It would be nice to report that David did not become the exquisite player he is by emerging from poverty as so many black athletes have. But he did begin this way. He was the youngest of 11 children and he started school a year early because his family was too busy picking cotton to watch over him. He sang in the church choir, played with goldfish in the graveyard pond, helped his father build a modest house with his bare hands and practiced the proper things with the basketball on a red clay court long after the stars had come out. His home is at the end of a rutted dirt lane that winds around a cemetery halfway between Boiling Springs and the mill town of Shelby in the western part of the state. His father Vellie is 61 years old, a janitor who works the late shift down at the fibers plant; his mother scrubs the floors at Shelby High School.
Two brothers and two sisters still live at home, but there are always more people than that around to tax the environs. The house is not complete. Neither are all the cars out front—only the flowers are. Mrs. Ida Thompson somehow finds time to indulge her touch on the planters and trellises that fill the yard. Botanical splendor thrives amid indigence. Towe calls David "our flower child."
Vellie Thompson is a deacon at the Maple Springs Baptist Church. "Chairman of deacons," he says. He raised his children to respect the Lord and defer to elders. When guests came over, David was ushered to his room; he did not ever talk much, to strangers or anybody else. When his brother wanted to use David's ball to play with older friends, David gave up the ball. Then he ran away to hide and cry.
After school consolidation in 1967 young Thompson played on the jayvee at Crest High School up the highway. He was called Head by his schoolmates—not out of any respect for his academic standing but simply because David had a large pate (the nickname has not survived in Raleigh). David rejected a bid by Coach Ed Peeler to come up with the varsity that first year, but in his sophomore season he started on the big team and scored a lot of points. Still, his shy modesty was painful to behold. When the older players felt he was hogging the ball, David gave it up again. When his father told him to never mind and keep shooting, David did that, too. "He took courage and went on," Vellie says.
Peeler does not remember "more than a few words" out of Thompson for the next three years. When the recruiters started coming around, this became a problem. Eddie Biedenbach, the assistant coach at N.C. State, says the first few times he went to the Thompson home he never got past the screen door. David came out. Biedenbach talked; David listened. Norman Sloan, the Wolfpack head coach, says that when he met David the youngster said so little Sloan was positive Thompson disliked him.
"I never meant to be rude," Thompson says, "but I don't really like to get close to people. If I don't know you I don't open up."
But David was kind, gracious, bright, cooperative, humble and just a prince of a young man. Typically, one of those vicious recruiting hassles that seem SOP in the ACC resulted. North Carolina thought it had David all the way. Duke was around. Gardner-Webb, the school in Boiling Springs, moved in fast. N.C. State was always there, however; Thompson signed a grant-in-aid with Biedenbach in the parking lot of Crest High. Sloan kicked up his heels on a golf course when he heard the news.
"Looking at schools, I saw Tommy Burleson, you know 7'4", a nucleus and a guy who could get the ball," Thompson says. "Carolina didn't have a big man around. I figured at State I would have a good chance at the NCAA."
So it was judged harsh irony when an accumulation of small violations during the recruitment of Thompson and, earlier, Burleson, got State a year's probation last season. ( Duke, too, incurred a like penalty for actions involving Thompson.)
The Wolfpack was undaunted. And when State beat Carolina in December with the vastly improved Burleson taking all the rebounds and the gnomelike Towe controlling the contest even as Thompson was experiencing a bad night, the team knew how good it was.