The NBA “Skywalker” who eventually came to walk with God

Between 1963-64 and 1974-75, the UCLA Bruins were crowned NCAA Champions 10 out of 12 years. They entered the 1973-74 tournament hoping to make it eight straight and three in a row with Bill Walton, who just won his third straight player of the year award. That is when they ran into a Wolfpack.

The previous season, the North Carolina State Wolfpack had an undefeated 27-0 record. UCLA was able to avoid them due to NCAA rules violations involving N.C. State’s recruitment of star player David “Skywalker” Thompson. But 1974 was a different story. The Wolfpack had another phenomenal season going 30-1 and beat eight-time champion UCLA in a double overtime semifinals thriller on their way to a NCAA championship win over Marquette. The cover of the April 1, 1974 Sports Illustrated is a freeze-framed moment in time when North Carolina State leaped over the giants of college basketball, ending UCLA’s streak at seven.

Speaking of leaping, before Michael Jordan graced the Atlantic Coast Conference with his array of dunks, David Thompson thrilled the fans with a play he developed with point guard Monte Towe. The play was called “the alley-oop”. Since dunking was still illegal, Thompson used his 44″ vertical jump to time a perfect tip in. It was by far the most exciting play in college basketball at that time.

His mother often warned coach Norm Sloan that one day her son was going to hurt himself with the things he does on the court. In the east regional finals against Pittsburgh, only days before defeating the Bruins, Thompson had a fall which many feared may have killed him. Upset about a non-call on him, he sprinted back on defense to fly through the lane and block a shot, all while tumbling over his teammate’s shoulders and landing practically headfirst. Reportedly there were puddles of blood and urine on the floor, a sign of significant head injury. Taken to the hospital in front of a stunned crowd, Thompson would return before the final buzzer, his head wrapped in white bandaging, saying he is good to go for the next game.

David Thompson would win Player of the Year honors the next season and in the 1975 draft he became the #1 pick of both the Denver Nuggets of the ABA, and the Seattle Supersonics of the NBA. He eventually signed with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets. Thompson’s number 44 remains the lone number retired by N.C. State men’s basketball.

After his first year at Denver, the two leagues merged. Thompson would make four NBA all-star teams as a Nugget. On April 9, 1978, the final day of the regular season, Thompson put up 73 points, the third-highest total in NBA history, in a bid to win the NBA scoring title over San Antonio Spurs’ George Gervin, who scored 63 points later that same day. Gervin would win by percentage points.

After the 1977-78 season, Thompson signed a then-record contract extension that paid him $4 million over five years. He would make one more all-star team, but by 1986 Thompson had become another victim of the cocaine epidemic sweeping the NBA. After a domestic violence case landed him in jail, he found Christianity, cleaned himself up, and successfully raised two daughters.

In 2003 he finally graduated college, the same day as his daughter Erika. The player once known as Skywalker became a motivational speaker and has found his peace humbly walking with God. He often says, “God brought me to my knees so I could look up to him”.

Well respected around the NBA, Thompson got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Bill Walton once described Thompson as “Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James rolled into one”.

David Thompson was also one of the players who introduced Jordan when he was inducted in 2009. Before that day, many fans had not heard of Michael Jordan’s boyhood idol. Michael Jordan once said, “The whole meaning of vertical leap began with David Thompson.” It has also been noted, that if you watch Michael Jordan enough, you see a lot of David Thompson in him.