When he is much, much older—say, 29—and summering in his retreat high atop Thompson Mountain in the Rockies, David Thompson will probably remember few details of this spring's quarterfinal playoff between his Denver Nuggets and the Milwaukee Bucks.
He will have all but forgotten that the Nuggets, leading the series 3-1, blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on their home court last Friday, or that the Bucks tattooed Denver 119-91 back in Milwaukee on Sunday. And even though the Nuggets and Bucks were preparing for a decisive seventh game on Wednesday, it did not necessarily mean his most vivid memories of the spring of '78 will be of the action, because it was during the past fortnight that he rose to the monetary peak of his profession, at the tender age of 23.
And Nugget boss Carl Scheer will not soon forget how the move he had thought a masterstroke—re-signing Thompson before he would become a free agent and announcing it on opening day of the Milwaukee series—backfired when Thompson's game seemed disturbed by the attention the signing drew to him.
Thompson's soaring salary is more stunning than any defiance of the laws of gravity the 6'3�" guard has ever demonstrated. He will receive $4 million over the next five years, and this is no phoney-baloney, deferred contract to be paid out in dribs and drabs through 2001. Thompson will get his loot in cold cash, in annual installments of $800,000 between 1978 and 1983. "More money than Kareem, the Doctor and Pistol Pete," says Thompson. "I feel worthy. I know I could have gotten more, but peace of mind is more important than cash."
Indeed, with the rush of attention the signing brought, Thompson's state of mind was of great concern to Denver Coach Larry Brown, especially when his star forward averaged only 23.5 points in the first two games. "David's not himself," said Brown, who would have been tickled by such a performance from any other Nugget. No matter. Considering the ease with which Denver disposed of the Bucks, 119-103 and 127-111, Thompson could have taken the nights off to go mountain-shopping.
Center Dan Issel ran Milwaukee's John Gianelli, Kent Benson and Jumbo Jim Eakins until they all looked like they had been processed in a Cuisinart. Forwards Bobby Jones and Darnell Hillman shut down emerging superstar Marques Johnson, and Guard Bobby Wilkerson held Brian Winters to 15 and 14 points.
Then came Game 3 in Milwaukee. Ahead 56-50 at halftime, the Bucks went on a second-half rampage unprecedented in the playoffs, scoring 87 points on 71% shooting and rolling to a 143-112 rout. Much was made of Thompson's 6-for-20 shooting. The Bucks' Quinn Buckner, it was decided, was a defensive genius.
"What did I do?" said Buckner, one of Thompson's closest friends. "I didn't do anything special. I looked at his face in the first quarter and could tell he wasn't going to play well."
"He hears remarks from the crowd," says Brown. "He knows the television commentators are calling him the Four Million Dollar Man. If he's going to go out every night feeling he has to prove he's worth all that money, he's crazy."
The Nuggets regrouped, and the Bucks fell apart in Game 4, which produced the series' fourth blowout—118-104—and Denver's third victory. For the first time Thompson became a major factor, scoring 34 points. His performance included a 180-degree, behind-the-head dunk that was worth considerably more than the $4.28 he will be earning for every second he plays in coming seasons.