He Puts The Court Before The Horse

Mychal (Sweet Bells) Thompson of the Trail Blazers doesn't want any ringing changes for his native Bahamas, just one real basketball court
August 22, 1982

In the morning the flagsticks had thrown their long shadows toward the sea like fishermen casting lines. Now in the midday sun, the pins reeled their shadows back onto the greens. On the veranda of the Paradise Island Golf Club, a set of wind chimes answered nearby church bells, and a voice chirruped like a cicada from the shrubbery.

"Sweet Bells, what it is, mon?" said the onlooker. "A big fella like you, Bells, you gwan tear dat course up today?"

"Yes, mon. I think today is the day."

"Oh, Bells, tell me de truth now. Do Moses Malone play golf? Dat big fella, he must hit de ball a long way, unless he miss it and fall on his boongie. Ho, ho, Bells! What a boongie dat Moses has got. And tell me, mon, which of dem devils is harder to play de basketball—Moses or Jabbar? Such big fellas, Bells!"

"They're both tough, mon. Hard to choose."

"Now Moses, dat's a workin' fool, Bells. But I think Kareem, he gotten lazy from all dem years in de NBA. Magic Johnson, dat's my mon. And Darryl Dawkins, Bells! How big dat mon is!"

The wind chimes sounded again, and they were the last sound 6'10" Mychal (Sweet Bells) Thompson heard above the purring of his golf cart as he punched the accelerator and sped off, his laugh ululating up the fairways.

Thompson has returned to Nassau every summer since he left the island a decade ago. Even when he is in faraway Oregon, playing center for the Portland Trail Blazers, his heart and soul are never far from the Bahamas. There have been nights in his four-season NBA career when it appeared that his mind was in the Bahamas, too, which has caused some to believe that he lacks intensity.

As the golf cart approached the fourth tee, Thompson began talking about the relaxed life-style of the Bahamian people, product of a culture that would have to lean forward before it could even be described as laid back. "Like everybody else down here," Thompson said, "I'm so laid back it seems like nothing ever affects me. I think it has a lot to do with my background. In the islands, everybody is really mellow and they don't let things get to them. I don't like to get too upset, and that shows on the basketball court. I know sometimes it bothers Jack Ramsay [the Trail Blazers' head coach] because it seems like I'm not really trying. But I just keep it all inside of me."

Thompson was lying eight—he'd lost two balls—when he took his first shot from a sand trap near a lagoon. The next shot sliced into another lagoon. When his next stroke carried only five feet, Thompson heaved his five-iron and nearly clubbed a duck. His next shot struck a tree and went out of bounds, the ball followed in short order by a thrown eight-iron. After he had holed out, Thompson ambled back to the cart and laughed. "When you grow up with the sea breeze blowing through the palm trees," he said, "there isn't much that bothers you." And with that he was off again, terrorizing ducks and ringing with laughter. Sweet Bells.

Pro basketball is a sport whose season closely approximates the school year, and perhaps that's why so many NBA players tend to act like children. For them, summer vacation is customarily that period when they can do all the exciting things they don't have time for during the season. For instance, they can demand to have their contracts renegotiated. Or they can endorse auto accessory shops. But if a pro player is lucky enough to be both rich and famous, he can open his own summer basketball camp and gouge a few middle-class families for a lot of money teaching their kids things like passing, defense and teamwork—all disciplines the pro player probably abandoned years ago.

However, there have been some exceptions. Atlanta's Mike Glenn has run free camps for hearing-impaired players on Long Island for the past three years, and Tiny Archibald of the Celtics operates free youth-development programs in New York and Boston. And then there was the third annual free Mychal Thompson/Osborne Lockhart Basketball Camp, which ended Aug. 6 and which differed from most camps in a number of ways, not the least of them being the opening ceremonies. Two members of the Bahamian parliament were there to deliver words of encouragement to the 400 or so children from New Providence Island who had shown up.

The arriving campers wore a dizzying array of footwear. Some were shod in sturdy leather brogans, others in sandals, many in gym shoes they received free at the camp last year, and a few were barefoot or wearing only socks. The 24-piece Bahamas Boys' Brigade Band played a touching rendition of Get Involved., then Perry Christie, the Bahamian Minister of Tourism, began his remarks by describing Thompson as "one of the greatest Bahamians ever born." Christie might have been guilty of skimping a bit in his praise of Lockhart, who plays for the Harlem Globetrotters, but it was Thompson whom the government approached with the idea of a camp and Thompson who kept it going. He had become an instant national hero when the Blazers made him the first pick in 1978's NBA draft, and his popularity had continued to grow each time he returned to the islands. Now the Minister of Tourism was listing all of Thompson's accomplishments, concluding with the new $1.2 million-a-year contract Portland had just given him. "Sweet Bells Thompson did more for this country with basketball," Christie finished grandly, "than Neil Armstrong did for America by walking on the moon."

The Bahamian government hopes that future Mychal Thompsons will be discovered in camps such as this one, and that they will go forth into the world saying, "It's better in the Bahamas." "Whenever you bring out one diamond," Christie says, "there must be others, too."

The messages of political progress through sports are everywhere in the Bahamas. The cover of the Nassau phone directory exhorts SPORTS POWER, which is meant to reach out and touch someone. "The Bahamas, by its very nature, can never be an industrial power, a financial power or a military power," says Kendal Nottage, the Minister of Youth, Sports and Community Affairs, "but we can be a sporting power. One athlete from the Bahamas competing in the Olympic Games can beat Russia, beat the United States. We approach sports in the Bahamas as an integral part of our overall national development. We're not interested in the professor who can teach philosophy in the classroom but can't run a lap in track or shoot a basketball."

But there's a long way to go. "I get up every morning and run for an hour and a half on the beach," says Pablo Adderley, 22. a star of the Nassau playgrounds. "I tell you true, mon, I don't know where I get all dis energy to play all day. All I do is work out, work out, work out, and then there ain't nothin' happenin'. Dis place is like a lost island."

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is an archipelago of some 700 islands and cays that stretch across 100,000 square miles in the iridescent waters of the Atlantic. But nowhere on any of these beguiling islands is there as much as one wooden basketball floor. Most courts are outdoors and made of asphalt, and what few gyms there are tend to have concrete floors overlaid with a thin sheet of rubber. When the Bahamian government decided more than 10 years ago to construct some indoor basketball surfaces, the islands were still under British colonial rule. So architects from England designed the floors. "We're 60 miles off the coast of the United States," Thompson says, "and they have a bunch of Englishmen build their basketball floors. That's like hiring Americans to design cricket fields."

Although the camp and his own popularity give Thompson a certain amount of leverage, it hasn't helped him persuade the Bahamian government to start a building program. "These Bahamians are so talented in sports," he says, "but they don't have the facilities. Compare the Bahamas to Cuba. Castro is crazy about sports, and look how successful Cuba has been. Our government is too narrow-minded to see what's needed, or it just doesn't care." The thing that seems to bother Thompson most is the absence of a proper floor. "You play in even high school gyms in the States and you get spoiled," he says. "In America every neighborhood has a decent gym, and in this whole country we don't have one."

It isn't uncommon in the Bahamas to see great leapers on the asphalt playgrounds, players like the 5'9" Adderley, who can dunk with two hands and easily block taller players' shots. "On a wood floor, mon," says Pablo, "I could jump over the moon." As it is, he's often unable to make proper cuts because of the fine layer of sand that covers the outdoor courts. Last year he nearly broke an ankle trying to make a sudden move on a rubber-covered indoor surface. The prospect of serious injury is never far from a player's mind. In the Bahamas there's a saying, "If you like it, let it kill you." If you like basketball too much, it just might.

Nottage, a 42-year-old lawyer, insists that the government is moving toward constructing a multi-use arena with a wooden basketball floor. Meanwhile, on the government's priority list, basketball comes after track and softball.

Thompson has been lobbying hard for a decent basketball facility since he shattered a bone in his left leg while playing on a cement court in Nassau three years ago. The injury caused him to miss his entire second NBA season and, as a result, he won't play basketball when he's in the Bahamas. "I'm scared to death of those floors," he says. "Playing on that kind of surface is the same as playing soccer on concrete."

The 27-year-old Thompson didn't start playing basketball until he was 16. His father, who operates an import-export business in Nassau, had encouraged his seven children to participate in sports, but it wasn't until he joined a church league that Mychal realized that he might be any good at hoops. In one of his first games he grabbed 61 rebounds, and in another he blocked 22 shots. Even so, Thompson was having too much fun as the 6'5" quarterback on a local football team to get serious about basketball. But when his older brother Colin insisted he exploit his basketball talent, Mychal began to think about leaving the islands for the first time in his life. Colin knew about lost opportunity. Not long before that, he was a long-ball-hitting prospect whom the Los Angeles Dodgers had assigned to their Double A farm team in Albuquerque. Following his first spring training, however, he packed up and headed back to the islands. "That's the way Bahamians are," Mychal says. "They think they can do everything right away, and you can't tell them any differently once they've made up their minds. That's why I was lucky to get away when I was young and still had a lot to learn. Too many Bahamians don't leave until they're older, and by then they have attitude problems."

A friend of Thompson's who was playing for Jackson High School in Miami offered him a place to stay. That was in 1972. Thompson could think of no logical reason not to go. "I was raw," Thompson says. "I had never played in front of a crowd before in my life, and even though I was only a half-hour flight from Nassau, I felt like I was in another world. I was so nervous before my first game I almost passed out."

Lockhart, who would later wind up at the University of Minnesota with Thompson, was already playing for Jackson, along with his cousin Charles Thompson and Cecil Rose, two other Bahamians who were eventually recruited by the University of Houston. During Thompson's senior year, 1973-74, the school's first six players consisted of four Bahamians and two Cubans, and Jackson went 33-0 and won the Florida state AAAA championship. The so-called Jackson Five beat teams by an average of 30 points, and the real Floridians—people whose families had moved to Florida from places like New York and North Dakota—didn't like the idea of a bunch of foreigners clobbering their kids one bit. An investigation was launched by the Miami News's Bill Brubaker, who discovered that Jackson had used one player, Rose, who was too old (20) and three others—Thompson, his cousin Charles and Lockhart—whose high school eligibility had expired.

Jackson Coach Jake Caldwell was exonerated of the recruiting charges and remains the coach at Jackson. The school was allowed to keep the state title and the trophy, but its record is accompanied by an asterisk.

"I had the potential," Thompson says, "but nobody told me the right way to use it until Caldwell came along. There's no way I'd be a pro without him."

While he was in Miami, Thompson started wearing tassels tied to the laces of his gym shoes, and later he added small bells that jingled when he ran. "That's how I got the name Bells," he says. "It became Sweet Bells after people saw some of my moves on the court."

Thompson had wanted to play for a college in a U.S. city with major media exposure, but wound up in Minnesota. Always eager to create a distinctive identity for himself, he began wearing a beaded necklace on the court and then, in his sophomore year, he decided to change the spelling of his first name, Michael. When other players began asking him about the necklace, he told them they were "voodoo beads." Years later, when he got into a shoving match with the Phoenix Suns' Alvan Adams, Phoenix Assistant Coach Al Bianchi yelled to Adams from the sidelines, "Watch out, he's got them voodoo beads!" Last season the NBA prohibited players from wearing all forms of jewelry in games. "Those were my native beads," Thompson says, "and they were blessed with Bahamian knowledge, Bahamian love. Those beads were how people recognized me off the court, and they brought me a lot of luck. I took them off and I broke my leg."

The beads brought mixed results at Minnesota. Although he did set school scoring and rebounding records, he also got mixed up in a ticket-scalping episode that resulted in Thompson's being suspended for the first seven games of his senior season. "College athletes can't live on what the NCAA allows," Thompson says in his defense. "You need a little money so you can get out once in a while to have a good time, and maybe a little car to get you around. Why is it all right for the coaches to get all these complimentary cars from local dealers, but not the players? The way the NCAA has it set up, it's like they want to make college athletics another Poland—the ruling government has all the money and everybody else is poor."

Portland never expected Thompson to be the team's center. When he was drafted, the Blazers' center was Bill Walton, and the plan was to use Thompson at power forward and to back up Walton in the middle. But when Walton began to have foot problems, Thompson changed positions.

"I'm not sure Mychal is a first-rate NBA center," says Ramsay. "I think his best position is at forward. I think if that was the position he was playing, he would be a first-rate NBA forward." Portland General Manager Stu Inman agrees. "I think his chance for greatness would be at power forward," Inman says. "His size and body build minimize his chances for greatness as a center." Like a lot of people, Inman believes that Thompson could reach a "higher level" of play were he to apply himself more diligently, perhaps overlooking what Thompson has accomplished in only 10 years. "The game has come relatively easy for him," Inman says. "He's naturally gifted and hasn't had to work as hard as some to become a proficient player. Maybe because of that he hasn't become as tough mentally as some."

Thompson finished fourth in the NBA in rebounding (an 11.7-per-game average) and 17th in scoring (20.8) last season. And this year he will be expected to provide more leadership. "I keep trying to tell those guys what to do," Thompson says kiddingly of his Portland teammates, "and they keep telling me, 'Shut up or we'll have you deported.' How's a poor Bahamian boy supposed to show his leadership in the face of that?"

Whenever he's at home, walking around the streets of Nassau or lounging on the beach at Paradise Island, Thompson knows he's being watched. "The kids look at me like I'm some kind of god, a mystical being from outer space," he says. "They follow me around and notice the things I say and do in public. It's important not to let them down." And that is one of the reasons why he keeps trying to get one small wooden basketball floor built in the Bahamas.

"When you watch these kids playing sports, it's obvious the talent is there," Thompson said one day during his camp. "But you can also see the frustration on their faces because they know they're not going anywhere—at least not the way things are now. They can't get off the island and they can't get to the States to get an education like I did. When I was their age I was just like these kids until I got an opportunity, and look where I ended up. All they need is a chance to show what they can really do. I don't want to be the only one who makes it."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThompson feels his homeland should harness its resources in the direction of sports. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAt his Nassau camp, Bells teaches big D to little kids. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAStanding 6'10" isn't Thompson's only handicap. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAWhether lobbying Nottage for a sports arena or relaxing with his folks, Bells exudes affability. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThompson rejects the idea that he lacks intensity.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)