NC State

Morris: How Pack’s Thompson, Towe pioneered the alley-oop

NC State's David Thompson soars above the rim against Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament championship game in Greensboro.
NC State's David Thompson soars above the rim against Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament championship game in Greensboro. 1974 News & Observer file photo

The recent death of Kenny Sailors got me thinking about those who were considered pioneers in various aspects of college basketball. Despite many questions about its origin over the years, Sailors was widely considered the inventor of the jump shot, which he learned quite by accident in an attempt to shoot over his taller brother while growing up in Wyoming.

Sailors eventually led Wyoming to the 1943 NCAA men’s basketball championship, and that is where his new-found shot gained much broader appeal with the finals held in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

NC State’s Monte Towe and David Thompson can stake claim to a similar innovation in college basketball. Towe was the “alley” and Thompson was the “oop” when the two hooked up during the 1973, 1974 and 1975 seasons.

“I don’t know if we invented it,” Thompson said, “but I think we perfected it and we brought it out to light.”

Today, the alley-oop is as much a part of the game as the cross-over dribble or the high ball-screen. Yet when Towe and Thompson were freshmen in October of 1971, the game was just beginning to be played above the rim. Rare was the player, other than a 7-footer, who could extend his arms and control a shot at the height of the basket.

The two engaged in pickup games – along with fellow freshmen Leo Campbell, Mike Dempsey, Craig Kuszmaul, Mark Moeller and Tim Stoddard – upon arriving on campus that fall at Carmichael Gymnasium, the physical education facility across the street from Reynolds Coliseum. It was the final season in which freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition, so they often worked out as a team before official practice began, and they began to gain a feel for one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

Once Oct. 15 rolled around, the varsity and freshmen teams often practiced together or on opposite ends of the Reynolds Coliseum courts. Many practices concluded with a scrimmage between the two teams, and it was quite clear to all that Thompson had exceptional skills.

Towe and Thompson both believe it was early during one of these scrimmages that the first alley-oop came to be. Both have the same recall of a time Towe happened to lob the ball toward the basket, Thompson leaped, corralled the pass and dropped it into the basket.

“It was just something that happened,” Towe said.

Both recalled that Coach Norm Sloan immediately stopped practice.

“That looks pretty good,” both remember Sloan saying. “Let’s put that in.”

Gaining attention

How it became known as an “alley-oop” is less certain. Towe recalled seeing and hearing about the alley-oop being used in the NFL with Y.A. Tittle of the San Francisco 49ers throwing long, up-for-grabs passes to R.C. Owens. That occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“Alley Oop” was a syndicated comic strip created in the 1930s, although there does not appear to be any connection between that name and the basketball play. Webster’s dictionary says “allez-oop” was the cry of a circus acrobat about to leap, and that seems to have a more direct line to football or basketball.

However it got its name, N.C. State freshman coach Art Musselman worked the alley-oop into his team’s arsenal. Then it gained fame during the 1972-73 season when Towe and Thompson graduated to the varsity. That is when Sloan and assistant coach Eddie Biedenbach devised an attack that included the alley-oop as an integral part of the offense.

The offense was very simple in design and one that N.C. State used extensively over the next three seasons when the Wolfpack posted an unbeaten season while on NCAA probation in 1973, captured the national championship in 1974 and went 22-6 in 1975.

The first option in the offense was to feed the ball to 7-foot-4 center Tommy Burleson in the low post. If that option was not available, Thompson would come off a screen to the opposite wing near the top of the key. The opposing team then had to decide whether to allow Thompson the ball out high, where he was a deadly shooter and capable driver to the basket, or deny him the ball and risk him going back door for the alley-oop. If the opposing team played in front of Burleson in the post, it opened the back door even wider for the alley-oop.

“It was like reading the defense in football,” Towe said. “If David was over-played, he’d go backdoor. We’d make eye contact.”

As high as necessary

Once teams began putting pressure on the 5-7 Towe when he had the ball, N.C. State often called on others to throw the alley-oop, and the 6-7 forward Stoddard became adept at it as well. But it was not the passer who made the play not only deadly, but also spectacularly thrilling. It was Thompson.

A couple of factors played into what became college basketball’s high-wire act. First, Thompson was 6-4 and had astounding leaping ability, believed to be 44 inches (46 inches is the highest recorded by an NBA player). Also, college players were not allowed to dunk during Thompson’s four seasons with the Wolfpack.

“He jumped as high as it was necessary,” Biedenbach said. “I swear, sometimes, in practice and in games, it was remarkable how high he would get up and control the ball. His equilibrium was even more fantastic. . . . You’d sit there on a daily basis in practice and games and just shake your head thinking, how did this happen?”

Biedenbach likes to tell of the time in practice when Towe lofted a pass that for all those in attendance appeared to be headed out of bounds, wide of the backboard. Thompson came from the baseline, leaped, caught the ball behind the backboard, rotated it around to the rim and dropped it in the basket.

Thompson certainly was not the first to play above the rim. “Jumpin’ Johnny” Green at Michigan State in the late ’50s, Dave Bing at Syracuse in the mid-’60s and Herman “Helicopter” Knowlings on the streets of Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s were among the guards and forwards known for being jumping jacks. Among centers, Bill Russell at San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas and Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) at UCLA all used their height to intimidate and overpower opponents.

Perhaps believing a 7-footer had too much of an advantage by dunking, the NCAA banned the use of that shot when Alcindor advanced to the varsity for the 1967 season at UCLA.

It commonly became known as the “Lew Alcindor Rule” until it was lifted in 1976. (In 2013, as part of a 75th anniversary celebration of the NCAA tournament, Thompson and Abdul-Jabbar were seated next to each other during one program. Thompson said he told Abdul-Jabbar, “You killed all my college highlights.”

Yes and no. Thompson’s inability to slam home a dunk might have cost him some creativity when it came to completing the alley-oop, but it also enhanced the artistic nature of what became mid-air ballet. He became the basketball version of the “Flying Wallendas” of circus fame, rightly earning his “Skywalker” nickname.

Hard to defend

Never was that more apparent than on alley-oop plays, two of which stood out for their beauty and significance. One came against UCLA in the 1974 national semifinals when Thompson skied over 7-footer Bill Walton to give N.C. State its first lead of the second half after twice trailing by 11 points. The Wolfpack won in double overtime, 80-77.

The other came two rounds earlier in the closing seconds of the Wolfpack’s victory over Providence. The game’s outcome was already decided when Burleson threw an outlet pass to Towe, who dribbled between his legs, then turned his back to the basket near midcourt and lofted a high arcing pass over his head. Thompson caught the ball and dropped in the basket as the game ended.

“I don’t know how to play that play,” Providence coach Dave Gavitt said afterward.

Neither did anyone else throughout the careers of Towe and Thompson, who later pulled off a few more alley-oops as teammates on the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Today, Towe is the head basketball coach at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Fla. Thompson is a motivational speaker and lives in Charlotte.

Both love talking about the part they played in inventing the alley-oop. At the conclusion of a recent exchange of texts, Towe concluded his with: “Have an alley-oop of a day!”