1974 NC State Wolfpack: David Thompson walked on air

jgiglio@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2014 

  • Greatness ... one game at a time

    David Thompson’s game-by-game statistics during his three-year varsity career at N.C. State:


    Opponent (date) FG-A FT-A Reb Pts
    Appalachian St. (Nov. 8)14-205-51333
    Atlantic Christian (Dec. 1)13-186-61132
    Georgia Southern (Dec. 4)15-2610-101240
    South Florida (Dec. 8)12-246-6630
    vs. Wake Forest (Dec. 15)10-219-111229
    vs. North Carolina (Dec. 16)7-95-6319
    at Davidson (Dec. 19)5-83-6513
    at Georgia (Dec. 23)11-194-8426
    at Virginia (Jan. 6)5-154-5914
    Duke (Jan. 10)8-113-5319
    Lehigh (Jan. 12)10-163-3923
    at Maryland (Jan. 14)15-267-7437
    at Clemson (Jan. 20)10-194-51124
    vs. Furman (Jan. 27)13-251-31227
    Maryland (Jan. 31)10-204-71124
    Virginia (Feb. 3)7-134-4918
    North Carolina (Feb. 5)8-186-6622
    vs. Clemson (Feb. 9)14-202-51330
    vs. Georgia Tech (Feb. 10)12-1812-13936
    East Carolina (Feb. 13)13-157-8433
    at Wake Forest (Feb. 17)8-125-7521
    at Duke (Feb.21)12-197-71031
    UNC Charlotte (Feb. 24)11-193-41025
    at North Carolina (Feb. 27)7-134-4318
    Wake Forest (March 3)7-124-4518
    vs. Virginia (March 9)*6-142-3714
    vs. Maryland (March 10)*4-122-2910


    Opponent (date) FG-A FT-A Reb Pts
    East Carolina (Dec. 5)13-202-5628
    Vermont (Dec. 7)8-163-31019
    vs. UCLA (Dec. 15)7-203-71317
    Georgia (Dec. 18)13-252-31128
    vs. Villanova (Dec. 28)12-192-4826
    vs. Memphis State (Dec. 29)12-2410-121134
    vs. North Carolina (Jan. 4)9-122-3720
    vs. Wake Forest (Jan. 5)10-140-0320
    Clemson (Jan. 12)7-172-2616
    Maryland (Jan. 13)14-2013-17841
    at Virginia (Jan. 17)12-206-8630
    UNC Charlotte (Jan. 19)6-144-6916
    at North Carolina (Jan. 22)12-202-31026
    at Purdue (Jan. 26)11-224-5526
    at Maryland (Jan. 30)16-267-10639
    Virginia (Feb. 2)9-205-61123
    at Duke (Feb. 4)7-139-101323
    vs. Georgia Tech (Feb. 8)8-154-4720
    vs. Furman (Feb. 9)9-188-9621
    Davidson (Feb. 13)7-152-5416
    Wake Forest (Feb. 16)11-209-121231
    Duke (Feb. 20)16-248-101440
    at Clemson (Feb. 23)16-243-4535
    North Carolina (Feb. 26)7-177-8521
    Wake Forest (March 2)9-193-5821
    Virginia (March 8)*16-265-9737
    Maryland (March 9)*10-249-11529
    Providence (March 14)**16-298-101040
    Pittsburgh (March 16)**3-42-328
    UCLA (March 23)**12-254-61028
    Marquette (March 25)**7-127-8721


    Opponent (date) FG-A FT-A Reb Pts
    East Carolina (Nov. 30)15-283-4733
    at UNC Asheville (Dec. 3)18-306-91042
    Buffalo State (Dec. 5)27-373-51757
    Virginia (Dec. 7)10-194-81324
    vs. Oregon State (Dec, 14)13-202-4728
    vs. Davidson (Dec. 21)19-325-61043
    Kent State (Dec. 27)16-227-10239
    Pittsburgh (Dec. 28)8-204-5620
    vs. Wake Forest (Jan. 3)5-205-61315
    vs. North Carolina (Jan. 4)11-194-6726
    Western Carolina (Jan. 9)14-254-41032
    at Maryland (Jan. 16)14-215-7633
    North Carolina (Jan. 18)10-230-0720
    Wake Forest (Jan. 25)13-253-51129
    at Duke (Jan. 27)9-224-61222
    Maryland (Feb. 1)16-296-7638
    Clemson (Feb. 4)17-225-9739
    vs. Georgia Tech (Feb. 7)12-247-91031
    vs. Furman (Feb. 8)14-227-10935
    at Virginia (Feb. 12)5-159-13719
    at Wake Forest (Feb. 15)7-198-11822
    Duke (Feb. 19)8-218-10924
    at Clemson (Feb. 22)5-85-6215
    at North Carolina (Feb. 25)14-254-7832
    UNC Charlotte (March 1)14-228-8536
    vs. Virginia (March 6)13-2312-151038
    vs. Maryland (March 7)13-214-4430
    vs. North Carolina (March 8)7-212-2516

    *- ACC tournament; ** - NCAA tournament

  • More information

    Just dreamin ...

    Who would join David Thompson on an all-time college basketball starting five? Here’s one look, based on players with three or more years’ experience:

    PG: Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati (1957-60): Three-time NCAA scoring champ led Cincinnati to back-to-back Final Fours in 1959 and 60. Versatile enough to play the point, shooting guard or small forward, The Big O averaged 33.8 points, 15.2 rebounds in his career and 7.1 assists his final two seasons. At 6-5, he was the precursor to Magic Johnson.

    SF: Larry Bird, Indiana State (1976-79): Two-time player of the year averaged 28.6 points in his career and guided mid-major Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA final against Magic’s Michigan State Spartans.

    PF: Elvin Hayes, Houston (1965-68): Led Houston to back-to-back Final Fours, where it lost each time to UCLA. Scored 39 in epic regular season duel with Lew Alcindor at the Houston Astrodome. Averaged 36.8 points as a senior.

    C: Lew Alcindor, UCLA (1966-69): Nobody could stop him, so the NCAA tried. They banned the dunk because of Alcindor, who led Bruins to three consecutive NCAA titles.

There is no doubt in Monte Towe’s mind, even 40 years later, David Thompson is still the best basketball player in ACC history.

“There wasn’t anybody like him before and there hasn’t been anybody like him since,” said Towe, Thompson’s teammate for four years at N.C. State and the point guard of the 1974 national title team.

Towe’s 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 Thompson’s 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 can’t 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 “It’s 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 didn’t 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 Thompson’s 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 what’s now known as the small forward position. Coach Norm Sloan catered the offense to Thompson’s 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 wasn’t 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 Sloan’s 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 (Duke’s 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 Carolina’s 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 Thompson’s legacy, the NCAA didn’t 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 Thompson’s 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 Walton’s layup.

The defensive play ignited the Greensboro Coliseum. It also got the attention of NBC’s 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 I’ve 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 UCLA’s 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 Thompson’s resume.

Towe and Burleson say Thompson’s the ACC’s best ever. Elmore says Thompson’s on the short list with Sampson, UNC’s Michael Jordan and Maryland’s Len Bias.

Vitale has Thompson on his all-time starting five list, but no other ACC players.

“When you talk about the NBA, it’s Jordan,” Vitale said. “But when you talk college, it’s David.

“He was way before his time. He set the tone for all the guys who came after him.”

Giglio: 919-829-8938

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service