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NCAA forgot about a legend with its 75th anniversary team

Apr 5, 2013, 3:58 PM EDT

Courtesy NC State Athletics Communications Courtesy NC State Athletics Communications

ATLANTA — So the NCAA quietly released their “All-Time March Madness Players” on Friday. I don’t think they meant to release it quietly, but that’s the NCAA for you. When it comes to embarrassing a player for collecting an unwarranted fries and Coke, they can make a whole lot of noise. When it comes to announcing something cool like an all-time NCAA Tournament team, they can’t get anyone to pay attention.

In any case, I’m going to list the 15 players below in alphabetical order. I believe there’s an obvious omission. See if you can spot the player I’m thinking about:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at UCLA)

Larry Bird, Indiana State

Bill Bradley, Princeton

Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

Grant Hill, Duke

Magic Johnson, Michigan State

Michael Jordan, North Carolina

Christian Laettner, Duke

Jerry Lucas, Ohio State

Danny Manning, Kansas

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati

Bill Russell, San Francisco

Bill Walton, UCLA

Jerry West, West Virginia

Now, remember, this is only supposed to be for players during the NCAA Tournament. Do you see the missing player? Heck you probably see a bunch of missing players … but there’s one I think rises above.

Before I get into that, let’s talk for a moment about Michael Jordan. I believe that he’s the greatest basketball player in the history of the game — I see good arguments for Wilt and Magic and Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and I think LeBron James, if he maintains this level for a while longer, will have a powerful argument too. I still think Jordan’s the best.

With that said … what in the heck is he doing on THIS list? Yes, Jordan at North Carolina made the jump shot that ended up as the difference against Georgetown in the 1982 championship game (though you will remember that Georgetown had the ball with a chance to win and Fred Brown threw the pass away). But Jordan was a freshman then and was probably the third best player on that team behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. He averaged 13 points a game during that tournament. Not exactly legendary stuff.

The next year, North Carolina was shocked by Georgia in the regional final — Jordan did score 26 in the loss on 11-of-23 shooting, but he also fouled out of the game.

The next year, North Carolina was REALLY shocked by Indiana in the regional semifinal — that was the game when Dan Dakich famously got in Jordan’s grill, spooked him somehow, and Jordan scored just 13 on six-of-14 shooting.

I”m sorry, am I missing it? How in the heck does this get Michael Jordan on the all-time tournament team?

It gets him on the team because he’s Michael Jordan … and people get lazy about their history. Jordan was a superb college basketball player — he won the Wooden Award his junior year. But he wasn’t a legendary one. Remember, he WAS the third pick in that NBA Draft. The legendary stuff came later, as a pro in Chicago. When the ACC named Jordan the best conference’s best player over the last 50 years, real ACC aficionados shook their head in dismay. It was a ridiculous choice. And now, when the NCAA makes a list of the best tournament players and includes Jordan, well, it’s the same thing all over again.

The worst part is, the player who is forgotten is the player Michael Jordan himself idolized.

* * *

When it comes to being remembered and celebrated, David Thompson pretty much had everything stacked against him. He was in the last class of players to be ineligible as freshmen — so he lost a year when he might have already been the best player in the country. He also lost one postseason when his N.C. State team was declared ineligible  … this because of some remarkably petty rules violations involving the Thompson recruitment.*

*Thompson was so heavily recruited, he actually put TWO schools on probation — N.C. State and Duke. There were always rumors that he received a boatload of money and cars and everything else — maybe he did. But the ACTUAL violations at N.C. State were so minor, you almost can’t believe they stuck — the violations included housing during a basketball camp (Thompson, apparently, slept on the floor) and playing in pickup games with an assistant coach. The ACTUAL Duke violation was a sport coat given to him for graduation.

Perhaps more than anything, Thompson played his three college years when the NCAA made the dunk illegal. There is no telling how many classic David Thompson dunks were lost to time. Thompson had a 44-inch vertical jump. They would say about him that he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and replace it with two dimes and a nickel. He was probably the greatest dunker on earth — in the ABA he was one half of a legendary dunk contest against Julius Erving. Dr. J eventually won with his now-famous jump-from-the-foul-line dunk, but many people who watched them both all night would say that Thompson’s dunks were superior and had he not missed one of them, he would have won the contest.

In any case, he had only one dunk in college. We’ll get back to that one.

Thompson was more than a dunker, though. He was an unstoppable scoring machine. He was a defensive force of nature. His sophomore year, his N.C. State team went 27-0, and Thompson averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and he made 57% of his shots. They might have been the best team in America. They did not get to go to the NCAA Tournament to prove it — and UCLA won its seventh consecutive national championship.

The next year, N.C. State played UCLA in the regular season — and got destroyed by 18. Thompson was overwhelmed by the moment. But this time, they were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. And Thompson had a tournament for the ages.

In the regional semifinal against Bad News Marvin Barnes and Providence, Thompson scored 40 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, played all 40 minutes and led N.C. State to a 92-78 victory.

Two days later, the Wolfpack played Pittsburgh. When Louisville’s Kevin Ware had that horrible injury against Duke over the weekend, many people remembered the terrible Joe Theisman injury because they were both so horrible to watch. But a much more apt comparison was David Thompson against Pittsburgh. He had taken a shot and felt like he was fouled. When there was no call, he grew angry and chased down a Pittsburgh player to block his shot.

He took off — he would often say he never jumped higher. Thompson’s leg connected with the shoulder of a teammate Phil Spence, and he crashed to the floor. There was blood everywhere. He was knocked unconscious. As the Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff — who was there as a young N.C. State fan that day — would say: “Everybody thought he was dead.” He was taken off the court on a stretcher. He needed 15 stitches.

One week later, in the national semifinal game, David Thompson was back to play against UCLA. He scored 28 points. He grabbed 10 rebounds. But perhaps what people remember more than anything was that that twice — TWICE — he blocked Bill Walton’s shots. And N.C. State beat UCLA in double overtime — the first time UCLA had lost a tournament game in eight years.

Thompson completed the miracle by scoring 21 in the final as N.C. State beat Marquette for the national title.

It is beyond my understanding how that remarkable series of games could not land David Thompson on the All-Time Tournament team. He dominated the game. He came back from an impossibly gruesome injury. He ended a dynasty. He won a championship. Nobody in the history of the NCAA Tournament has ever done anything like it.

But … David Thompson wrecked his life after he left N.C. State. He averaged 30 points a game his senior year and won the Naismith Award. In his last game, he found himself open on a breakaway and he threw down a ferocious dunk. It meant a technical foul, but Thompson didn’t care. It was the right way to end the career. He didn’t know then that, in many ways, he really was ending a career.

Thompson was the first pick in the NBA Draft and the ABA Draft. And, he really was a dominant pro basketball player his first four seasons — he averaged 25.8 points a game, wowed many with his fabulous dunks and amazing blocked shots, and might have been the best player in the league in the 1977-1978 season. He signed a massive contract (well, massive for the time). But he had a serious drug problem that was getting worse every year. He could not handle his fame. He rather famously fell down the steps one night at Studio 54, badly hurting his knee. He tried to come back. He was not able to make it back. His life descended even further into a drug-addled hell.

In time, David Thompson found some balance in his life. He found faith. He reached out to help kids so that they would not make the same mistakes he made. I went to a couple of his sessions with kids. He would start by saying:

“How many of you have heard of me?”

Only a handful of kids would raise their hands, and those — I thought — out of kindness.

“OK. Now, how many of you have heard of Michael Jordan.”

Every hand in the place would shoot up.

“Well,” he would say (with a little sadness in his voice, I thought) “I was Michael Jordan’s hero.”

In so many ways, David Thompson’s basketball career was a story of what might have been. But, that doesn’t nullify what he did. He has a real argument as the greatest college basketball player ever. And, if they are going to make lists like these, they shouldn’t put the best names. They should put the right players. David Thompson should remembered.

Look at the list again: Jerry West was once a Final Four MVP even though his team lost. Oscar Robertson was an amazing player who put up amazing numbers but could never quite lead his team into the national championship game. Michael Jordan hit an NCAA Tournament game-winning shot. Larry Bird played in one NCAA Tournament and was amazing, but in the championship game he shot 7 for 21 and his team lost. These players and other are on the NCAA list not because of their NCAA tournament heroics but because, years later, in the NBA, they became legends.

David Thompson squandered his years later. But by then he was already a legend. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

  1. Sideline Mob - Apr 5, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    Fantastic piece on David Thompson, Joe. Nothing more to say than that – great work, strong opinion. Thanks for putting it out there for us to read.

  2. mogogo1 - Apr 5, 2013 at 6:24 PM

    Great article. David Thompson was awesome. I have the feeling that number of jerseys sold was the primary factor in Jordan making this list.

    Another name that I’ll throw out for consideration: Glen Rice had an amazing tournament when he carried Michigan to the title. It still stands out in my mind as one of the most dominant runs I can remember in the tourney. He not only won Most Outstanding Player but he still holds the record for most points scored in a single tourney. Granted, he didn’t win multiple titles, but I see a fair number of other guys on this list whose glory was primarily in a single tournament.

  3. jpopejoy - Apr 5, 2013 at 6:55 PM

    Seems a handful of this list are bc of what they did as pros. Glenn Rice, Isaiah Thomas, and even Scott May should be considered.

    Great article tho.

  4. tomtravis76 - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    Juan Dixon had a pretty good ncaa tourney run. 4 appearances, a sweet sixteen, a rd of 32, 2 final fours and one national championship.

  5. jpopejoy - Apr 5, 2013 at 11:28 PM

    Btw Juan Dixon took over that 2002 title game the last 10 min and ripped my heart out.

    Side note, just remembered Hakeem shouldn’t be on their either…he got gassed and choked vs nc st in the title game (as was well documented in the Survive and Advance)

  6. kingghidora - Apr 6, 2013 at 8:22 AM

    Well what do you know. Someone noticed a ridiculously glaring error on that whole 75 years BS. Now let’s talk about how not one UK player got mentioned. Patrick Ewing? Are they serious? Did they ever hear of Dan Issel? You remember Dan. He scored almost 28,000 points as a pro retiring as the 4th highest scorer in pro history. He didn’t make the NBA 50 best at 50 team either. But it wasn’t just Dan. Let’s talk Frank Ramsey. Three time All American, national title, leading role on Boston’s dynasty team. Not on this stupid list. And since they ignored the mountain of evidence that UCLA cheated like mad let’s allow UK’s lonely cheater, Ralph Beard. 3 time All American, 2 time national champion but really 3 time national champion because they won the NIT his sophomore year which was considered the national championship tournament at the time AND won an Olympic Gold Medal as part of UK’s team that combined with an industrial league team with Rupp as coach. So in 3 years it was 3 titles and Olympic Gold. Show me anyone that has done more in college. But forget all those old teams (the NCAA certainly did). Let’s talk about Wayne Turner. He was a big part of 2 national champion teams AND a national title game that went to overtime. He was one point away from a 3-peat. And let’s not forget Derek Anderson was injured at the time they lost that 1997 title game. He was a fantastic player and certainly could have made the difference. Dan Issel – not on the list. Anthony Davis – won a title, set a record for blocked shots – why Ewing and not Davis? Same number of titles but AD is a MUCH better player.

    I’m sick to death of the NCAA and the media short changing the best team in college basketball. You slobber all over UCLA and totally ignore the fact they bought their teams. Sam Gilbert. Look it up. You never mention the North Carolina fake classes. NEVER. Yet you list their players as great, great, great. Have you noticed UK has more titles? How is it UNC has so many players on that list and UK has NONE??????????

    That sucks. The NCAA sucks. Where are the sanctions against UNC? Where are the vacated titles? They won 2 while cheating like crazy.

    You people constantly try to steal the glory of this game. You always fail. You create lots of propaganda and lots of brain dead robots but you fail to actually change the facts. And the facts are UK owns the sport big time. They have more titles, more wins, better players, etc. than ANY other team that didn’t get their players by buying them and then bragging about it. Ask any UCLA player and they will tell you straight out they were paid. Where are their vacated titles?

    Corruption rules college sports. And the media carries the water of the cheaters. That makes you scum.

  7. coachga2 - Apr 6, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Without David Thompson, this list is not good enough to be called a piece of horse manure. Anyone who left him off is an idiotic fool. He was awesome in the NCAA tournament, and his team won the championship. They beat the UCLA team with Walton, who’s on the stupid list.

    The people who selected this list are a disgrace to their pathetic excuse for a profession. And I agree that no Kentucky players on the list makes it even worse.

  8. 6stn - Apr 6, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Thompson, Bradley, Robertson, Lucas and Alcindor were named a few years ago as an all-time collegiate starting five by Sports Illustrated, Tough to argue with that lineup. Austin Carr is another tourney great omitted from this list. Tom Gola, too. I’d add Jack Givens, of Kentucky, also.

  9. raysfan1 - Apr 7, 2013 at 12:29 AM

    Don’t see how Elvin Hayes got left out either, especially with his performance in leading Houston over Jabbar/Alcindor’s UCLA.

  10. 6stn - Apr 7, 2013 at 2:33 AM

    That was a regular-season game. UCLA routed Houston in the 1968 National Semi-Finals.

  11. 6stn - Apr 7, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    But, aside from that 101-69 loss, Houston did make it to the tourney in all three of Hayes’ varsity seasons, and he averaged over thirty points-per-game. Yeah, he deserves a mention on this mythical team.

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