A lot of Thompson's apparent reluctance to gather 'round the hearth with his fellow Nuggets was no doubt because he didn't like many of them and couldn't get his game in tune with some others. When the Nuggets traded his friend, Bobby Jones, for George McGinnis in 1978, Thompson saw a change in his role, and it wasn't a change he welcomed. "He kind of sat back when we got McGinnis and said, 'O.K., let's see how long it takes you to hang yourself,' " says former Nugget Coach Larry Brown, now the coach at UCLA. "That bothered me because I thought he was such a great athlete that he should make the other players react to him."
Thompson and McGinnis got along well enough in 78 to make the playoffs, but when the team went sour last season, it was apparent that one of them would have to go. McGinnis was sent to Indiana last February in exchange for English. "If you lose and one guy doesn't get his stats," says Thompson, "then it becomes a question of who's going to get criticized. So it becomes a power struggle. The guys that get paid the most get criticized the most, and that kind of blows the team concept."
"In order for David to be effective," says Walsh, "he needs to be accepted. We had some guys last year who were hard to get along with, and it was hard on David. He would be taking the last shot of a close game, for instance, and just as he was going up, one of our guys would yell, That's a bad shot.' It's hard to want to play with guys like that."
If the Nuggets' chemistry was poor last season—and it was, it was—even more disturbing were rumors that Thompson was trying to improve his own chemistry by using cocaine. Drug rumors have followed him since he came into the league, Thompson says. "I'd never even seen any cocaine then," he says. He insists he doesn't use cocaine now and doesn't know how the rumors got started, but he did once go so far as to tell an acquaintance of his that he wasn't "doing anything worse than what everybody else in the NBA is doing." Thompson denies that drugs had anything to do with his poor performance last season. "I guess since everybody thought I was dogging it," he says, "they figured I was doing a lot of drugs. That's totally wrong."
Thompson never spoke to anyone in the Nuggets' front office about the drug rumors, and Scheer says he was willing to avoid any head-on confrontation with the possibility that his meal ticket was a cocaine fiend. "I never asked him about it directly," says Scheer, "because I was afraid what the answer might be. With David not playing, the whispers became shouts, and it was hard to deny them. My kids even heard the rumors at school."
And there were other rumors to contend with. One that had some validity was that Thompson was having marital difficulties. The problem, in truth, was not with the marriage itself, but with his family and his wife Cathy's family, both of which opposed the marriage, because he is black and she white. Although the two have known each other for five years and have been married since 1978, their families did not really accept the union until last summer. "For a long time there was no contact between the families and us," David says. "It bothered me, but I think the families were only looking out for us. They knew there would be a lot of troubles. When you have a mixed marriage, people always want it to go wrong."
When Erika, their first child, was born 15 months ago, the prospect of their baby being rejected by its grandparents hung over the couple's heads. Last April, when the season was over, David and his daughter went home to North Carolina to visit the families, with Cathy soon to follow. And for the first time all year, he did something that was a triumph.
Neither family could resist Erika's indisputable charms, and slowly, over the course of six weeks, old bridges were restored. "Staying at home for a while made me realize who I was and where I was at," Thompson says. "It gave me some inner confidence that I wasn't getting in Denver. You read so much negative stuff about yourself that you can really get low. From my family I got the reinforcement I needed."
When he returned from North Carolina, David fired Shay, primarily because his longtime agent had kept him insulated not only from his investments but also from most other forms of off-court responsibility as well. When he was around, Shay was inclined to do things like taking out Thompson's dry cleaning or running out to McDonald's and bringing back a late-night snack, and Thompson was inclined to let him.
"David has to take control of his own life now," says Walsh. "He has to accept his status, and when the need arises, he has to make an effort to fit in. He can't be as sensitive as he has been, can't be as up and down anymore. If you're going to be a superstar, there has to be some steel inside."