Throughout the first quarter of the Denver Nuggets' final preseason game, David Thompson had been toying with the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson, exposing all of his defensive weaknesses in a way that began to seem cruel by the time Thompson had scored his ninth point in a little more than eight minutes. Thompson was just coming back after an injury—a heel bruise that had idled him for four of Denver's preseason games—and as he repeatedly climbed to some new and greater remove from the floor and from the rest of the players who stood transfixed on it, it was evident that his confidence was surging with each play.
In the second period, however, the Lakers quieted Thompson by sending in Michael Cooper, their 6'5" defensive thresher. "When they brought Cooper in to guard David," says Denver Coach Donnie Walsh, "he seemed very cocky, probably because he had stopped David cold last year." Now it was Cooper who was relentless, limiting Thompson to a single basket over a span of 8½ minutes in the second period. Something within Thompson had died.
With barely more than three minutes remaining in the half, Thompson gathered in a pass, and as he turned toward the basket, he squared off face-to-face with Cooper. Thompson took Cooper left across the lane, and Cooper stayed with him stride for stride. When Thompson went up for his shot, Cooper went right up with him. For a long moment the two hovered there, Thompson's body fully extended and Cooper right in his eyes. "When David got to the top of his jump, Cooper leveled off with him, and then David did something that only David can do—he started to go up again," says Walsh, accepting, on faith, Thompson's seeming defiance of physical laws. "Cooper was as high as he was going to get, and when David started to rise again, Cooper got this puzzled expression on his face, like he couldn't believe it. You could look at his eyes and see that he was finished for the night. There was no way he was going to stay with David after that." Indeed, Thompson went on to score 45 points. That game, that one play, was as close as the NBA is ever likely to come to an ascension.
In any ordinary year it would hardly be news that David Thompson was off to a rousing start, and rousing it has been in 1980—he was the league's Player of the Week a fortnight ago and he was averaging 27.3 points a game at the end of last week. After recovering from yet another heel bruise at the end of October, he poured in 43 points against Seattle, 31 against the Lakers, 39 against the Super-Sonics again, 30 vs. New York and 30 against Chicago—but this is no ordinary year, following as it does the worst year of Thompson's life. After four remarkable seasons in which he averaged 25.2 points a game and led the Nuggets to the playoffs every spring, Thompson missed all but 39 games of last season with a torn ligament in the arch of his left foot. Even when he was able to play, he often seemed uninterested and ill-humored, and soon the locker-room gossip about his "personal problems" and his alleged dabbling with cocaine became a kind of conventional wisdom that found a ready audience in Denver. During the eight dolorous months that followed his injury, Thompson discovered that the future of his once golden career was suddenly where he himself had so often been—up in the air. Thompson was the subject of so much gossip that even Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president and general manager, conceded in early September that Thompson's reputation was suffering.
More than anything else, it was this shift in popular sentiment against him that stunned Thompson and wounded his pride. He couldn't understand how all the good years could be so quickly dismissed because of one wretched year. "I was really surprised how quickly people's opinion of me turned around," he says. "I felt I deserved better."
Surely there are few more desperate experiences an athlete can endure than to have a "bad year," for unlike the rest of us, the arc of a great athlete's life is marked not by memorable events (the birth of a child, seeing Casablanca for the first time), but by years, good and bad. Ask an athlete to name the best year of his life, and he will know it as surely as he knows his own name.
Thompson had known nothing but good years until the bottom fell out of his life last season. When he reached the most vertiginous heights of professional basketball's salary scale in 1978—signing a contract with the Nuggets worth $800,000 a season for five years—he had already been performing the game's most improbable high-wire act for three seasons in Denver. At North Carolina State he was named College Player of the Year twice, averaging 26.8 points in three varsity seasons, and in 1974 he helped N.C. State wrest the NCAA championship from UCLA, ending the Bruins' nine-year domination of the college game. And as if all that weren't enough, Thompson was so downright lovable that around the ACC they remember him as the Sweetheart of Tobacco Road. "David is the greatest athlete I was ever associated with," says former N.C. State Coach Norm Sloan, "but he was an even greater person."
Though Thompson's height measures only 6'4½", he has a vertical leap of 44 inches. What Thompson does is not so much in defiance of gravity as it is descriptive of gravity's outer limits.
At some point, probably even before last season, Thompson may have gotten too high for his own good, and it was then that he must have looked down for the first time and realized how very far he might fall if he were to slip even slightly. In the moment of that awful insight, Thompson stopped trying to hold himself up and began looking for a safe place to land. His descent was so steep that by the time he struck bottom, the legendary Skywalker had become the alleged Sky-gimp, crippled for half the season by an injury to his left arch that Thompson says was real, but that others implied was only an excuse to cover his fear of flying.
"It was the most humiliating year that I have ever been through," Thompson says, "the way everybody treated me. People came out saying a lot of things about my personal life, which they knew nothing about, the drug thing, my injury. I couldn't believe how many things were going wrong. It felt as if everything had caved in on me."
Things had reached such a dismal pass by the end of the season—a season in which the Nuggets finished 30-52, 19 games out of first place in the Midwest Division—that Scheer asked Thompson to sign his name to what amounted to a mea culpa to Nuggets season-ticket holders for the "disappointment" of the past year. Then things started to get really bizarre. In June the Nuggets requested that Thompson give back some of the $800,000 they were paying him, which would help keep the franchise afloat. Both of these requests were without precedent and, to say the least, peculiar, but in time Thompson acceded to each of them. He says he "wasn't too pleased" about the letter because teammates Alex English and Dan Issel signed letters that were "strictly positive," but he didn't mind returning his pay because "they said they needed the money."
The contractual agreement worked out between the Nuggets and Thompson's agent, Ted Shay, was certainly not the giant giveaway that was hinted at when the transaction was revealed. It allowed Thompson to improve his tattered image locally at no cost to him—gilt by negotiation. What Thompson had done, really, was loan the Nuggets about $200,000 of their own money at 11% to 15% interest, payable in 1983.
The fact that Scheer was able to persuade Thompson, in effect, to shoulder the blame for the Nuggets' disastrous season is revealing in two ways. Most notably, it illustrates how easily Thompson can be manipulated—and he often is—and also how adept Scheer is at pulling the right strings. Was it not Scheer, after all, who conducted a plebiscite among Denver fans in 1978 to determine whether or not they supported his effort to sign Thompson at any cost? "We got mail from old ladies who sent us nickels and dimes and asked us to start a fund to pay David," says Scheer proudly.
Thompson's troubles began almost as soon as he had signed the new five-year, $4 million contract, the most expensive in the history of pro sport at the time. A week earlier he had scored 73 points in Denver's final regular-season game, at Detroit, failing to win the league scoring championship only because George Gervin poured in 63 the same day, to edge Thompson for the title by .07 of a point. Before the Nuggets opened their playoff series with Milwaukee, Scheer announced that Thompson would remain with the team for another five years. "We thought signing the contract during the playoffs would really spur him on," says Scheer. "My thinking—and how naive it was—was that it would ease his mind and possibly lead us to a championship." That didn't happen, but then Denver has always been a playoff disappointment.
"I was the first to sign a really big contract," says Thompson, "and there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn't be making that kind of money. Wherever I would go they would call me The $800,000 Man. The little things that people would say had never upset me before, but since I was getting paid so much money, I felt I should be doing what everybody wanted. My value to the team is my scoring, but when I got criticized about my defense or my ball handling, I would forget all about scoring. I was picking my brain trying to figure out what would benefit the team most. Finally I got confused and I started to pout."
Thompson seemed to weigh each night's performance against his enormous salary, and the results were predictable and devastating. Last season Thompson was ejected from three of the Nuggets' first 27 games, once for committing a flagrant foul against Kansas City's Otis Birdsong and the other two times for getting a second technical foul. When he was thrown out of a game in Utah, he cursed and spit at Referee Jack Madden, one of the league's most respected officials. Later he said he didn't believe the league's white referees wanted to see a black man making $800,000 a year. "I'm getting tired of seeing officials standing on the sidelines laughing," Thompson said. "I feel like punching one of them in the face."
This year Thompson was hoping to make a fresh start with the officials, but it took only until Denver's third regular-season game for him to be ejected for throwing a ball at Referee Joe Crawford. Late last month in a home game against Phoenix, Thompson was hit with yet another technical for cursing Referee Jake O'Donnell. Later, when O'Donnell had his back to him, Thompson stuck his tongue out at the official and then laughed. "He wasn't like that a couple of years ago," O'Donnell says. "But no matter what he thinks, we're not all ganging up on him."
When Thompson was healthy last year, his problems on the court weren't confined to disagreements with the officiating. "He just wasn't the same," says Doug Moe, now Walsh's assistant but last year the head coach at San Antonio. "When we played Denver, it used to be we were terrified of the guy. But it got to the point that he wasn't doing anything, so you didn't worry about him."
Thompson brought on most of the problems himself. He began to miss practices and team planes and to withdraw further and further from his teammates. For the first time, Scheer started to wonder if Thompson was more trouble than he was worth. "I had risked a great deal convincing my partners to sign David," Scheer says. "My reputation rested on his success." When the Nuggets got off to an 0-7 start last season, with Thompson shooting an anemic 34% and averaging only 15 points a game, Scheer began to feel the pressure.
"I felt betrayed," he says. "I had gone out on a limb for David, not being unmindful of the fact that signing him could have bankrupted us, and I wasn't getting the kind of response I expected. He missed a lot of planes, which was disconcerting to the other players and to the coaches. He was losing the respect of the other players. We fined him, but the fines meant nothing because he was making all that money." In November, Walsh finally insisted that Thompson resign as one of the team's co-captains because of his consistent unreliability.
A lot of Thompson's apparent reluctance to gather 'round the hearth with his fellow Nuggets was no doubt because he didn't like many of them and couldn't get his game in tune with some others. When the Nuggets traded his friend, Bobby Jones, for George McGinnis in 1978, Thompson saw a change in his role, and it wasn't a change he welcomed. "He kind of sat back when we got McGinnis and said, 'O.K., let's see how long it takes you to hang yourself,' " says former Nugget Coach Larry Brown, now the coach at UCLA. "That bothered me because I thought he was such a great athlete that he should make the other players react to him."
Thompson and McGinnis got along well enough in 78 to make the playoffs, but when the team went sour last season, it was apparent that one of them would have to go. McGinnis was sent to Indiana last February in exchange for English. "If you lose and one guy doesn't get his stats," says Thompson, "then it becomes a question of who's going to get criticized. So it becomes a power struggle. The guys that get paid the most get criticized the most, and that kind of blows the team concept."
"In order for David to be effective," says Walsh, "he needs to be accepted. We had some guys last year who were hard to get along with, and it was hard on David. He would be taking the last shot of a close game, for instance, and just as he was going up, one of our guys would yell, That's a bad shot.' It's hard to want to play with guys like that."
If the Nuggets' chemistry was poor last season—and it was, it was—even more disturbing were rumors that Thompson was trying to improve his own chemistry by using cocaine. Drug rumors have followed him since he came into the league, Thompson says. "I'd never even seen any cocaine then," he says. He insists he doesn't use cocaine now and doesn't know how the rumors got started, but he did once go so far as to tell an acquaintance of his that he wasn't "doing anything worse than what everybody else in the NBA is doing." Thompson denies that drugs had anything to do with his poor performance last season. "I guess since everybody thought I was dogging it," he says, "they figured I was doing a lot of drugs. That's totally wrong."
Thompson never spoke to anyone in the Nuggets' front office about the drug rumors, and Scheer says he was willing to avoid any head-on confrontation with the possibility that his meal ticket was a cocaine fiend. "I never asked him about it directly," says Scheer, "because I was afraid what the answer might be. With David not playing, the whispers became shouts, and it was hard to deny them. My kids even heard the rumors at school."
And there were other rumors to contend with. One that had some validity was that Thompson was having marital difficulties. The problem, in truth, was not with the marriage itself, but with his family and his wife Cathy's family, both of which opposed the marriage, because he is black and she white. Although the two have known each other for five years and have been married since 1978, their families did not really accept the union until last summer. "For a long time there was no contact between the families and us," David says. "It bothered me, but I think the families were only looking out for us. They knew there would be a lot of troubles. When you have a mixed marriage, people always want it to go wrong."
When Erika, their first child, was born 15 months ago, the prospect of their baby being rejected by its grandparents hung over the couple's heads. Last April, when the season was over, David and his daughter went home to North Carolina to visit the families, with Cathy soon to follow. And for the first time all year, he did something that was a triumph.
Neither family could resist Erika's indisputable charms, and slowly, over the course of six weeks, old bridges were restored. "Staying at home for a while made me realize who I was and where I was at," Thompson says. "It gave me some inner confidence that I wasn't getting in Denver. You read so much negative stuff about yourself that you can really get low. From my family I got the reinforcement I needed."
When he returned from North Carolina, David fired Shay, primarily because his longtime agent had kept him insulated not only from his investments but also from most other forms of off-court responsibility as well. When he was around, Shay was inclined to do things like taking out Thompson's dry cleaning or running out to McDonald's and bringing back a late-night snack, and Thompson was inclined to let him.
"David has to take control of his own life now," says Walsh. "He has to accept his status, and when the need arises, he has to make an effort to fit in. He can't be as sensitive as he has been, can't be as up and down anymore. If you're going to be a superstar, there has to be some steel inside."
If the early going is any indication of what lies ahead, Thompson finally seems to be on the verge of rising out of the child-prodigy class and into the ranks of the game's real stars. Though he was slowed considerably during the last 10 days of October by the recurrence of the heel bruise that caused him to miss most of the preseason, at the end of last week Thompson ranked third in the league in scoring. The Nuggets, meanwhile, were third in the Midwest Division, with a 6-8 record—not great but a big improvement over last year's start. Even more encouraging was the fact that Thompson was playing defense and running on the Nuggets' fast-break opportunities as he has at no time before in his career. "He's a completely different player from the one I saw last year," says Utah Jazz Guard Billy McKinney. "He's the David Thompson you expect to see when you play the Nuggets. He looks extremely sharp. Spectacular, you might say."
You might is right.