DALLAS – Watching Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison make the hero shot against Louisville, then against Michigan, and then AGAIN against Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday, offers a good reason to remember what just might be the greatest individual run in NCAA Tournament history.
Of course, everyone quickly remembers Christian Laettner ‘s tournament heroics for Duke, mostly for the shot that beat Kentucky in the 1992 regional final. You may remember Bill Walton making 21 of 22 against Memphis State in the 1973 final. There’s also the possibility you remember Larry Bird for carrying a collection of scrappy Indiana State players all the way to the 1979 national championship game, and then remember Magic Johnson for leading Michigan State over Bird and Indiana State.
Austin Carr scored 61 in a tournament against Ohio. Stephen Curry lit up team after team in Davidson’s run that fell one shot short of the Final Four. Carmelo Anthony as a freshman carried Syracuse to a championship. Lew Alcindor (before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led UCLA to three consecutive national championships and won the most outstanding player all three years. Great tournament runs? How about Jerry West or Oscar Robertson or Never Nervous Pervis Ellison? How about Glenn Robinson or Glen Rice or…there are too many to remember.
But there is one extraordinary individual run (in my view the greatest individual run in NCAA tournament history) and it is often forgotten. It happened 40 years ago, and it helped changed college basketball.
In fact, as you will see throughout, the college basketball David Thompson played for those remarkable three weeks in March of 1974 is all but unrecognizable now.
David Thompson might be the only person to ever put two colleges on probation. That sounds a lot worse than it was, but it’s a good place to begin. Nobody had ever seen a player quite like David Thompson in high school. He was 6-foot-4, but he played above the rim. That was new. He would soar over 7-footers. He would hang in the air in what seemed anti-gravitational.
The line that went around was that David Thompson could snag a quarter off the top of the backboard and leave behind two dimes and a nickel.
He grew up on a farm in Shelby, N.C., and he would often say that the best basketball he ever played was on a makeshift basketball court he built with his older brother and his cousin Alvin Gentry. The same Alvin Gentry who coached four NBA teams. They built that court right on the dirt, and the packed down dirt would sink whenever Thompson jumped. This proved to be a great thing, not unlike putting a donut on a baseball bat. Thompson said that when he first played on hardwood, his vertical jump probably increased by a foot.
Every basketball playing school in the country wanted Thompson. This was long before recruiting was considered a big deal, but the recruitment of David Thompson was covered throughout the South. Most thought it was all but certain he would go play for Dean Smith at North Carolina; he had been to Dean Smith’s basketball camp and his favorite player growing up was Charlie Scott, the first black athlete to attend North Carolina on scholarship. It looked like a done deal.
But, as Thompson tells the story, North Carolina State had this scrappy assistant coach from Pittsburgh named Eddie Biedenbach, and he was relentless. He showed up constantly (recruiting rules were very different then too in that they barely existed). Thompson says at some point Biedenbach asked the question that changed his mind.
“David,” he asked, “do you want to go to North Carolina and be the next Charlie Scott? Or do you want to go to N.C. State and have people want to be the next David Thompson.”
The day David Thompson signed with N.C. State sparked a celebration. Coach Norm Sloan, who like most other coaches never talked about recruits, could not help himself. He said, “He’s about the best all-round player – shooting, passing, playing defense – I’ve seen.”
Well, all of this seemed fishy and investigations were launched. In the end, as mentioned, two schools (N.C. State and Duke) would go on probation for their recruitment of Thompson. But, in truth, the violations were so slight they now seem ridiculous. N.C. State was dinged for a series of nonsensical things such as allowing Thompson to sleep in a dorm during a summer basketball camp (they were apparently supposed to charge him $8 per night). Duke was hit because Thompson received a sports jacket as a graduation gift.
Well, the NCAA must have felt pretty sure there were real violations even if they could not prove them. Thompson would always say he never actually made a dime from his recruitment, though the opportunities were there.
In any case, freshmen were ineligible then, so the tournament did not begin for him until he was a sophomore. Thompson averaged 36 points a game as a member of the N.C. State freshman team and the crowds for his games often topped the varsity squad. Then, as a sophomore, he averaged 25 points and eight rebounds and N.C. State did not lose a game all year. That was the year the team was banned from the tournament.
That was also the year that John Wooden’s UCLA team won its seventh straight national championship, winning every tournament game by double digits. Bill Walton scored 44 points and missed just one shot in the title game.
“We could have beaten UCLA,” Thompson would say years later.
And all this leads to Thompson’s extraordinary tournament run of 1974.
What was different then? Everything. Shorts were actually short. Freshmen were ineligible. Dunking the ball was illegal. There was no shot clock. There was no three-point line. And only conference tournament champions were selected for the NCAA Tournament.
The last of these meant that David Thompson’s tournament run did not begin in the first round of the NCAA tournament but a week earlier against Virginia in the ACC Tournament. N.C. State had lost just one game all year (a made-for-TV early-season matchup against UCLA) but they still had to win the ACC tournament to move on. They breezed by Virginia with Thompson scoring 37. Then they had to play Maryland.
There are people who still believe, even after the Laettner Duke-Kentucky game, that the 1974 Maryland-N.C. State ACC final was the greatest game ever played. Maryland had three players named to various All-American teams: Len Elmore; Tom McMillen and John Lucas. That game had so many big moments it would take a series of books to relive everything. It was an opera and a rock concert, Shakespeare and Scorsese, all rolled into a single game.
In the end, N.C. State won 103-100 in overtime. Maryland shifted its entire defense to stop Thompson in that overtime, and they did. He did not score a basket in the overtime. But N.C. State’s 7-foot-4 center Tom Burleson finished with 38 (Thompson a mere 27).
This game was so extraordinary that afterward Maryland coach Lefty Driesell came into the N.C. State locker room to say how proud he was of them for the way they played. “Now go win a national championship,” Driesell told them. And with that the Wolfpack was off to the NCAA Tournament.
Well, actually, the tournament came to them. This is what I mean by college basketball being unrecognizable in 1973. N.C. State played the East Regional at home in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. Well, UCLA had played the West Regional in Los Angeles in 1969 and 1973, the Final Four in L.A. in 1968 and 1972. There was little hope of filling up a neutral arena for college hoops then. The best teams played near home.
In the first round, N.C. State pounded Providence and Thompson scored 40.
In the second round, the Wolfpack played Pittsburgh. Thompson was typically dominant in the first few minutes, but then he missed a jumper from the corner and lost his cool. He felt like he had been hit on the elbow on the shot but there was no foul call, and he wanted to make a point. He raced down the court and took off from just beyond the free throw line in an effort to spectacularly block the shot of the guy who nicked his elbow.
Thompson would say that he did tap the ball (replays are inconclusive about that) but the block was not what mattered. His N.C. State teammate Phil Spence did not see him coming and backed up in an effort to block out for the rebound. Thompson’s foot hit Spence’s shoulder, and he did a half-body flip and landed on his head. Blood was everywhere. People in the arena thought he was dead. Literally.
“I just started bawling,” says Blair Kerkhoff, now a sportswriter for the Kansas City Star but then a 13-year-old N.C. State fan in attendance. “I mean you could hear his head hit the floor all over the coliseum. It was literally the worst thing I had ever seen.”
The stretcher came out, and Thompson was taken to the hospital. He was given 15 stitches. And to tell you how different things were then, he was promptly brought back to the coliseum with his head bandaged and he returned to the game.
“When he came back into the game,” Kerkhoff says. “We all started crying again.”
After all that, we actually come to the game of the ages: N.C. State vs. UCLA in the national semifinal at the Greensboro Coliseum. Yes, the Final Four was in Greensboro that year. And yes, they had the brackets set up so that clearly the two best teams in the country would meet in the semifinal and not the final.
The game was epic. Thompson would remember that before the game even began, Wooden uncharacteristically prepared his team to slow Thompson. “In all the years I played for him,” Walton would say of Wooden, “I only heard him mention one player on the other team by name: David Thompson.”
The two teams played an even first half, but early in the second UCLA went on a spurt and built an 11-point lead. Thompson had been an above-the-rim force in the first half. He once blocked Walton’s ultra-quick shot under the rim, which is absurd for a 6-foot-4 player. He also scored three times on the extraordinary alley-oop play he and teammate Monte Towe had perfected. There are many who claim credit for inventing the alley-oop in basketball, but Towe and Thompson were the first to make it a consistent scoring weapon. And remember, Thompson alley-ooped without dunking.
Still, UCLA led by 11 early in the second half, and in those days an 11-point lead was nearly insurmountable because there was no shot clock. But Wooden did not believe in holding the ball, and so UCLA kept attacking. And N.C. State came back. The Wolfpack scored eight straight at one point, actually took the lead very briefly on a Thompson three-point play, and then after a long scoreless streak for both teams the game went into overtime.
The first overtime was a dud with each team scoring just one basket. But in the second overtime, UCLA took a seven-point lead with three and a half minutes left. If losing an 11-point second half lead was somewhat unheard of, losing a seven-point lead with three-plus minutes left was unimaginable. But then UCLA did what UCLA never did; the Bruins lost their heads. And David Thompson took over.
He came flying into the lane to tip in his own missed shot to cut the margin to four with less than three minutes left. After a furious back-and-forth, the Wolfpack trailed by one with less than a minute to go. David Thompson took the ball and everyone in the building knew what would follow. He drove left, the entire UCLA defense went with him, he leaped, they leaped, he hung in the air and banked in his shot with 53 seconds left to give N.C. State the lead.
After UCLA’s Greg Lee missed a wide open 15-footer, Keith Wilkes (later Jamaal Wilkes) fouled Thompson on the rebound. Thompson made both free throws to give the Wolfpack a three-point lead they would hold the rest of the way. The final was 80-77. Thompson finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds and numerous steals and blocks which were not recorded then.
“David Thompson,” Bill Walton would say, “was by far the greatest college basketball player I ever played against.”
The championship game against Marquette was an anticlimax. Marquette coach Al McGuire received two technical fouls late in the first half (but was not ejected from the game; another rule since changed). “I lost the game for us,” McGuire would say. In truth, though, the game wasn’t that close. Thompson scored an easy 21 points on only 12 shots, the Wolfpack led by as many as 19, and won by a dozen.
David Thompson’s pro career was a checkered one. He was an All-Star. He battled Julius Erving in a classic ABA dunk contest. He got into an amazing race with George Gervin for the scoring title. He also became addicted to drugs and for a time was a lost soul. He later found himself, graduated with his daughter from college. He has spent much of his adult life talking about beating his addictions.
And forty years later, his tournament run seems like something out of a movie. Think about it all: Win perhaps the greatest game ever played, score forty, crack your skull, block Bill Walton, carry your team in double overtime and then breeze to a national championship.
You could argue that the college basketball tournament we know now was conceived that year. College basketball had become so predictable and so boring. UCLA won every year. There was no dunking, for crying out loud. There was no shot clock, no three-point line, no at-large teams. Within a decade, all those things would change, and people would wonder just how amazing David Thompson would have been with the modern rules.
Anyway, he was amazing enough. There was an 11-year-old kid watching that tournament on television in North Carolina and he was so blown away by the sight of David Thompson playing basketball that he decided he wanted to become a basketball player too. His father had actually wanted him to play baseball, but the kid now began to play basketball with passion, dreaming every day of being the next David Thompson. His name was Michael Jordan.