On Super Bowl Sunday the whole world found out about Thompson. Playing at favored Maryland, he already had scored 35 points on an assortment of daring maneuvers and marvelous shots inside and out. With the score tied at 85 he broke from the corner and glided up the foul lane. Suddenly he was in position under the basket as Burleson fired away in the dying seconds. The shot bounced off the front rim, but all alone up there, almost too high to get into the TV picture, was Thompson. He had done his rise routine with hardly anyone aware of it; he simply hung up there for awhile, grabbed the ball as it came off the iron, cradled it and dropped it in for victory.
It was a breathtaking move by a man barely 6'4" but one surely typical of his spectacular yet controlled flowing style of play the year long. Thompson went home to his dirt court at the end of the school year and reappeared last summer in Moscow as the absolute star-spangled hero of the U.S. victory over Russia in the World Games.
By this time it was not stretching credibility to note that a 19-year-old junior could actually be a combination of Oscar Robertson and Julius Erving, at once casual and cataclysmic. An ABA coach refers to Thompson's "joy in playing the game; the ability to lose himself in the team concept and make everyone around him better." A rival college coach says Thompson "plays 6'11". If anybody can keep a team in the game with Walton and UCLA this is the guy."
What Thompson does, really, is play within himself, never wasting effort or abandoning intelligence. This restraint sometimes appears to mirror (and may be a result of) his cautious personality off the court. He looks to be hiding his true skills as one might conceal strong, violent feelings.
"David is so much better than everyone else he must get bored easily," says North Carolina's Jones. "Yet he never plays bored. He does just enough to get the job done at his own pace. You can't stop him; he can only stop himself. Sometimes I think he is teasing us, playing down or something. The first time we played him he made a beauty, and I said 'nice shot.' He turned, smiled and said 'thank you.' I think he might have winked."
All last season, which Thompson went through encumbered by tape supporting torn cartilage in his right knee, critics referred to his lack of lateral motion, an erratic dribble and careless shooting judgment. Now his knee is repaired; he is moving freely, running better, playing defense better, driving with abandon, jumping higher. ( Tom Heinsohn of the Celtics says, "On a scale of five we rate Thompson's outside shooting 10.") Also, at 19 he is just starting to fill out. He is heavy-boned and has gained 10 pounds since last season. He is up to 200 even.
"I got pushed around last year," he says. "I'd jump for a rebound and end up way out from under the basket after the bruisers got through with me. Now I feel I'm a lot stronger. I can hold my own. I'm goin' to be poppin' some."
As good as Thompson is, the Wolfpack would not be a force without the blending talents of the huge Burleson and the miniature Towe, both of whose services were in doubt not too long ago. Burleson had been arrested for breaking into a pinball machine and his eligibility was in question until he was let off with a $100 fine. (Now he is kidded as "Tall Tom Dillinger" by some teammates.) Towe, on the other hand, was of such small stature (5'5�") that Sloan once advised a friend who recommended the dwarfish one to the Wolfpack, "You got the wrong team. It's Florida State that runs a circus."
Currently, however, with a giant, a midget and master of the midway, N.C. State is the one under the big top.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has become college basketball's foremost carnival due largely to the efforts of, appropriately, another N.C. State ringmaster. His name was Everett Case, and he arrived in Raleigh as head coach in 1946. Back home in Indiana, Case had never played the game but had been an admired high school coach at the age of 18. Even then he recruited tough; it was said as Case moved from town to town he transferred the good studs with him.