There is no doubt in Monte Towes mind, even 40 years later, David Thompson is still the best basketball player in ACC history.
There wasnt anybody like him before and there hasnt been anybody like him since, said Towe, Thompsons teammate for four years at N.C. State and the point guard of the 1974 national title team.
Towes opinion, shared by many of his teammates, opponents and analysts, is only based on what Thompson, a 6-foot-4 small forward from Shelby, was able to do on the court in one of the most restrictive eras of college basketball.
When Thompson enrolled at N.C. State in 1972, freshmen were not eligible to play under NCAA rules, so his college career was limited to three seasons.
There was no shot clock and no 3-point line, which curbed Thompsons astounding 26.8 career scoring average.
And, last but not least, the dunk was banned.
They would still be showing highlights of him, said Wolfpack teammate Tommy Burleson. When he dunked in pickup games, he jumped over the top of people and just clobbered them.
Towe cant even imagine the popularity of Thompson, who had a 44-inch vertical leap, in the current era of social media and SportsCenter.
The dunks that people missed out on, Towe said Its a shame, an injustice to college basketball really.
But N.C. State and the ACC did get three spectacular seasons out of Thompson, and his legacy, four decades after his last college game, remains in tact. He was so good, he didnt need Twitter or ESPN to become a legend.
It was word of mouth, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. You left the game in awe of what you just saw.
Offense only part of his greatness
Len Elmore, a former Maryland center and a longtime analyst for ESPN, was often on the wrong side of Thompsons greatness. Thompson scored 41 and 39points in the two regular-season games against the Terps, and then had 29 in the epic 1974 ACC title game in Greensboro.
David loved to play Maryland, Towe said.
The Terps had commensurate parts to Towe and Burleson, but they had no answer for Thompson.
He was too long and jumped too high for smaller guys to defend him, Elmore said. But he was too quick for the bigger guys.
Thompson defined whats now known as the small forward position. Coach Norm Sloan catered the offense to Thompsons skills, with Towe perfecting the alley-oop usually off a backdoor screen for Thompson.
Correction: This story incorrectly stated that David Thompson made 76.3 percent of his field goals during his college career. Thompson made 76.3 percent of his free throws.
Thompson wasnt allowed to dunk the lob passes, even though his elbows were usually above the rim.
Thompson was a volume scorer he averaged 24.7, 26.0 and 29.9 in his three seasons but he got his numbers within the confines of Sloans team concept.
He could have averaged 45 a game but we would not have been as successful, Burleson said. He sacrificed his numbers for us to win.
Even without the 3-point line, and with the possessions being limited by the lack of a shot clock, Thompson still holds the ACC record for 30-point games (33).
His 347 field goals as a senior in 1974-75 remain the single-season ACC record. His 57-point game against Buffalo State that season is the second-best in ACC history (Dukes Danny Ferry had 58 in 1988).
For his career, Thompson made 55.3 percent of his shots and 76.3 percent of his free throws. His 2,309 points in 86 games rank 11th on the ACC career scoring list. By comparison, No. 1 on the scoring list, North Carolinas Tyler Hansbrough, had 2,872 points in 142 career games.
As impressive as the numbers were, and still are, Thompson was more than a scorer. He averaged 8.1 rebounds for his career, and he was uniquely disruptive on defense. He could jump to block shots, and he was quick enough to step into passing lanes and get steals.
Add to the list of injustices to Thompsons legacy, the NCAA didnt track steals or blocks during his era.
He was a complete player, said Dick Vitale, the Hall of Fame analyst for ESPN. He was so active on defense and transition. He was so unique and special in every way.
The 1974 national semifinal game with UCLA was a showcase for Thompsons defensive prowess. About 61/2 minutes into the game, he had the first of three blocks. This one was against UCLA All-American Bill Walton, who stood 7 inches taller than Thompson.
On the play, with N.C. State up 14-12, Walton caught the ball on the right low block. Thompson left his man and, flat-footed, jumped to block Waltons layup.
The defensive play ignited the Greensboro Coliseum. It also got the attention of NBCs Curt Gowdy.
I never saw a man with his height jump like he does, Gowdy said on the broadcast. He has the greatest leaping ability Ive ever seen.
That jumping ability came into play again in overtime of the UCLA game. N.C. State trailed 75-74 when UCLA missed a free throw. Thompson flew in for the rebound, grabbing it from the outstretched arms of Walton.
With 46 seconds left, Thompson came down and banked in a jumper for a 76-75 Wolfpack lead. On the next possession, he made both free throws and the Wolfpack ended UCLAs seven-year NCAA title reign.
Legend among legends
Thompson, who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds in the UCLA win and a game-high 21 points in the championship game win against Marquette, was voted the most outstanding player of the Final Four.
He was also the Associated Press National Player of the Year in 1974 and again in 75. He was the ACC Player of the Year in 73, 74 and 75. He was first-team All-ACC three straight years and first-team AP All-America for three straight years.
Virginia center Ralph Sampson, from 1981 to 83, is the only other player in ACC history who can match Thompsons resume.
Towe and Burleson say Thompsons the ACCs best ever. Elmore says Thompsons on the short list with Sampson, UNCs Michael Jordan and Marylands Len Bias.
Vitale has Thompson on his all-time starting five list, but no other ACC players.
When you talk about the NBA, its Jordan, Vitale said. But when you talk college, its David.
He was way before his time. He set the tone for all the guys who came after him.