As great as David Thompson was, his career was not quite as awesome as it could have been. Without a doubt it was much shorter than it should have been. A perilous addiction to cocaine corroded then ruined his promising and amazing talent. It scuttled prematurely one of basketball’s best shooting guards between the reigns of Jerry West and Michael Jordan.
But enough of what could, would, and should have been. What David Thompson accomplished is still remarkable and noteworthy.
Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, Thompson spurned the NBA for the dazzling Denver Nuggets of the ABA. It wasn’t just a great move from an artistic and financial standpoint, it was a great “basketball” decision. The Hawks had the third-worst record in the NBA in 1974-75 season and would follow that up with the second-worst record in the 1975-76 season. In contrast, the Denver Nuggets in 1976 boasted high-scoring center Dan Issel, defensive ace Bobby Jones, and now the wunderkind David Thompson. For the second-straight season, they achieved the ABA’s best regular season record.
With his dazzling array of dunks, acrobatic layups, and fundamentally sound jumper, Thompson finished third in the ABA in points per game, captured the All-Star Game MVP, and Rookie of the Year. He continued his assault in the playoffs pushing the Nuggets to the ABA Finals against Julius Erving’s New York Nets. The Nuggets fell in six games thanks to Dr. J’s surgical attack, but the sky seemed the limit for the Nuggets as the ABA merged with the NBA for the 1976-77 season.
The 1977 Nuggets finished with 50 wins and the Midwest Division’s best record giving critics of the ABA’s talent level a good kick in the pants in the process. The next year, 1978, proved to be Thompson’s high-water mark as the Nuggets again achieved the best record in the Midwest Division.
In the playoffs they survived a harrowing series with the up and coming Milwaukee Bucks of Marques Johnson. Thompson sealed the series victory for the Nuggets with a 37-point effort in Game 7 as Denver won 116 to 110. In the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, Thompson ignited for 35 points on 16-for-27 shooting in Game 5 to stave off elimination. The Sonics, however, were the better ball club and closed out the Nuggets the next contest.
From that point on, the Nuggets faded from contention as Thompson delved into drug abuse, despite (or perhaps because of) signing the most lucrative contract in sports history. Signing for nearly $1 million a year, Thompson’s play and behavior made the contract an albatross on the Nuggets by 1982 and he was traded to the Sonics. After two more seasons, Thompson’s career was effectively ended by a tumble down the stairs at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub. His knees were torn up, his credibility washed away.
Since that low point, Thompson has built himself back up into a fine person. David Thompson, the man, we should remember is a tenacious survivor who’s triumphed over cocaine and alcohol addiction.
Despite the travails, Thompson’s basketball career shouldn’t be thought of as a complete loss or what-if. The determination and purpose he possessed is best exemplified by his performance on April 9, 1978. Thompson scored an unbelievable 73 points. He had 53 of them by halftime. He made 20 of his first 21 shots.
That’s David Thompson, the basketball player we should remember.
Seasons Played: 1976 – 1983
Rookie of the Year (1976)
All-Star Game MVP (1976)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1976)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1976)
All-Star Game MVP (1979)
2x All-NBA 1st Team (1977-’78)
4x All-Star (1977-’79, 1983)
ABA – 83 Games
26.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 51.5% FG, 79.4% FT
NBA – 509 Games
22.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 50.4% FG, 77.8% FT
Contemporary ABA/NBA Ranks (1976 – 1983)
6th Points, 7th PPG
8th FGs Made, 38th FG%
6th FTs Made, 45th FT%
31st Assists, 41st APG
26th Blocks, 29th BPG
14th Minutes Played, 32nd Games Played