson already had a wicked jump shot when he got to campus in Raleigh, North Carolina

David Thompson entered the ranks of professional basketball equipped with a wicked jump shot.

The Denver Nuggets superstar finished with 73 points on 28-38 shooting and hitting 17-20 from the free throw line. 28-38 from the field, in a 73 point performance, that’s 73.7% shooting.

Thompson said in recent years that if the three point line had be in effect for his 73 point masterpiece that his total would have been in  “the high 80s.”

Wilt & Kobe

Only Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant have scored more points in an NBA game than David’s 73.

Can you imagine telling a friend that a perimeter player last night shot 73.7% on 38 attempts from the field in a game and then be like “Oh yeah, he went off for 73”.

THAT’S ABSURD, RIDICULOUS. IT’S JUST NONSENSICAL.

I was incarcerated in January 2006 when my friends came to visit. When we sat down I heard one of them tell me the most ridiculous nonsense I ever heard. KOBE BRYANT HAD JUST SCORED 81 POINTS IN A BASKETBALL GAME.

After telling them off, they assured me this really happened. I WAS PISSED, IT WASN’T FUNNY.

Four inmates, three other than myself were on the block for NOT COMMITTING MURDER. My fault, they were actually all innocent even the ones arrested covered in the victims blood. I’ll rephrase my statement. They were there for NOT CATCHING A BODY.

I get back and I’m like yo my people just told me Kobe dropped 81. One big dude stands straight up and says “GO F*** YOURSELF”.

The next morning the television was fixed and like 4-5 people came to my cell, talking about that Kobe 81, it’s real, it happened.

I didn’t fully believe it until then, maybe 17 hours after first hearing about it from my friends.

The Iceman scoreth

The 1978 scoring race between George Gervin and David "Skywalker" was as close as it can get and was decided on the final night by 63 & 73 point performances respectively.

George Gervin needed 58 points against the Utah Jazz to take back his scoring title that “Skywalker” had taken from him only hours earlier.

Remember that new record for points in a quarter that Thompson set earlier in the day, “The Ice Man broke that record in the first quarter as he literally one-upped David with 33 points.

Gervin needed 58 points to regain his scoring title and dropped 63 for his Spurs that night.

Gervin edged Thompson 27.22 ppg to 27.15 for the scoring crown of 1977-78.

David & the Wolfpack

David Thompson uses his leaping ability to snatch a rebound

David Thompson made his way to North Carolina State in the fall of 1971. I’m not sure the mode of transportation that “Skywalker” used to get there, but the flight distance is just over 166 miles from Shelby to Raleigh, North Carolina.

“D.T” was expected to be a superstar at North Carolina State University. He was a blue chip prospect that was going to deliver Wolfpack head coach Norm Sloan, Raleigh, the alumni and the fans, the University’s first NCAA college basketball national championship.

David “Skywalker” was explosive. His first step was about as quick as fast can move. He came equipped with a stone cold jump shot too.

The “Lew Alcindor” rule of slam ducks being illegal and resulting in a technical foul existed throughout David’s collegiate career in Raleigh. He had a 48″ Vertical leap and he wasn’t allowed to dunk the basketball. There wasn’t a three point line yet either.

NCAA Accolades

David Thompson's college accolades.

Thompson wasn’t eligible to play as a freshman on the varsity team but he showed his skillset to the nation the following season of 1972-73. He won the ACC Player-of-the-year award and was named as a First Team All-ACC selection.

Averaging 24.7 points-per-game & 8.0 rebounds on 56.9 percent shooting from the field as a Sophomore.

In fact, the N.C State superstar was named First Team All-ACC and won the ACC Player-of-the-year award three times from 1973-75. That’s every year he was eligible to play college basketball.

David Thompson was so phenomenal that the accolades didn’t stop with ACC awards, he received national praise too.

D.T was selected in all three seasons that he played NCAA basketball as a Consensus First Team AP All-American. The 1975 Naismith Player-of-the-year was awarded the AP National Player-of-the-year in both 1974 & 1975.

Undefeated

In 1972-73, the Wolfpack went undefeated and defeated Maryland to win the ACC Tournament but were hit with probation for the season, excluding them from participating in the NCAA Tournament.

Heading into the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina, the North Carolina State Wolfpack were ranked 2nd in the nation and stood undefeated at 25-0.

They would receive a first round bye and defeat the University of Virginia 63-51 and then in the ACC Final, David and the Wolfpack in winning the ACC Championship, defeating the 10th ranked Maryland Terrapins 76-74.

N.C State had won their conference and finished their season a perfect 27-0. This is the only team that ever finished their season undefeated and didn’t win the National Championship.

The probation involved violations in the recruitment of Thompson to NCSU but if you don’t know, don’t assume, it’s not what you think.

Here is what Head Coach Norm Sloan said decades later about the recruiting violations that resulted in a probationary term.

We were put on probation for one year for really nothing, just nothing at all. What happened, we signed David Thompson.

David came up to visit, I knew he was here, didn’t know where he was staying. I didn’t really worry about it.

But while he was here, he got involved in a pickup game and one of the guys playing was captain of Carolina’s football team.

If that situation occurred today, it wouldn’t even be a slap on the wrist.

Norm Sloan

Creation of the ally-top

David "Skywalker goes up with his vertical to dunk the basketball.

David Thompson and N.C State point guard Monty Towe accidentally created the alley oop and David came up the term “alley oop”. Thompson was running backdoor to the baseline when Towe threw a pass that was too high and heading out of the gym. Too high for everyone but not the “Skywalker”.

Since dunking was illegal, Towe would throw it up to Thompson, who with his vertical leap was able to place it into the basket without actually dunking the ball. It was just a toss into the basket.

Players in the NBA and ABA saw this and started doing it with dunks but D.T would have to wait a couple years before he could do this without drawing a technical foul.

David vs Goliath

North Carolina State's David Thompson on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

If North Carolina State had been able to play in the 1973 NCAA Tournament, if they made it to the National Championship Game, they would have played The University of California, Los Angeles.

UCLA was a juggernaut under coach John Wooden in 1973-74. The same UCLA Bruins roster that hadn’t lost a single game in 1972 or 1973.

They only lost five games going back to 1966-67.

The Bruins lost to Notre Dame on January 19, 1974 by a single point (71-70). This was the first loss UCLA suffered since they were beaten by Notre Dame on January 23, 1971.

They had reeled off 88 consecutive victories. Parts of 4 seasons without losing a single game. That’s how good Bill Walton’s UCLA Bruins were.

The Bruins played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish six days later and defeated them by 19 points (94-75). Both games against the Fighting Irish involved the top ranked team in the nation, facing off against the second ranked team.

UCLA was ranked number 1 in the first meeting, obviously, they hadn’t lost a game in four years.

The Walton Gang regained their top ranking after winning at Pauley Pavilion in the re-match.

This wasn’t UCLA’s first 1 vs. 2 of the 1973-74 college basketball season though.

Who’s Rocking with them

The UCLA “Walton Gang” was incredible. It starts with Bill Walton, the 1974 1st overall NBA Draft pick by the Trail Blazers. He’d go on to lead Portland to an NBA Championship in 1977, after leading UCLA to back-to-back undefeated seasons.

Walton accomplished just about everything there was to accomplish playing for John Wooden in Los Angeles. The “Big Red Head” averaged 20.3 points-per-game, 15.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists in his three seasons dominating the paint for the University of California, Los Angeles.

  • 3x All-Pac 8
  • 3x Pac-8 player-of-the-year
  • 2x National champion
  • 3x Consensus 1st Team All-American
  • 3x Naismith National Player-of-the-year
  • 2x NCAA Final Four MOP

Supporting cast

Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes was only the 11th pick pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors. He was the 1975 NBA Rookie-of-the-Year and without him, the Golden State Warriors don’t win the 1975 NBA championship.

He finished second in points-per-game and rebounds as a rookie for the Warriors. At UCLA, “Silk” was a 2x Consensus AP All-American and All-Pac 8 selection (1973-74).

Next we have Dave Meyers, the 6-foot-8, 215 pound power forward that helped lead UCLA to it’s last national championship under John Wooden in 1974-75.

The NBA believed his skill, his play and potential made him good enough to be drafted 2nd overall in the 1975 NBA Draft behind David Thompson.

He was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Shortly thereafter he was involved in a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks to land the Lakers another prized former UCLA superstar.

Coming off the bench for the Bruins was the 1975 NCAA Final Four MOP, Richard Washington. He wasn’t Bill Walton manning the center position but he was good enough to become the 3rd overall draft pick in the 1976 NBA Draft by the Kansas City Kings.

Incoming Freshman

David Thompson shooting a jump shot against UCLA's Keith Wilkes.

Marques Johnson was part of the first incoming freshman class that was finally permitted to play on the varsity by the NCAA. He was a true Freshman in the 1973-74 season and a factor off the bench for coach John Wooden.

Marques was one of the few blue chip elite prospects heading to college in the fall of 1973, Johnson didn’t disappoint either. Coming off a state championship and being honored as the Los Angeles City Player-of-the-year, he’d come off the bench in 1974 for the vaunted Bruins.

The 3rd overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1977, Johnson was an integral factor in the 1975 NCAA National Championship win. He was named as a First Team All-Pac 8 two times (1976-77) and win Pac-8 Player-of-the-Year in 1977.

The five time NBA All-Star would also be named a Consensus First Team All-American in 1977. Winning all the major individual awards across the nation from the Naismith, to the AP POY and finally becoming the first ever recipient of the John Wooden award.

FOUR TOP 3 OVERALL NBA DRAFT PICKS AND THAT DOESN’T INCLUDE THE BRUINS 2ND BEST PLAYER IN KEITH WILKES.

IF DAVID THOMPSON & HIS WOLFPACK WANTED TO BE NCAA NATIONAL CHAMPIONS IN 1973-74, THIS WAS THEIR OPPOSITION, THIS IS WHO THEY NEEDED TO DEFEAT.

JUST GO OUT AND BEAT THE 7-TIME DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.

“Dream Game”

On December 15, 1973 the North Carolina State Wolfpack faced off against the mighty Bruins of Los Angeles in a game that was designed to do what it did, take the two undefeated teams from the previous season and drive revenue on Television and at the Stadium.

It did just that too. It was the richest college basketball game at the time, overtaking the UCLA vs Houston contest from 1968. Each team made over $100,000 and I suspect ABC made much more. Obviously.

Bill Walton got his fourth foul eleven minutes into this game against the Wolfpack and North Carolina State had a slight lead at the half.

Keith Wilkes had a great game dropping 27 points for the Bruins. UCLA came back to defeat the Wolfpack convincingly 84-66. N.C State’s 29 game winning streak ended that night at the St. Louis Arena.

David Thompson’s team became victim 79 of UCLA’s 88 game winning streak.

Circus Team

They used to call David Thompson’s North Carolina State the circus team because of its three main components.

Tom Burleson, the 7-foot-2 center was the giant. Monty Towe was NCSU’s 5-foot-7 point guard and he was the midget and D.T was the high-wire act.

N.C State didn’t lose another game for the rest of 1974.

ACC Final

David Thompson going up to dunk at North Carolina State.

The Wolfpack played a championship caliber Maryland team in the ACC Final. This game was the reason that the NCAA changed the number of teams invited to the NCAA Tournament.

This game would pit two of the top four programs in the country against each other. One of these teams wouldn’t be playing in March Madness though.

Only the conference tournament champions from each conference made the tournament. Its actually why the conference tournaments still exist today. They were kept after this changed, likely for monetary purposes.

The regular season was for tournament seedings and then the conference tournament was played to decide which team got invited to the “Big Dance”.

This particular ACC Final is regarded as one off the greatest NCAA games ever played with N.C State securing an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, winning 103-100 in overtime.

Just tripped on his shoulder

The Wolfpack defeated Providence in the first round of the tournament 92-78. In the second round Thompson was being consistently pushed and his arm had been hit without fouls being called. He became unsettled and lost his temper.

“Skywalker sprinted with abandon back the other way after his arm got hit and no foul was called and his shot came up two feet short of the basket.

He planned on blocking the next shot and got a piece of the ball, the tip of his shoe caught teammate Phil Spence’s shoulder. The 6-foot-9 power forward was in position awaiting a possible rebound.

Thompson flipped in the air and slammed head-first into the wooden floor of Reynold’s Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. His head was perpendicular to his body when he hit the court.

It’s not often that it can be said that a person tripped on another man’s shoulder that is standing straight up. Especially if that person is 6-foot-9. Everyone isn’t The “Skywalker” though.

People in Reynold’s Arena thought David Thompson was dead. He was unconscious and unresponsive for more than ten minutes, lying in a puddle of his own blood, leaking from his head.

Walter Cronkite was waiting on news from Rex Hospital on if the North Carolina State superstar that took the game above the rim had died.

This didn’t happen, he had a severe concussion and returned to Reynold’s during the second half to groggily watch his team win this tourney game against Pittsburgh and reach the Final Four.

David Thompson cutting down the nets and moving on to the Final Four to face UCLA.

WITH 15 STAPLES IN HIS HEAD, DAVID SKYWALKER WOULD NOW PLAY AGAINST THE 7-TIME DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS IN THE FINAL FOUR.

Final Four

The Sports Illustrated cover the week North Carolina State defeated UCLA in the 1974 Final Four.

The re-match against UCLA happened a week after he landed on his head and neck, woke up in a pool of his own blood and had 15 staples placed into his head to close the wound.

If this occurred today, the player wouldn’t be playing a week later. When I said people thought he was dead, I’m not just saying that for shock value.

On March 23, 1974, UCLA squared off with North Carolina State at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Wolfpack were ranked first in the country when the tournament started.

The first time Bill Walton went for his quick turnaround jump shot, David Skywalker came over and blocked it. Curt Gowdy said on the NBC broadcast “I never saw a man with his height jump like this”. “He has the greatest leaping ability I’ve ever seen”. D.T. blocked three shots this game.

“I never saw a man with his height jump like this”. “He has the greatest leaping ability I’ve ever seen”.

Curt Gowdy

David blocked three shots in this game to go along with 28 points and 10 rebounds.

This was an epic battle where the winner was expected to go on to the Final and be victorious. The game was tied after 40 minutes and in overtime the Bruins took a seven point lead with about 2 1/2 minutes remaining at 74-67.

This is when David Thompson took over the pace of the game. He scored six points during this run. He got things started with the first basket, grabbed a rebound and went coast-to-coast for a layup and then nailed two free-throws to put the nail in the coffin of the 7-time defending champions.

Champions

David Thompson cutting down the nets after winning the 1974 NCAA National Championship.

As expected, the winner of the North Carolina State-UCLA game won the National Championship. N.C State defeated Marquette 76-64 two nights later.

“Skywalker” was awarded as the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player (MOP) for his efforts in leading his team to this National Championship victory.

When you dream off the perfect basketball player, you visualize David Thompson.

In all the years that I played for John Wooden, he only mentioned one player from the other team by name and that was David Thompson and that was the time we lost

Bill Walton on David Skywalker

Senior Season

D.T. didn’t have the same team success as he did the previous two seasons. A major factor was that 7-foot-2 center, Tommy Burleson was drafted third overall into the NBA by the Seattle Supersonics.

He did have his best individual campaign in the 1974-75 season. “Skywalker averaged 29.9 points-per-game and 8.2 rebounds on 54.6 percent shooting from the field. That was his lowest shooting percentage in his three seasons playing at NCSU.

Perimeter players don’t normally have such a high shooting percentage. That tells you about his game and he was putting up plenty of jumpers too.

In the Wolfpack’s third game of the 1974-75 season, Thompson had his career high game in points scored. He put up 57 points and had 17 rebounds against Buffalo State on December 6, 1974 at Reynolds.

At the time, his 57 points were an Atlantic Coast Conference record and remained until Danny Ferry scored 58 points on December 10, 1988.

Repeat?

D.T. had injury problems in 1974-75 too. North Carolina State was defeated by The University of North Carolina and phenom freshman point guard Phil Ford. Thompson willed his team over the 2nd ranked Maryland Terrapins 87-85 in an ACC Semi-Final but couldn’t find the same magic in the next game

Carolina and Ford were just too much in the ACC Final at Greensboro Coliseum, The Wolfpack lost the game 70-66. Many believe Ford to be the greatest NCAA point guard of all-time.

“Skywalker” finished his collegiate career in Raleigh averaging 26.8 points-per-game, 8.1 rebounds on 55.3 percent shooting from the field.

Going Pro

David Thompson going coast-to-coast.

David Thompson was selected with the first overall pick in both the NBA & ABA drafts in 1975. The Atlanta Hawks and Virginia Squires both selected the 1974 NCAA Final Four MOP.

Atlanta with too many moving parts and fines couldn’t get the money together to sign D.T. but the Denver Nuggets stepped and agreed to a trade with the Virginia Squires.

Thompson would be playing in Denver for coach Larry Brown.

ABA

David Skywalker dunks on the Nets in the ABA

David played one season in the ABA before the league folded. That season he didn’t play like a rookie, not at all. He played in the last ABA All-Star Game and was the runner-up in the very first professional basketball slam dunk contest in 1976.

Julius Erving hadn’t planned on dunking from the free-throw line but after seeing David’s dunks, “The Doc” knew he had to do something special if he wanted to win this event.

Named the 1976 ABA Rookie-of-the-year and an All-ABA selection, Thompson would play in the last ABA Finals against “Doctor J” and his New York Nets.

The Nuggets were making their first ABA Finals appearance, meanwhile the Nets had won the ABA championship in 1974 and were chasing a second title.

The Nets would prevail in six games. In game six, Denver had a big lead until Julius Erving and John Williamson helped bring New York back and to a second championship in three seasons.

Thompson scored 42 points in the final game of the ABA on 16-23 (69.6%) shooting. In his first professional season, D.T. averaged 26.0 points-per-game, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks.

He was named to the all-time ABA team based on what he accomplished in just his one season playing in the league.

David Thompson showing why they call him "Skywalker".

NBA

Nuggets rookie David Thompson jumping over Rich Jones of the New York Nets, trying to posterize him

“Skywalker” didn’t miss a beat as the Denver Nuggets became one of four team absorbed into the NBA from the ABA (Spurs, Pacers, Nets).

His first two seasons in the NBA, he was a First Team All-NBA Selection (78-79). Four more All-Star Game selections in the National Basketball Association to go with his 1976 ABA nod (1977-79, 83). A total of five All-Star Game appearances.

Injury

The Nuggets David Thompson trying to score at the rim

Thompson started getting injured in the 1979-80 season at the age of 25. He only played 39 games that season and when he was out with too much time on his hands and unable to play basketball, he started messing with drugs.

After a resurgent 1980-81, Thompson seemed to be getting banged up and with the use of drugs on top of that, he started to decline and getting in some trouble.

Traded to the Seattle Supersonics in 1982-83, where D.T. was an All-Star, he was out of the NBA after playing 19 games in the 1983-84 season. Only averaging 12.6 points-per-game.

David Thompson using his vertical.

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