SAN FRANCISCO -- His shooting stroke was soft, almost poetic, gleaned from bloodlines steeped in basketball. He spent his adolescence in Southern California, with sandy beaches in one direction and the bright lights of Hollywood in the other.
These concerns, and anxieties typical of the recruiting trail, led to more than a few nervous folks at Washington State University in 2008. They were reaching high and not at all certain of making the grab.
Could they really persuade Klay Thompson to come to Pullman?
Would the teenage son of three-time NBA champion Mychal Thompson leave the comforts of SoCal for the southeastern Washington city, where winters are harsh, there is no beach and one could drive for miles without seeing humanity or even a home?
Two years later, Thompson not only was a Cougar but also had a key to the gym.
“That’s all I needed,” he said earlier this week.
Thompson returned to Pullman on Friday for a special event: His Washington State basketball jersey, No. 1, is being retired and will go into the rafters of Beasley Coliseum during halftime of the WSU-Oregon State game Saturday afternoon
"I'm really excited,” Thompson said Tuesday night. “I haven't been back in about five years. So, to go back and see the people I really grew up with, and the community that really embraced me. It's very nostalgic and it's just really cool, because [a jersey retirement[ was a dream of mine leaving Pullman. I didn't think it would ever come true. And it did, so it's exciting."
Thompson is a three-time NBA champion and a five-time All-Star with the Warriors. He won an Olympic gold medal at the Rio Games in 2016. The 6-foot-7 guard has established himself as one of the greatest pure shooters in basketball history.
Yet so much of his path to the top required what Thompson, who grew up in greater Portland, Ore. and at age 14 moved to Southern California, believes were a crucial three years at the most remote major college on the West Coast.
“There’s not much out there, besides wheat fields and some snow at times,” Thompson recalled.
“But it’s a beautiful place to be able to focus and make relationships that will last a lifetime,” he added. “And it allowed me to blossom into the person I am today.”
In three seasons as a starter at Thompson played 98 games, averaging 17.9 points per contest. By the time he left after his junior year, he had scored 1,756 points (third in school history) and drilled what then was a school-record 242 3-pointers.
He also experienced one of the most regrettable moments of his life. In March 2011, fewer than three months before the Warriors would draft him in the first round, No. 11 overall, Thompson was arrested for possession of marijuana. Then-WSU coach Ken Bone, having already set a precedent earlier that season, suspended Thompson for one game.
The final regular-season game, against UCLA, five days before the conference tournament.
Though Klay had gotten an earful from his father, he might not have needed it. He felt bad enough being forced to the sideline for a game that could influence WSU’s chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
So, before tipoff of the Cougars-Bruins game at Beasley, Thompson sought and was granted permission to address his teammates and the crowd.
“I made a mistake,” Thompson said then. “I had bad judgment, and I would do anything to be out there today.”
There was no doubt Thompson’s contrition was genuine. The man loves to play basketball. He loved being with his teammates. Loved making a difference at a place he knew nothing of only a few years earlier.
Spending his childhood in Oregon and SoCal, it was natural to want to play in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) Conference. It’s the league Thompson followed closest and knew best.
UCLA and USC didn’t call. Neither did the Arizona schools or the Oregon schools. Nine schools searched elsewhere for talent. When then-WSU coach Tony Bennett, fingers crossed, extended an invitation, Klay accepted and made the recruiting trip.
A few weeks later, he bought in.
“I really believed in Tony Bennett,” Thompson recalled. “I believed in his program. I believed he could get me to the NBA with his tutelage. And I was inspired by seeing what that team did for that school and that city. They really brought a lot of pride to a community that seems to be in a very remote place. They embrace the Cougs like none other because that’s all that’s really out there in Eastern Washington is Cougar pride and the Palouse.
“That’s what drew me, especially coming from Southern California. It’s nice to get away from the grid and the city.”
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Nearly 12 years after choosing Washington State, Thompson has no regrets. Why would he? Yes, there was, for a fleeting moment, a glimpse of a mistake he thought could jeopardize his wish to reach the NBA.
But Thompson survived the frigid winters. He drew tranquility from the barren landscape. He found many new friends. He experienced a lifestyle he’d never known and was better for it.
“If I could go back and do it again,” he said, “I’d choose Pullman again every day of the week.”