Ironically, Thompson would be facing off in Gervin’s old haunt, Detroit. A meager crowd of 3,482—the smallest to see the notoriously crowd-raising Nuggets the entire season—attended to bid adieu to Cobo Hall. Before the game, Thompson’s coach approached.
“I asked David if he wanted to shoot for the [scoring] title,” Brown says. “He said he didn’t care. But then he went out and shot like his life depended on it.”
“David wasn’t going to come out and say he wanted a scoring title,” Issel says. “But we wanted to see if he could get hot and put up a big number.”
Thompson did exactly that. He hit his first eight shots, all jumpers from at least 15 feet. Once he’d hit his groove, teammates started funneling him the ball on alley-oops. In fact, his first miss came on a dunk attempt, when rookie center Ben Poquette stuffed him.
After a high-octane first quarter, Detroit led 36-32. Thompson had set an NBA record for most points in a quarter with 32, shooting 13 of 14 from the field and hitting all six of his free throws.
“I was definitely in the zone,” Thompson says. “Every shot I took, from the second it left my hands, I knew was going in.”
Thompson hit his first seven shots of the second quarter—pushing him to 20 of 21 on the game—and finished the first half with 53 points on 20 of 23 shooting.
Chris Ford, who drew Thompson on defense and was getting torched by his hot hand, remembers one thing about halftime of the game. “We were down 83-69, but it wasn’t just about winning that afternoon. We weren’t going to let David Thompson light us up for 100,” says Ford.
The Pistons stemmed the tide in the third, holding Thompson to six points with triple- and quadruple-teams. The swarming attack not only slowed Thompson but turned the tide of the game, as the Pistons nearly drew even at the end of the third and went on a decisive rally to put the game away to begin the fourth.
Thompson finished with 73 points, which was surpassed by Kobe Bryant’s 81 in ‘06 and ranks fourth all-time. He went 28 of 38 from the floor, 17 of 20 from the line, with seven rebounds and two assists. No other Nugget came closer to Thompson’s output than Issel’s 14 points.
“Make no mistake about it, [David and I] had a rivalry,” Gervin says. “We were both ABA guys, and he was a big-time scorer, like I was. We pushed each other.”
Thompson’s afternoon explosion was the first thing Gervin heard about after waking up from his pregame nap in New Orleans. And after comfortably leading the scoring race for weeks, Gervin now trailed Thompson by 0.3 ppg.
“Hey, if the Nuggets had played after our game, history could have been different,” Gervin recalls. “But there’s no way my teammates were going to let David’s lead stand.”
Gervin nearly reestablished his hold on the title in the first half alone—20 points in the first quarter and a new NBA record of 33 points (breaking Thompson’s hours-old mark) in the second. Ice finished the game 23 of 49 from the floor and 17 of 20 from the line for 59 points.
“We played George tough and had a hand in his face all night long,” Hall of Famer and former Jazz guard Gail Goodrich recalls. “We knew the points he needed to win the title, and we kept him out of his rhythm for a stretch. But he and his teammates were determined.”
Indeed, the Jazz won going away 153-132. For his part, Gervin remembers this game as the most memorable he’s ever played. “It was a special thing between me and my teammates,” Gervin says. “I was excited that my team wanted me to win the scoring title. They weren’t going to let David steal the title away. It says a lot about the relationship we had that they tried so hard to get it for me.”
For two players once separated by hundredths of a point, their epilogues couldn’t read more differently. Gervin would win three more scoring titles—the most ever for a guard until Michael Jordan—and appear in seven more All-Star Games. His 26.2 ppg career scoring average ranks seventh in NBA history.
Thompson’s 73-point game was the last great achievement of his career. After becoming the highest-paid player in league history following that season (his $800,000 contract was nearly $200,000 more than Pete Maravich’s, the previous high), Thompson had only one more All-NBA season and two top 10 scoring finishes. His career was engulfed by substance abuse, and less than six years after his historic 73-point game, a tumble down the stairs of Studio 54 ripped Thompson’s knee and ended his career. But the story has a happy ending: Thompson is now 20 years sober and based in North Carolina—not far from the man who called him his first hero, Michael Jordan—making his living as a motivational speaker.
Thinking back 30 years to the day that his scoring title was stolen away in mere hours, there’s no longer any disappointment. “Coming in second behind George Gervin?” Thompson asks. “There’s no shame in that.”
For his part, Gervin, ever the competitor but one of the more gracious superstars ever to walk the hardwood, knew the value of a good foil: “David pushed me. Without players like him, maybe you relax a little bit. There was no chance for that with Skywalker chasing you.”
Such storied competition landed both warriors in the Basketball Hall of Fame in ’96. Forever heroes to many, finally standing side by side.