Deferring To D.T.

By Dave Krieger
Updated: September 14, 2009

David Thompson

David Thompson

DENVER — When Michael Jordan took his place in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, he produced maybe the last assist of his playing career.

I say maybe because Jordan is always threatening to come back, suggesting in the run-up to his enshrinement that we might see him on the court at 50.

Until then, his final assist will be choosing former Nuggets star David Thompson to present him at the Hall, reminding the world that the man known as Skywalker played an important role in the development of the modern game.

Somehow, in the compression of basketball history over time, Thompson was conveniently excised from the lineage of the game’s most creative athletes. Maybe it was because of the drug abuse or the premature end of his pro career and the downward spiral of his life for a while.

Whatever it was, in the historical conversation that inevitably attends Hall inductions, Jordan became the heir to Julius Erving, Thompson’s peer and another of the most amazing athletes to play the game.

That gave basketball a clean story line — the mantle being passed from one member of the game’s royalty to another. The only problem was it wasn’t true. Jordan was inspired as a kid not by Dr. J but by Skywalker, mostly because of proximity. Jordan saw no NBA basketball as a kid because Wilmington, N.C., had only two channels, and CBS wasn’t one of them.

But he did manage to catch a few North Carolina State Wolfpack games.

“I’ve had a lot of questions over the last four weeks, and everybody’s saying, ‘Well, why did you pick David Thompson?’ ” Jordan acknowledged in his induction speech.

“I know why. And David knows why. And maybe you guys don’t know why, but (it’s) because I grew up in North Carolina. I was 11 years old in 1974, when you guys won the (NCAA) championship,” he said, turning to Thompson, who stood on the stage beside him.

“I was a anti-Carolina guy,” Jordan went on. “Hated UNC. And here I ended up at UNC. But I was in love with David Thompson.”

Earlier, in a conversation with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, Jordan elaborated.

“I idolized him,” he said. “I patterned parts of my game behind him.

“I mean, my kids didn’t even know who he was. I had to tell ’em, ‘Back in 1974 in college, you couldn’t dunk a basketball, and the term alley-oop came from this guy.’ And now they can identify who he is.”

It may be hard for modern fans to believe, but Thompson, one of the great dunkers of all time, was not allowed to flush the ball throughout his college career because the NCAA banned the slam dunk in 1967. This immediately became known as the Lew Alcindor rule.

The ban lasted until 1976, the year after the Nuggets made Thompson the top pick in the ABA draft. Surprisingly, he chose the upstart league over the NBA, where he had also been the top draft pick. He was ABA rookie of the year, then moved with the Nuggets into the NBA.

For six years, he was an explosive, shooting star, averaging at least 24 points a game five times. Then injuries and drugs brought him back to earth. He blew out his knee on a flight of stairs at Studio 54, a trendy New York night spot, in a too-perfect symbol of his unraveling.

But during his short reign, Thompson was a transcendent player, helping, along with Erving, to bring basketball into its modern, acrobatic age.

“I think he deserves that type of recognition, that someone of my magnitude appreciates him, appreciates what he represented to the game,” Jordan told Wilbon. “He impacted my life. And if I have impacted his life by selecting him, great, we’ve done each other a favor.

“But the public who don’t really know who David Thompson is, go back and read. And all the basketball enthusiasts, they know who David Thompson is.”

For all the inspiration Thomp son provided as a player, Jordan also chose him as a life lesson. Thompson became a committed Christian who now works with kids as part of a sports ministry in Charlotte, N.C.

“You’re talking about someone who’s gone through some negative times and bounced back,” Jordan said. “And to me, that is the most gratification that I’ve ever gotten from David Thompson, is that he made mistakes and he’s bounced back and become a better person because of those mistakes. We all have made mistakes. To me, he represents that person that constantly looks at the positive side of everything.”

On the eve of the NFL’s opening weekend, it’s hard to say how many of today’s young players noticed. But the man widely considered the best player ever just immortalized a basketball lineage: The inspiration for Air Jordan came from Skywalker.