As David Thompson joins the inaugural class in N.C. States Hall of Fame on Friday, almost 39 years after his sky-walking ways led the Wolfpack to a national championship, the basketball star from Shelby still rises far, far above his peers.
He changed the way the game was played, taking it off the floor and above the rim, a phrase coined to describe Thompsons game. Despite his relatively diminutive stature, he created the modern small forward or 3 position, a player equally comfortable inside or outside, the prototype for the game Michael Jordan, who idolized Thompson, would one day play.
And yet theres an entire generation of basketball fans and players who never saw Thompson play. His greatest exploits, in college and the 1976 American Basketball Association dunk contest with Julius Erving, predated the saturation TV coverage basketball gets today. And his NBA career fizzled because of injuries and drug abuse just as that league was beginning its climb to transcendent popularity.
Its obviously a great honor, going in the first (Hall of Fame) class, Thompson said. There will never be another first class. When you look upon all the greats in the history of N.C. State, there are a lot of people I respect and admire.
Its an affirmation of just how good Thompson was, that his name and legacy still resonate in these words, from those who knew him best and those who admired him from afar.
How would you describe Thompsons game to someone who never saw him play?
I dont know if they could understand it. You almost had to experience being in the league with him, being on the team with him, watching him dominate people the things he did, not just during the season, but the pickup games in Carmichael Gym. He was just truly in a class by himself. Monte Towe
If you saw him when he was 20 years old, youd be absolutely amazed at what he could do. His jumping ability was so phenomenal, but he developed his whole game. The Skywalker nickname wasnt just it. He was a defensive player. He shot the ball from outside. He could put it on the floor. He was our go-to guy, no question about that. He had all the confidence in the world out there in crunch time: Get me the ball. And hed do it for us. Tim Stoddard
Of course there was his jumping ability. But his jump shot was the biggest thing. He was a great jump-shooter. Thats what he did most of the time. I know you had the alley-oop passes and all that, but he was a great, great jump-shooter. Charlie Scott
He did it without any fanfare. He just got the ball and went to work and you went aah, ooh, wow. There wasnt any drum roll or cymbals. He had a classy way of pulling your heart out while it was still beating. You admired him so, but there wasnt much you could do about it. Bucky Waters
How important was Thompson to winning the 1974 national championship?
It was six against five. DT counted as two. Phil Spence
Winning meant everything to him. It just so happened that winning sometimes meant he had to score 40 points. Towe
From Day One, from the time we got together with him, I dont think there was ever a time when we didnt think we were going to win. It was going to be a battle. At some point, you were going to have to find a way to beat us. Stoddard
When they beat UCLA, it was a time when UCLA really thought of being unbeatable. I would think that his ability at that time, what N.C. State did, was really one of the great things of that time. He was the central point of that story. Scott
Honestly, we had a great team: 30-1, national champions. It helped that I was a leader and key player on that team, ACC Player of the Year, national player of the year. You still see clips from that team, like my block of Bill Walton. Thompson
Did anyone realize at the time Thompson was changing the game to the extent that he did?
He was the original high-flyer. Now theres guys who are a little bit bigger, get a little bit higher. Taking the dunk out of basketball, not getting to watch David Thompson dunk a basketball, was one of the biggest tragedies ever in college basketball. Towe
I thought I was a pretty good dunker. DT, he put all that stuff to shame. He sure did. Spence
Growing up on Long Island, our crew of guys playing ball at the park would always try to imitate certain people. None of us could imitate David Thompson. He was doing things I dont think any of us ever recalled seeing before. Matt Doherty
He kept (the ABA) alive. We went from 11 teams to seven and we were about to go under. It was the great play of Julius (Erving) and David and (Dan) Issel and Artis Gilmore. We had great players, and if we could just stay alive past the (1976) All-Star Game, we could get a merger going. We just needed to keep our great players out front. Thompson was very important to the NBAs ultimate decision to take four teams. Carl Scheer
I definitely see a lot of his game nowadays watching basketball. The evolution of the small-forward position, not only being able to knock it down from outside but to get the basketball and finish above the rim, he definitely was a pioneer in basketball in starting all that. Julius Hodge
Me and Julius (Erving), we really brought the high-flying into the game at the 1976 All-Star Game. The 360s, the windmills, the tomahawks, all the things guys are doing now, those are all things we started. Youre seeing guys still doing that today, spectacular players. We started the alley-oop, way back in the 70s. Thompson
Is it possible for fans and players today to truly appreciate how good Thompson was?
He was just one of a kind. Its like a piece of art. People who watched him play, theyll never see another one like him. Towe
I think its something that takes time, for the young players to truly appreciate what Mr. Thompson was able to bring to N.C. State. Even for me, my first year, I maybe wasnt as enlightened as I am now. As time grew, I definitely became in tune with the legend. Even now, we just had an alumni dinner a couple weeks ago. When I saw him, I saw still just a little kid who wanted to ask for his autograph and take a picture with him. Hodge
Sometimes, you talk about guys who played in the 70s or earlier who may have been great players, but their games wouldnt be relevant, as relevant, today. I do believe David Thompson would be relevant today. You could take the same David Thompson, freeze him from 1974, drop him into 2012, I still think hed be a great player. Doherty
Whether you were watching, coaching or sitting at home, you were on the edge of your seat. You were going to see something you never saw before. Waters
Its amazing. Even though the kids are really young now, they know my name, know what I did. That shows a lot of class, a lot of respect. Thompson
DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock