David Thompson: The Tale of What Could Have Been

John WarrContributor IAugust 26, 2009

This 6'4" sky walking player is who I think could have had one of the brightest careers in NBA history.

David Thompson was an absolute force wherever he was, whether it be on the court where he would walk in the sky, shoot, and all that, or off the court where he would do things that would bring shame to the Denver Nuggets uniform.

If this force of dominance had played longer in the NBA, he would be second to none.

You are all sitting there reading this, getting ready to type “Are you stupid? How can you put him in the same sentence as Black Jesus?"

I didn’t want to have to break this to you, but Black Jesus did that himself saying “David Thompson would have been probably the best scorer ever to play in his era if he was to stay in the NBA longer.” The great Dan Issel said: “If David played until he couldn’t play any longer, he would be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jordan.”

David Thompson was quite simply a physical beast with his some 44-inch vertical. In fact, I was reading an article about him and noticed that if you put a quarter on the top of a back board, he could snag it. If that’s not hops, what is?

Also, he was as explosive as anyone that has played the game with his quick first step which set him apart from other and in the words that Michael Jordan himself said: “David Thompson changed the game forever, his dynamic high flying is still very rarely seen today.”

As I had described to you earlier, David Thompson had more than his fair share of off the basketball court problems, ultimately deciding whether he stays or leaves the NBA. Let’s kick back and revisit some of David Thompson's infamous moments.

You see, people say that he had these problems with alcohol and cocaine. Well, it could be because of the fact that he couldn’t handle the pressure and criticism that came with being the best (which he was at the time, along with probably Julius Erving, but David Thompson was doing things bigger) and making the most money of any player in the history of team sports.

That is just an essence of how great he really was, but as I promised we would visit the build up to his premature retirement.

Thompson's addiction to drugs was first found out by the owner of the Denver Nuggets. At the time, he knew about this but didn’t comment because he had thought that David Thompson would quit: “I would try to stop completely, but I just didn't have the willpower.”

The thing that really messed him over was his addiction and that’s something that all of us have established but some say that he was dealt this stuff in college and never ever did any because his focus was on basketball, so he refused. But when he was 23 he was given into drugs, since he was dealing with high pressure from the media, he was trying to do too much, and the drugs were his outlet, according to him.

The thing that really made him retire happened in the Manhattan Studio 54 nightclub where he was pushed down the stairs. That about did it for David Thompson's career. David regrets all this to a great extent, saying: “I had the ability to be one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game...and I blew it.”

Enough of this depressing news about him, let's back-track and see some of the things that he had done in his professional Basketball Career, both in the ABA and NBA:

Let’s start off with talking about the career he had in the ABA. It is hard to understand how he ended up in the ABA, because he was too good for the ABA. After playing a season in the ABA, David Thompson had accomplished more than a lot of people could comprehend. He had become the Rookie of the Year, averaging 26 points a game. Thompson was in the All-Star game and gained MVP honors in it.

But wait, there’s more: Thompson, in his only season, had led them to the ABA Finals and there he met rival Julius Erving and they battled each other like ancient soldiers fighting for their lives.

I can guarantee you that no fan was left asking for more (except the Nuggets fans who were left asking for a Championship). Their battle was epic and they scored in abundance every time they stepped on the court.

Can you really ask much more from an ABA Final than what I have just described? The ABA style of play was much more exciting than the NBA at the time because of the high fliers in there, like David Thompson and Dr. J. Once those two were on the court, you were bound to see something special with the high flying acrobatic dunks that would shift the crowds and the momentum of the game.

It was epic but in the end the Nets had come out on top in a close one.

Enough about the rough and rigid American Basketball Association. Let's talk about my beloved NBA and David Thompson's impact on it.

In his nine professional years in the NBA, he averaged over 22 points, a steal, a block, a little over three assists, and a little fewer than four rebounds per game. Other than that, he had tremendous abilities to drive to the basket and stopped for no man on his way there. Also, unlike other great drivers, he had the ability to pull up for a jumper and hit it right in your grill. He is one of the least recognized for that and that is quite irritating.

When he was at the peak of his game, no one could slow him down and no one did. I calculated that if you take the seasons in which he did great, in his early career (first six years; only played nine though) his scoring average was 25 points and that’s not even in his prime.

Imagine this guy if he got to his prime and didn’t take drugs and all that. He would have been scary.

He also holds the third highest single scoring game in NBA history, scoring 73 points. He didn’t play the whole game either, scoring 51 in the first half and sitting down most of the third and fourth quarters. He could have scored 83 points, if you ask me.

Even Michael Jordan was impressed: “Wow, when you score 73, you have to be doing everything right, you have to be hitting your shots, getting steals, dunking, all that.”

In his drug-free seasons he averaged 26 points in the playoffs, which is a Denver Nuggets best. All of those stats are from his first three years. That’s scary, isn’t it? I mean, what if so many thought of him averaging like 29 throughout his career and being one of the greatest ever to play.

Now, let's get off the whole stat thing, because, as we all know, stats are overrated to say the least. David Thompson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 while playing only nine years and having only six drug-free years. Shows you what he could have been, doesn’t it?

When David Thompson started the whole drug thing, we established that the Nuggets would want to get rid of him as soon as possible and they did. They got rid of him for a much less successful player in Bill Hanzlik (who is a Nuggets analyst now on Altitude for those of you who recall his name). This is what really showed the basketball world that even though they were giving him a lot of money, if he messed up, he was gone.

Now on to his short-lived career in Seattle.

In his two short years in Seattle, he averaged career lows in scoring (altogether) and had a sad career there to sum it up. Yes, he had led them to the playoffs, but they would be dealt a first round exit and David only played two games.

In his second season as a Supersonic, he hardly played so that was to no avail. He tried to come back into the NBA to play for the Indiana Pacers after, but then he couldn’t and he was dealt another failure on his belt, all thanks to drugs. From the highest paid to no one wanting him—imagine that.

And now he is a player living a life of regret, having gotten over his drug problems.  He recently made a national TV appearance as the judge of the 2009 all-star weekend dunk contest. This was fitting as he elevated the game with his mind-blowing dunks.

In his first few seasons, he was arguably the best in the league. After the whole drug controversy, however, his stats and general play plummeted.

But the whole purpose of this article is to wonder: “What if he hadn’t retired or done drugs?” Could he have been a top five player all time?

Well, I personally think he could. If you look at how physically sound he was, he should have let his athleticism alone carry him until he was 30.

And how can we forget how fundamentally sound he was also? If you think about it, a lot of the great players developed a shot as their career progressed, whereas he had it in him all along—a huge plus side to this player.

This post has both a moral message and a basketball-related message:

Moral: Drugs aren’t the answer to anything and ultimately mess you up. They are not an outlet nor will a positive come from them, and destruction of your legacy will occur.

Basketball: David Thompson should have been mentioned more in the great player’s category. He could have played more games and been one of the greatest of all time if he hadn't used drugs.

What do you guys think about this amazing talent that was tragically wasted (talk about wasted talent) all thanks to drugs?


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