When he is much, much older—say, 29—and summering in his retreat high atop Thompson Mountain in the Rockies, David Thompson will probably remember few details of this spring's quarterfinal playoff between his Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks.
He will have all but forgotten that the Nuggets, leading the series 3-1, blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on their home court last Friday, or that the Bucks tattooed Denver 119-91 back in Milwaukee on Sunday. And even though the Nuggets and Bucks were preparing for a decisive seventh game on Wednesday, it did not necessarily mean his most vivid memories of the spring of '78 will be of the action, because it was during the past fortnight that he rose to the monetary peak of his profession, at the tender age of 23.
And Nugget boss Carl Scheer will not soon forget how the move he had thought a masterstroke—re-signing Thompson before he would become a free agent and announcing it on opening day of the Milwaukee series—backfired when Thompson's game seemed disturbed by the attention the signing drew to him.
Thompson's soaring salary is more stunning than any defiance of the laws of gravity the 6'3½" guard has ever demonstrated. He will receive $4 million over the next five years, and this is no phoney-baloney, deferred contract to be paid out in dribs and drabs through 2001. Thompson will get his loot in cold cash, in annual installments of $800,000 between 1978 and 1983. "More money than Kareem, the Doctor and Pistol Pete," says Thompson. "I feel worthy. I know I could have gotten more, but peace of mind is more important than cash."
Indeed, with the rush of attention the signing brought, Thompson's state of mind was of great concern to Denver Coach Larry Brown, especially when his star forward averaged only 23.5 points in the first two games. "David's not himself," said Brown, who would have been tickled by such a performance from any other Nugget. No matter. Considering the ease with which Denver disposed of the Bucks, 119-103 and 127-111, Thompson could have taken the nights off to go mountain-shopping.
Center Dan Issel ran Milwaukee's John Gianelli, Kent Benson and Jumbo Jim Eakins until they all looked like they had been processed in a Cuisinart. Forwards Bobby Jones and Darnell Hillman shut down emerging superstar Marques Johnson, and Guard Bobby Wilkerson held Brian Winters to 15 and 14 points.
Then came Game 3 in Milwaukee. Ahead 56-50 at halftime, the Bucks went on a second-half rampage unprecedented in the playoffs, scoring 87 points on 71% shooting and rolling to a 143-112 rout. Much was made of Thompson's 6-for-20 shooting. The Bucks' Quinn Buckner, it was decided, was a defensive genius.
"What did I do?" said Buckner, one of Thompson's closest friends. "I didn't do anything special. I looked at his face in the first quarter and could tell he wasn't going to play well."
"He hears remarks from the crowd," says Brown. "He knows the television commentators are calling him the Four Million Dollar Man. If he's going to go out every night feeling he has to prove he's worth all that money, he's crazy."
The Nuggets regrouped, and the Bucks fell apart in Game 4, which produced the series' fourth blowout—118-104—and Denver's third victory. For the first time Thompson became a major factor, scoring 34 points. His performance included a 180-degree, behind-the-head dunk that was worth considerably more than the $4.28 he will be earning for every second he plays in coming seasons.
So it was back to Denver for what figured to be the clincher Friday night. The Nuggets were loose and confident. The Bucks were demoralized, and they were 0-6 in games at McNichols Arena. "What do we have to lose?" said Johnson, one Buck who was not down at the mouth. "I'm just going to have fun."
Johnson's depressed teammates mostly watched as he frolicked in the first half, single-handedly keeping Milwaukee in the game with 18 points and 13 rebounds. The Nuggets threatened to break the game open several times; especially when Thompson opened the fourth quarter with a gravity defier. As Ralph Simpson threw a pass toward a Coors vendor in Section 18, Thompson rose like a Titan missile, caught the ball in one hand and zinged it through the twine. A moment later Johnson went to the bench with 30 points, 16 rebounds and five fouls. Denver led 94-84.
But Winters, who shot 1-for-4 in the first half, poured in 13 fourth-quarter points, and Johnson returned to score four more in the clutch. Meanwhile, the Nuggets—particularly Issel, who played the entire series virtually without relief, and Thompson, who had 23 points, but only two in the last 6:30—turned to lead. The Bucks, who apparently did not know that no one wins in Denver but the Nuggets, came away 117-112 victors.
As Lloyd Walton, whose two free throws had iced the win, chanted, "Too young to die, Lawd, Too young to die!"
The Bucks certainly proved that Sunday, but not before Thompson committed an egregious turnover by missing the team plane to Milwaukee on Saturday. This left Brown, already upset with Thompson's performance and aloofness the previous week, perplexed, if not downright livid. But by game time Thompson seemed to be his old self, scoring 13 points in the first quarter. Then it appeared as if all the Nuggets had missed the plane. The Bucks erupted, just as they had the week before in Game 3, and Denver did nothing to stop them the rest of the way.
In a 2½-minute stretch in the first half, waves of Bucks outscored the Nuggets 25-4 to build a 19-point lead, and at one point Milwaukee was ahead by 38. Thompson finished with 28, but Issel was invisible, getting one basket and six rebounds. Johnson was again magnificent with 17 rebounds, 16 points and nine assists. Seven other Bucks scored in double figures.
In the locker room, Brown choked back tears. "They should have an isolation booth for you to sit in when you get blown out like this," he said. "We just have to regroup and circle the wagons." He used exactly the same words each of the last three seasons when Denver's back was to the wall in the playoffs. Each time the Nuggets lost.