Hall of Famer David Thompson said before a recent speaking engagement outside of Pittsburgh that he could have defeated Michael Jordan, as well as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, in a one-on-one basketball game in their prime.
“I’m confident just like they are,” said Thompson. “We all would think we would win. I’m the same way. I was really good at one-on-one. That was my strong suit. Anytime you can score 73 points in a ballgame, you got to have some good one-on-one skills.”
He scored those 73 points, the fourth-highest single-game total in NBA history, against the Detroit Pistons in 1978 as a member of the Denver Nuggets.
Jordan—who Thompson introduced to the Basketball Hall of Fame—reignited the debate when he told 2K Sports this fall that Bryant, not James, is the only player who could have beaten him one-on-one in his prime.
While Thompson—who can still dunk at the age of 59—disagrees that he lacked the ability to top Jordan, he did agree that Bryant would have proven to be a greater threat than James.
“I think Michael Jordan’s outside jump shot and competitive nature—that killer instinct—would give him a little bit of an edge over LeBron,” he said before adding, “I think Michael and Kobe would be a better matchup because their games are so similar.”
What James would be the best at, Thompson said, is resurrecting the Slam Dunk Contest.
“Skywalker” Thompson placed second to Julius Erving in the first ever Slam Dunk Contest in 1976. He confirmed that his highest max vertical leap measured 48 inches and standing vertical 44. Thompson believes that the competition has lost its luster because stars are scared to compete.
“These guys in this generation are a little bit different,” he said. “I think some of them are a little bit afraid of losing. You shouldn’t look at it that way. You should go out there and compete. Everybody wins when you put on a good show.”
If James stays absent, Thompson still foresees superstar potential in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Scouts have been salivating over the Kansas and Duke freshmen for years, attention which the former NBA and ABA first overall pick predicted is unlikely to impair them. For less gifted, prematurely hyped prospects, he warned, the spotlight has led to apathetic work ethics and a disregard for the mental side of basketball.
“Some guys maybe rest on their laurels and don’t really put in the work that they need, learn the basic fundamentals of how to play and learn the total game,” said Thompson. “But once you get to the next level, everybody can jump. Everybody’s quick. Everybody’s skilled, so you have to have the knowledge.”
He used Kwame Brown as an example of one of those guys. Thompson didn’t blame Brown and other highly touted busts for failing to live up to their potential, but he pointed out that they’re simply pegged as future stars too soon. This premature hype starts as early as middle school and skyrockets in AAU, an organization that he also blamed for the NBA’s new super-team culture.
A teenage Thompson only had Crest Senior High School to compete for. High school teams are rooted in their local communities. AAU teams aren’t.
Jordan told NBC Sports after James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh united on the Miami Heat that he would have never called Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to join forces. Jordan had invested himself in leading the Chicago Bulls to league-wide supremacy. He refused to sacrifice loyalty for the sake of an easier victory.
Local communities breed loyalty. AAU teams don’t.
“You got all these top players teaming up,” said Thompson. “They may not live in that region, but they’ll come and play together. Then once they get to college, guys have a package deal. ‘If you go to this school, I’ll go too.’ That’s the mentality. They think about having a guaranteed winning team more so [than competition]. That’s just the way it is today.”
*All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
David Daniels is a breaking news writer at Bleacher Report and news editor at Wade-O Radio.