Original Old School: Super Fly
SLAM 13: The NBA’s original high-flyer was David Thompson
Need any proof of how great David Thompson was? Just ask Michael Jordan who his favorite player growing up was. His Airness was one of many who looked up to Thompson, who was interviewed about his playing days in SLAM 13. — Ed.
by Quin Godwin
Ten feet. The rim. To guards in the ’60s and early ’70s it might as well’ve been the moon. Unattainable. It was a domain restricted to the giants. A league of Goliaths. Wilt. Lew. Artis. But there was a defiant one. DT. David Thompson. Neil Armstrong in high-tops. #33. Not satisfied in reaching the rim, he gave us a glimpse of basketball’s future. Above the rim.
Before the ’80s and MJ’s “Be Like Mike” advertising blitz, kids wanted to be, tried to be like DT. A 6-3 off guard with Earl Campbell-size thighs, DT was the original high-wire act. An enigma. A guard with explosive dunking power. DT. So unthinkable, they had to put a tape measure to him to verify his alien abilities. Forty-eight inches. Four feet of vertical. The tale of the tape.
In ’75 he became the NBA’s first No. 1 overall pick to opt for the ABA. DT was, in effect, forcing the NBA’s to merge with the “rebel” league. How could the NBA consider itself legit without callin’ the game’s new pioneer, its most exciting new turk, its own? Dilemma. A year later, four teams, including Thompson’s Denver Nuggets, joined the NBA. Coincidence? Yeah, right.
He was the first high-riser with signature kicks. The sole MVP of both an ABA and an NBA All-Star Game. The only NBAer, besides Wilt, to drop more than 70 points (73) in a game. DT, like Doc before and Mike after, changed the game.
SLAM: Was the ABA’s first dunk contest in ’76 a two-man affair – you versus Doc?
DT: Well, Ice [George Gervin], Artis [Gilmore] ‘n’ Larry Kenon were in it too, but I think everyone knew it’d come down to me ‘n’ Julius. I mean, Gervin did a nice windmill dunk but he missed a few, and Artis ’bout tore the rim off…his thing was power. Actually, I think he was trying to make the ball stick to the floor. Still, me and Dr. J were the favorites. But the thing about that dunk contest was that if you had a miss, that was it. There was no margin for error. It was still cool, though. I went next to last. I did a windmill – tappin’ it off the backboard. I did a 360, which no one had seen to that point, so it was real fresh ‘n’ new.
SLAM: Did you think it was over?
DT: Yeah, I thought I’d won. Marvin Barnes [the St. Louis Spirits' eccentric star] and I was a mile high, but then Maurice Lucas, remembering that we were in Denver, said, “No, we’re a mile high. David’s two miles high.”
But the guy I was sweatin’ the whole time was Doc. It was eerie. Julius was just standing at the foul line, staring at the rim. Then, he went to the opposite end of the court, holdin’ the red, white ‘n’ blue ball in his hand like it was a sotball, and he took off runnin’ – his afro blowing in the wind – leapt from the free-throw line ‘n’ stuck it. Game over. It was a risky dunk, though. It’s an easy one to miss. My favorite, however was his “Iron Cross”, where he went left baseline, spread his arms like he was flying and then dunked the ball behind him without looking at the rim. It had more flair to it. The free-throw line jam was nice, but it was just a basic dunk.
SLAM: Didn’t you have a few tricks left in your bag that you didn’t go to?
DT: Yeah. I was going to go to my “Rock the Cradle” dunk, where I cup the ball in the crook of my left elbow, go up over the rim ‘n’ knock it through the rim with my right fist, but it was too big of a risk. I’d done the free-throw line dunk before, too, but I’ve got caught on the front of the rim like in the Grant Hill/Sprite TV commercials. So I left that one to Doc. See, Julius’ hands, which were bigger than Artis’ [who was 7-2], let him extend a lot further – plus he’s 6-7 and can jump out of the gym. So he had an edge.
SLAM: And Doc got $1,000 and a stereo system for winning?
DT: I guess. I got MVP in the All-Star Game, and I got a console TV…a Zenith. It had a record player in it, too. Come to think of it, I should’ve kept it.
SLAM: What do you think of today’s NBA dunk contests?
DT: I’d like to see guys like Mike, Grant Hill and Scottie out there, but I guess they don’t want to get hurt. I understand. But also, with the dunk there’s only so many things you can do. Nothin’ new’s been done lately. Look at Brent Barry. He won it in ’96 with the same dunk Dr. J did 20 years ago.
SLAM: Give it up. When did we start takin’ rulers to a guy’s leaping ability?
DT: It began in ’71. At the time, I was 17. I was at NC State, and the Guinness Book of World Records came callin’. I guess they’d been hearing ’bout me. Anyway, I was tested, and it was 42 inches, a world record. Later I got it up to 48.
SLAM: Were the coins-off-the-backboard stories fact or fiction?
DT: Both. I could get a quarter, but the part about me makin’ change – leaving two dimes and a nickel – it was a rumor.
SLAM: Okay – why, as the No. 1 pick in ’75, did you pass on the NBA?
DT: It was a gunslinger mentality. At the time, all the talent, I felt, was in the ABA. You know – Doc, Ice, James Silas. And I wanted to go against the best. Also, Monte Towe, my best friend at NC State, was with the Nuggets, as were others I knew – Larry Brown, Bobby Jones, [owner] Carl Scheer. So it was a comfort zone, and that’s 50% of the transition to the pros. Plus, I knew an ABA-NBA merger was on the horizon. My contract had an opt out after three years, too. So if I’d wanted to go to the NBA after three, I could’ve.
It worked out great for me and the ABA, after all. The ABA got a lot of attention after getting the NBA’s two top draft picks in me ‘n’ Marvin Webster. And the All-Star game also got a lot of publicity, as did the ABA Finals, with us [the Nuggets] versus Doc ‘n’ the Nets. Doc was at his best, and although we didn’t have a TV contract, HBO picked it up ‘n’ a lot of folks saw it. I think it was the straw that broke the NBA’s back.
SLAM: Ice referred to you as “the Giant Killer.” Was that something you set out to do, dunking on 7-footers?
DT: Yes. No doubt. I used to try ‘n’ catch the big guys up under the basket, napping a little bit – Kareem, Artis. For a guy my size [DT claims 6-3, the NBA Encyclopedia has him at 6-4 1/2, Dennis Johnson swears he's only 6-2.] to serve a facial to a 7-footer, really gets your teammates and the crowd into it. So I liked to do it whenever I could. You had to pick your spots, though. Guys like Jabbar don’t get shot-blockin’ reps for nothing.
SLAM: Didn’t you serve Walton once?
DT: Oh, yeah. I got Bill. I was playin’ forward at the time. I had Bob Gross, who was a defensive specialist, guarding me, but I just gave him an easy fake to the right and a hard one to the left, and it left me a lane straight to the basket. As I went in, Walton was waitin’ at the rim, so I just cupped the ball, ’cause I can’t palm it, and I hook-dunked it over him…shattering the backboard, sending glass flying everywhere. It got all in my hair, ’cause I had a big ‘fro at the time.
SLAM: Speakin’ of ‘fros, who had the biggest, nicest one in the league?
DT: Easy. Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman. Artis had a big one, too. It made him close to 7-8, with the afro, plus he had those crazy mutton chops with it. It was intimidating.
SLAM: Goin’ back to the ABA days. What’s your favorite Marvin Barnes tale?
DT: Just one? Well, one time Marvin missed his flight to Denver, so he chartered a flight, but he still didn’t get to the game ’til halftime. When he walked into the arena, he was wearing a full-length mink coat with his uniform underneath it. He shed his coat, and lit us for 40-plus points in the second half. It was ridiculous.
SLAM: Even after the merger, was there still an ABA vs. NBA thing goin’ on?
DT: You got it. It was us against them. We [ABAers] were on a mission to earn respect. And we did it. Ten of the 24 All-Stars in ’77 were ABA vets, and Dr. J went on to be one of the greatest players in NBA history, if not, THE greatest. Also, the Nuggets won the Midwest Division in our first year in the league. See, we still felt we were getting’ the short end of the stick – not getting a draft pick in the ’76 NBA Draft, not gettin’ the calls in the officiating. One thing we [the Nuggets] did that didn’t help matters, that didn’t sit right with the NBA, was our warming up before games with the red, white ‘n’ blue ABA ball. Larry [Brown] was insistent on us remembering where we came from. ‘Cause I guess guys who were in the ABA in the late ’60s and early ’70s had it tough. It gave us a sense of pride.
SLAM: Fast-forward to April 9, ’78. Who was guarding you on the night you got 73 points vs. Detroit in going after Ice’s scoring title?
DT: Nobody. No, I’m jokin’. There was a lot of guys. M.L. Carr was one… Jim Price, Chris Ford, Al Skinner, a lot of today’s coaches. I guess I sent ‘em into coaching.
Actually, I wasn’t going to play. I’d been going 40 minutes a game for a while; I was dead. But Larry Brown wanted me to get the title, so he told the guys to get me the ball. Often. Guess what? I came out smokin’. I hit 20 of my first 21 shots. I had 32 points at the end of the first quarter, and 53 at the half. The announcer was sayin’ I was on track to top Wilt’s 100 point game, but in the second half I got tired. In hindsight, I guess I should’ve shot more, but 73 is a lot. It’s enough. It’s tiring, especially for a 6-3 two-guard without the three-point shot. I was doin’ it on drives to the basket, three-point plays, alley-oops, dunks. After a while, Detroit’s defenders just started hanging on me.
It was ironic, too, ’cause afterwards M.L. said, “You got it, DT, ain’t no way Ice’ll get 58.” A few hours later Ice comes back with 53 in the first half, too, ending with 63 in the game. I’d broken Wilt’s record for most points in a quarter with 32. It was a short-lived record. Ice had 33 in the second period that night.
SLAM: But still, 73′s a lot. Was it the kicks, the shoes?
DT: You mean the DT’s?
SLAM: Yeah. Wasn’t it the first signature basketball shoe?
DT: I think so. It was made by a company called Superpro out of Baltimore. They had a ‘DT’ basketball shoe and a ‘JC’ [Jimmy Connors] tennis shoe.
SLAM: Would you wear ‘em now?
DT: Nah. No way. Back in the day they didn’t have much cushion. You know, even if you look at the first Air Jordans, they didn’t have much. I bet that’s why guys are playin’ a lot longer now, ’cause of the better equipment. But, the DT’s were a’ight. They were white leather hi-tops with a red and blue stripe ’round the ankle. [Ed's note: Scoop owned a pair.]
SLAM: So if it’s not the shoe’s, what was it?
DT: Legs, baby. In ’75, when I was in Denver, the Nuggets took me to the NFL’s Denver Broncos training facility ‘n’ tested my leg strength against a 390-pound offensive lineman. I won. To this day, while workin’ out with the Hornets – rehabilitating my knee – I test stronger in the legs than LJ, Rice, all the guys on the team.
SLAM: I also heard a rumor that the Nuggets took you to the Air Force’s Academy, in Colorado Springs, to test your vision.
DT: Oh, yeah. I forgot ’bout that. I went ‘n’ had my depth perception tested, which is obviously critical in shooting. Anyhow, it said that I had the highest test result in the history of the academy.
SLAM: Straight. Did you have a chance to be the greatest basketball player ever?
DT: I think so.
SLAM: How did it all take a U-turn in the late ’70s-early ’80s?
DT: It’s like this. In the ’70s, we were socializing too much. A lot of guys were goin’ to the clubs, doin’ cocaine. We didn’t realize the dangers of drug ‘n’ alcohol abuse. It was before celebrities began dyin’ from it. Len Bias. John Belushi. It was a misconception that cocaine was the elite drug. The rich man’s drug. It was thought to be safe, nonaddictive ‘n’ undetectable if used in the right amounts. No one had an inkling of an idea as to how cunning, how powerful it’s addiction is.
It wasn’t just a DT thing. It was an NBA thing. John Lucas. Ice. Walter Davis. A lot of guys were battlin’ drug or alcohol abuse. I think it’s now seen for what it is – an epidemic. See, coming from Shelby, NC (pop 15,310), I’d never seen marijuana, cocaine or anything like it until I got in the pros. I was a 20-year old millionaire. I felt I was invincible. I was wrong. Richard Pryor said it best, he said, “Man, I’ve been using cocaine for 20 years ‘n’ I ain’t hooked.” Once your in its grasp, it’s a hard thing to overcome. But now, thank God, I’m at eight years of sobriety. Thank God.