Remembering David Thompson’s horrific fall

calexander@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2014 

  • Memory from courtside

    John Mandrano was a sophomore at N.C. State and member of the cheerleading team. He was sitting just feet away from where Thompson fell.

    “I remember watching David going up, hitting Phil (Spence) in his shoulder blades, then beginning to curl forward and thinking, ‘Oh, no, he is going to land on his head!’ I had a split-second thought to leap out onto the floor under him so to break his fall (I had done this earlier in the season when a cheerleader, Elaine Hartoflous, was falling head-first over the back side of her partner at a basketball game). I froze, and the rest is history. I remember David lying on the court with his eyes wide open staring at me, out cold! I thought he was dead.

    “Honestly, he was lucky in more ways than one. N.C. State still was using an old wooden floor, which the basketball players would joke about it having ‘dead spots’ where the ball would not bounce back during a dribble. After winning the NCAA championship in 1974, the school used some of the proceeds to buy a new basketball court made out of a hard composition material with no flex or give to it. I know because it felt like doing back handsprings and flips on bricks or pavement, which I had done during parades and pep rallies. I think if David had hit his head on that newer court, the outcome would have been drastically worse.”

(Editor’s Note: N&O sportswriter Chip Alexander was working for the Wilmington Star-News in 1974 and covering the NCAA Eastern Regional at Reynolds Coliseum.)

David Thompson was dead.

The fall was too great, the impact of his head on the floor too hard. His eyes were fixed, blood starting to slowly seep across the court at Reynolds Coliseum.

David Thompson, the N.C. State All-American, the best college basketball player in the country, was dead. For a few sickening seconds, I was sure of it …

It has been almost 40 years since that March day in 1974, in Reynolds, when time stood still. Even now, it still seems surreal.

N.C. State was playing Pittsburgh in the Eastern Regional final at Reynolds. I was a little more than a year into my first newspaper job, writing for the Wilmington Star-News. My courtside seat was on the baseline, the basket just to my left, the N.C. State bench to my right.

It all happened in a flash. Thompson believed he was fouled on a shot at the far end of the court, but no foul was called. He sped down the floor in a fury as Pitt ran a fast break, obviously intent on blocking the next shot.

Up he went, using every bit of his 44-inch vertical leap, seemingly leaving the floor at the foul line. And then catching a foot on the shoulder of teammate Phil Spence, pitching forward, cartwheeling, falling, going headfirst toward the floor.

I had played a lot of basketball. My sense immediately was that Thompson was too high, too out of control. Too vulnerable. As I looked up at Thompson, it was the helpless feeling of watching a terrible accident about to unfold and being unable to stop it.

Thompson landed in the lane, his head slamming into the floor. He lay there, 10 feet away, motionless.

Then, I was on my feet, stunned, unbelieving. Reynolds fell silent. People rushed off the Pack bench to Thompson’s aid.

Quickly, thankfully, it was apparent Thompson was conscious again. Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan was among those standing around Thompson and one of the team doctors appeared to say Thompson would be OK.

For some reason, seeing the doctor mouth those words was soothing. But there also was the realization that more than 12,000 people in Reynolds did not know that and surely were sensing the worst.

And then Thompson was gone. He was taken to Rex Hospital, then on Wade Avenue at St. Mary’s St. It was said that CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was among those worriedly calling the hospital to try and check on his condition.

The game went on. Tommy Burleson scored 26 points for the Pack, which built a lead. No one seemed to really care.

What about David?

In the second half, someone said, “David’s in the building.” I jumped out of my seat, bolting down the hallways of Reynolds until I spotted a few people stepping through a door, one wearing a bandage around his head.

Thompson was back. The game stopped, seemingly in mid-dribble. The feeling of relief in the old coliseum was overwhelming as the swell of cheers rose.

The Wolfpack won the game. They won the Eastern Regional and were on their way to play UCLA in the national semifinals in Greensboro.

So much to write about, so much to pack into one story.

A young sportswriter sat down at his typewriter to write, “Reynolds Coliseum shed a tear today …”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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