David Thompson (basketball)

David Thompson
No. 33, 44
Small forward / Shooting guard
Personal information
Date of birth July 13, 1954 (1954-07-13) (age 57)
Place of birth Shelby, North Carolina
Nationality American
High school Crest
Listed height 6 ft 4 in (1.93 m)
Listed weight 195 lb (88 kg)
Career information
College North Carolina State (1971–1975)
NBA Draft 1975 / Round: 1 / Pick: 1st overall
Selected by the Atlanta Hawks
Pro career 1975–1984
Career history
1975–1982 Denver Nuggets (ABA and NBA)
19821984 Seattle SuperSonics
Career highlights and awards
Career NBA statistics
Points 13,422 (22.7 ppg)
Rebounds 2,446 (4.1 rpg)
Assists 1,939 (3.3 apg)
Stats at NBA.com
Stats at Basketball-Reference.com
Basketball Hall of Fame as player

David O'Neil Thompson (born July 13, 1954) is a former American professional basketball star with the Denver Nuggets of both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA), as well as the Seattle SuperSonics. He was previously a star in college for North Carolina State, leading the Wolfpack to its first NCAA championship in 1974.


High school career

Thompson attended Crest Senior High School and he played for the school's Varsity Basketball team for four years. Thompson is a first cousin of Alvin Gentry, both growing up in Shelby, North Carolina.

College career

After leading North Carolina State University to an undefeated season (27-0) in 1973, he led them to an NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship in 1974, defeating the reigning national champions, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins. His nickname was "Skywalker" because of his incredible purported 48-inch vertical leap.[citation needed] The alley-oop pass, now a staple of today's high-flying, above-the-rim game, was "invented" by Thompson and his NC State teammate Monte Towe, and first used as an integral part of the offense by NC State coach Norm Sloan to take advantage of Thompson's leaping ability.

NC State's game against the nationally 4th-ranked University of Maryland Terrapins in the 1974 ACC Tournament finale, in an era in which only conference champions were invited to the NCAA Tournament, is considered one of the best college basketball games of all time. Thompson and teammate Tommy Burleson led the #1-ranked Wolfpack to a 103-100 win in overtime. Thompson and the Wolfpack would go on to win the national championship that year while Maryland sat at home. Maryland's exclusion from the NCAA Tournament due to the loss, despite their high national ranking, would lead to the expansion of the NCAA Tournament the very next season to include teams other than the league champions.

Thompson is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference, among such talents as Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Tim Duncan, Christian Laettner, and Len Bias.

Thompson played basketball while the slam dunk was outlawed by the "Lew Alcindor" rule. In 1975, playing his final non-conference game at NC State against UNC-Charlotte, early in the second half Thompson drove the length of the court for his first and only dunk of his collegiate career, a goal that was promptly disallowed by technical foul. Head coach Norm Sloan removed Thompson to thunderous applause. The ACC's most exciting player, who had performed for three years without ever performing the game's most exciting act, thus passed into history.

Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, said that Thompson was his basketball role model as a young man. At some of the basketball camps that Jordan later ran, Jordan would often tell the campers, "He was the guy I looked up to when I was your age." For this reason, Thompson was asked by Jordan in 2009 to introduce him to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Thompson's 44 remains the only number NC State ever retired in men's basketball (although others have been "honored").

Season Points/G Rebounds/G FG %
1972-73 24.7 8.1 .569
1973-74 26.0 7.9 .547
1974-75 29.9 8.2 .546

Professional career

Thompson was the No. 1 draft pick of both the American Basketball Association (Virginia Squires) and the National Basketball Association (Atlanta Hawks in the 1975 drafts of both leagues. He eventually signed with the ABA's Denver Nuggets. Explaining his choice between the establishment NBA and the ABA — which offered less real money (but more "deferred" over the life of the contract) -- Thompson said when he met with the Hawks, the organization had seemed almost uninterested, to the point of treating him to a meal at McDonald's. Thompson also told the Denver Nuggets he wanted his friend and point guard at N.C. State Monte Towe to have a chance to play in the NBA, and Denver signed Towe to a 2 year contract.

Thompson and Julius Erving were the finalists in the first ever Slam-Dunk Competition, held at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. The competition organizers had arranged the seedings to assure a final round pairing these two dynamic players. Erving won with the first ever foul-line dunk, to this day the standard for leaping and dunking prowess. Thompson, inexplicably, performed even more difficult dunks in warmups, but not in the competition itself—including a dunk called the "cradle the baby" whereby he cradled the ball in the crook of his arm, raised it above the rim, and punched it through. (See Loose Balls by Terry Pluto) Thompson won the MVP of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, and as a prize, he received a credenza television set.

After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Thompson continued with the Nuggets through the 1981-82 season, after which he joined the Seattle SuperSonics.

Thompson made the NBA All-Star Game four seasons, and reached his peak in 1978 season. On April 9, 1978, the last day of the regular NBA season, Thompson scored 73 points against the Detroit Pistons in an effort to win the NBA scoring title (he barely lost the scoring title to San Antonio's George Gervin, who scored 63 points in a game played later that same day). He also led the Denver Nuggets to the NBA playoffs, but they lost to the eventual Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics.

After the 1978 season, Thompson signed a record-breaking contract for $4 million over five-years. That amount was more than any basketball player ever had previously been paid. However, from that point, injuries and persistent problems with substance abuse would trouble Thompson and to the significant detriment of the remainder of his NBA career, which came to an end after the 1983-84 season. He severely injured his knee getting "flanged" down the steps of the notorious Studio 54, epicenter of the New York party scene and antithesis of his humble beginnings. He did attempt a comeback in 1985, but it was unsuccessful.

Life after the NBA

Following his NBA career, Thompson continued a downward spiral with drugs and alcohol. With encouragement from a pastor, he became a committed Christian and put his life back in order. Thompson now devotes his time to working with young basketball players, helping them to aspire to his achievements and avoid his mistakes. His autobiography, Skywalker, charts the highs and lows of his eventful life.

Thompson was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player on May 6, 1996.

Thompson eventually returned to school at North Carolina State, and in 2003 nearly 30 years after his last game for the Wolfpack he finished his degree in sociology. In 2004 David helped make a movie about his life called "Skywalker". Much of the movie was filmed at the Boys and Girls Club in Gastonia, NC with the assistance of Scott Jimison, a long time friend of David.

On September 7, 2009, It was announced that Michael Jordan had chosen Thompson to introduce him for his Basketball Hall of Fame induction.[1]

Professional statistics

Thompson's first professional year (1975–1976) was spent in the ABA. The rest of his career he played in the NBA due to the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.

1975–76 Denver (ABA) 26.0 6.3 3.7 1.6 1.2 .515
1976–77 Denver 25.9 4.1 4.1 1.4 0.6 .507
1977–78 Denver 27.2 4.9 4.5 1.2 1.2 .521
1978–79 Denver 24.0 3.6 3.0 0.9 1.1 .512
1979–80 Denver 21.5 4.5 3.2 1.0 1.0 .468
1980–81 Denver 25.5 3.7 3.0 0.7 0.8 .506
1981–82 Denver 14.9 2.4 1.9 0.6 0.5 .486
1982–83 Seattle 15.9 3.6 3.0 0.6 0.4 .481
1983–84 Seattle 12.6 2.3 0.7 0.5 0.7 .539

NBA career highs

40 point games

Thompson scored 40 or more points 17 times in the regular season and once in the playoffs.

Occurred in playoff competition
Points Opponent Home/Away Date FGM FGA FTM FTA
73 Detroit Pistons Away 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978 28 38 17 20
44 San Antonio Spurs Home 01977-03-23 March 23, 1977 18 30 8
44 Philadelphia 76ers Away 01979-04-08 April 8, 1979 18 26 8
44 Cleveland Cavaliers Home 01981-03-01 March 1, 1981 18 28 8
43 (OT) Seattle SuperSonics Away 01978-02-10 February 10, 1978 18 29 7
43 Seattle SuperSonics Home 01980-11-01 November 1, 1980 17 9
43 (OT) Los Angeles Lakers Away 01981-03-29 March 29, 1981 17 27 9 11
42 Indiana Pacers Home 01977-11-26 November 26, 1977 13 16 17
42 New Orleans Jazz Away 01978-03-26 March 26, 1978 18 26 6
41 Houston Rockets Away 01978-01-12 January 12, 1978 17 7
41 New York Knicks Away 01978-01-31 January 31, 1978 14 22 13 14
41 San Antonio Spurs Away 01982-01-02 January 2, 1982 13 15
40 Portland Trail Blazers Away 01977-02-08 February 8, 1977 17 6
40 (2 OT) Philadelphia 76ers Away 01977-03-09 March 9, 1977 14 12
40 New Orleans Jazz Away 01977-04-10 April 10, 1977 10 20 22
40 (OT) New Jersey Nets Away 01978-03-17 March 17, 1978 18 29 4 5
40 Phoenix Suns Away 01980-11-23 November 23, 1980 15 10
40 unknown unknown

Regular season

Stat High Opponent Date
Points 73 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Points, half (1st) 53 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Points, quarter (1st) 32 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Field goal percentage
Field goal percentage, half (1st) 20—23 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Field goal percentage, quarter (1st) 13—14 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Field goals made 28 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Field goal attempts 38 at Detroit Pistons 01978-04-09 April 9, 1978
Free throws made, none missed 16—16 vs. Portland Trail Blazers 01978-02-17 February 17, 1978
Free throws made, one missed 18—19 at Philadelphia 76ers 01981-03-06 March 6, 1981
Free throws made 20 at New Orleans Jazz 01977-04-10 April 10, 1977
Free throw attempts 22 at New Orleans Jazz 01977-04-10 April 10, 1977
Rebounds 11
Offensive rebounds
Defensive rebounds
Assists 12
Blocked shots
Minutes played


Stat High Opponent Date
Points 40
Field goal percentage
Field goals made 16
Field goal attempts 30
Free throws made, none missed
Free throws made, one missed
Free throws made 12
Free throw attempts 14
Rebounds 8
Offensive rebounds
Defensive rebounds
Assists 7
Blocked shots
Minutes played

College highlights

  • Three-year letter winner (1973–1975)
  • The Sporting News national Player of the Year (1975)
  • USBWA College Player of the Year (1975)
  • Consensus First-Team All-America (1973, 1974, 1975) by Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Eastman Kodak, The Sporting News
  • AP National Player of the Year (1974, 1975)
  • UPI Player of the Year (1975)
  • Eastman Kodak Award (1975)
  • Naismith Award (1975)
  • Adolph Rupp Trophy (1975)
  • Coach & Athlete Magazine Player of the Year (1975)
  • Helms Foundation Player of the Year (1974, 1975)
  • National Association of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year (1975)
  • United States Basketball Writers Association Player of the Year (1975)
  • Dunlop Player of the Year (1975)
  • Sullivan Award finalist (1974, 1975)
  • Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Player of the Year (1973, 1974, 1975)
  • ACC Athlete of the Year (1973, 1975)
  • All-ACC First Team (1973, 1974, 1975)
  • North Carolina State retired his jersey number 44 (1975)
  • Led North Carolina State to the 1974 NCAA championship (30-1 record), 76-64 over Marquette University
  • In national semi-final win over UCLA, scored 28 points
  • In championship game, scored 21 points against Marquette
  • Most Valuable Player (MVP), NCAA Tournament (1974)
  • Led Wolfpack to a 79-7 record during his final three season (freshmen were ineligible then) including 57-1 during his sophomore and junior seasons (27-0, 30-1), the best in ACC history. His senior year record was 22-6.
  • Scored 2,309 points (26.8 ppg) in 86 varsity games; including highs of 57 points as a senior, 41 as a junior and 40 as a sophomore
  • Averaged 35.6 ppg, including a 54-point high on the North Carolina State freshman team
  • Grabbed 694 rebounds (8.1 rpg) in 86 games
  • World University Games MVP (1973)
  • Enshrined in North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (1982)
  • NCAA All-Decade Team of the 1970s
  • Named to the ACC 50th Anniversary men's basketball team as one of the fifty greatest players in ACC history

ABA/NBA highlights

  • The Sporting News ABA Rookie of the Year (1976)
  • ABA Rookie of the Year (1976)
  • All-ABA (1976)
  • MVP, 1976 ABA All-Star Game
  • Competed in first ever slam dunk contest during half time of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, eventually taking second to Julius Erving
  • All-NBA First Team (1977, 1978)
  • Four-time NBA All-Star
  • MVP, 1979 NBA All-Star Game
  • Only player in history named MVP of both the ABA and NBA All-Star Games
  • Scored a career-high 73 points against Detroit (April 9, 1978)
  • One of only 20 NBA players to have scored 60 or more points in a game.
  • Scored a then-NBA record 32 points in the second quarter against Detroit Pistons, a record that was broken by George Gervin (33 against New Orleans Jazz on the same day ) when Gervin won the 1978 scoring title with a 63-point output
  • The Nuggets retired his jersey number 33 (Nov. 2, 1992)
  • Colorado Professional Athlete of the Year (1977)
  • Scored 2,158 points (26.0 ppg) in the ABA
  • Scored 11,264 points (22.1 ppg) in the NBA
  • Atlanta's first pick in the 1975 NBA draft (and first pick overall)
  • Virginia's first pick in the 1975 ABA draft

See also

  • List of National Basketball Association players with most points in a game


External links

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Freddie Lewis
American Basketball Association All Star Game Most Valuable Player
Succeeded by
ABA-NBA merger
Preceded by
Marvin Barnes
American Basketball Association Rookie of the Year
Succeeded by
ABA-NBA merger

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