Things had reached such a dismal pass by the end of the season—a season in which the Nuggets finished 30-52, 19 games out of first place in the Midwest Division—that Scheer asked Thompson to sign his name to what amounted to a mea culpa to Nuggets season-ticket holders for the "disappointment" of the past year. Then things started to get really bizarre. In June the Nuggets requested that Thompson give back some of the $800,000 they were paying him, which would help keep the franchise afloat. Both of these requests were without precedent and, to say the least, peculiar, but in time Thompson acceded to each of them. He says he "wasn't too pleased" about the letter because teammates Alex English and Dan Issel signed letters that were "strictly positive," but he didn't mind returning his pay because "they said they needed the money."
The contractual agreement worked out between the Nuggets and Thompson's agent, Ted Shay, was certainly not the giant giveaway that was hinted at when the transaction was revealed. It allowed Thompson to improve his tattered image locally at no cost to him—gilt by negotiation. What Thompson had done, really, was loan the Nuggets about $200,000 of their own money at 11% to 15% interest, payable in 1983.
The fact that Scheer was able to persuade Thompson, in effect, to shoulder the blame for the Nuggets' disastrous season is revealing in two ways. Most notably, it illustrates how easily Thompson can be manipulated—and he often is—and also how adept Scheer is at pulling the right strings. Was it not Scheer, after all, who conducted a plebiscite among Denver fans in 1978 to determine whether or not they supported his effort to sign Thompson at any cost? "We got mail from old ladies who sent us nickels and dimes and asked us to start a fund to pay David," says Scheer proudly.
Thompson's troubles began almost as soon as he had signed the new five-year, $4 million contract, the most expensive in the history of pro sport at the time. A week earlier he had scored 73 points in Denver's final regular-season game, at Detroit, failing to win the league scoring championship only because George Gervin poured in 63 the same day, to edge Thompson for the title by .07 of a point. Before the Nuggets opened their playoff series with Milwaukee, Scheer announced that Thompson would remain with the team for another five years. "We thought signing the contract during the playoffs would really spur him on," says Scheer. "My thinking—and how naive it was—was that it would ease his mind and possibly lead us to a championship." That didn't happen, but then Denver has always been a playoff disappointment.
"I was the first to sign a really big contract," says Thompson, "and there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn't be making that kind of money. Wherever I would go they would call me The $800,000 Man. The little things that people would say had never upset me before, but since I was getting paid so much money, I felt I should be doing what everybody wanted. My value to the team is my scoring, but when I got criticized about my defense or my ball handling, I would forget all about scoring. I was picking my brain trying to figure out what would benefit the team most. Finally I got confused and I started to pout."
Thompson seemed to weigh each night's performance against his enormous salary, and the results were predictable and devastating. Last season Thompson was ejected from three of the Nuggets' first 27 games, once for committing a flagrant foul against Kansas City's Otis Birdsong and the other two times for getting a second technical foul. When he was thrown out of a game in Utah, he cursed and spit at Referee Jack Madden, one of the league's most respected officials. Later he said he didn't believe the league's white referees wanted to see a black man making $800,000 a year. "I'm getting tired of seeing officials standing on the sidelines laughing," Thompson said. "I feel like punching one of them in the face."
This year Thompson was hoping to make a fresh start with the officials, but it took only until Denver's third regular-season game for him to be ejected for throwing a ball at Referee Joe Crawford. Late last month in a home game against Phoenix, Thompson was hit with yet another technical for cursing Referee Jake O'Donnell. Later, when O'Donnell had his back to him, Thompson stuck his tongue out at the official and then laughed. "He wasn't like that a couple of years ago," O'Donnell says. "But no matter what he thinks, we're not all ganging up on him."
When Thompson was healthy last year, his problems on the court weren't confined to disagreements with the officiating. "He just wasn't the same," says Doug Moe, now Walsh's assistant but last year the head coach at San Antonio. "When we played Denver, it used to be we were terrified of the guy. But it got to the point that he wasn't doing anything, so you didn't worry about him."
Thompson brought on most of the problems himself. He began to miss practices and team planes and to withdraw further and further from his teammates. For the first time, Scheer started to wonder if Thompson was more trouble than he was worth. "I had risked a great deal convincing my partners to sign David," Scheer says. "My reputation rested on his success." When the Nuggets got off to an 0-7 start last season, with Thompson shooting an anemic 34% and averaging only 15 points a game, Scheer began to feel the pressure.
"I felt betrayed," he says. "I had gone out on a limb for David, not being unmindful of the fact that signing him could have bankrupted us, and I wasn't getting the kind of response I expected. He missed a lot of planes, which was disconcerting to the other players and to the coaches. He was losing the respect of the other players. We fined him, but the fines meant nothing because he was making all that money." In November, Walsh finally insisted that Thompson resign as one of the team's co-captains because of his consistent unreliability.