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Throughout the first quarter of the Denver Nuggets' final preseason game, David Thompson had been toying with the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson, exposing all of his defensive weaknesses in a way that began to seem cruel by the time Thompson had scored his ninth point in a little more than eight minutes. Thompson was just coming back after an injury—a heel bruise that had idled him for four of Denver's preseason games—and as he repeatedly climbed to some new and greater remove from the floor and from the rest of the players who stood transfixed on it, it was evident that his confidence was surging with each play.
In the second period, however, the Lakers quieted Thompson by sending in Michael Cooper, their 6'5" defensive thresher. "When they brought Cooper in to guard David," says Denver Coach Donnie Walsh, "he seemed very cocky, probably because he had stopped David cold last year." Now it was Cooper who was relentless, limiting Thompson to a single basket over a span of 8½ minutes in the second period. Something within Thompson had died.
With barely more than three minutes remaining in the half, Thompson gathered in a pass, and as he turned toward the basket, he squared off face-to-face with Cooper. Thompson took Cooper left across the lane, and Cooper stayed with him stride for stride. When Thompson went up for his shot, Cooper went right up with him. For a long moment the two hovered there, Thompson's body fully extended and Cooper right in his eyes. "When David got to the top of his jump, Cooper leveled off with him, and then David did something that only David can do—he started to go up again," says Walsh, accepting, on faith, Thompson's seeming defiance of physical laws. "Cooper was as high as he was going to get, and when David started to rise again, Cooper got this puzzled expression on his face, like he couldn't believe it. You could look at his eyes and see that he was finished for the night. There was no way he was going to stay with David after that." Indeed, Thompson went on to score 45 points. That game, that one play, was as close as the NBA is ever likely to come to an ascension.
In any ordinary year it would hardly be news that David Thompson was off to a rousing start, and rousing it has been in 1980—he was the league's Player of the Week a fortnight ago and he was averaging 27.3 points a game at the end of last week. After recovering from yet another heel bruise at the end of October, he poured in 43 points against Seattle, 31 against the Lakers, 39 against the Super-Sonics again, 30 vs. New York and 30 against Chicago—but this is no ordinary year, following as it does the worst year of Thompson's life. After four remarkable seasons in which he averaged 25.2 points a game and led the Nuggets to the playoffs every spring, Thompson missed all but 39 games of last season with a torn ligament in the arch of his left foot. Even when he was able to play, he often seemed uninterested and ill-humored, and soon the locker-room gossip about his "personal problems" and his alleged dabbling with cocaine became a kind of conventional wisdom that found a ready audience in Denver. During the eight dolorous months that followed his injury, Thompson discovered that the future of his once golden career was suddenly where he himself had so often been—up in the air. Thompson was the subject of so much gossip that even Carl Scheer, the Nuggets' president and general manager, conceded in early September that Thompson's reputation was suffering.
More than anything else, it was this shift in popular sentiment against him that stunned Thompson and wounded his pride. He couldn't understand how all the good years could be so quickly dismissed because of one wretched year. "I was really surprised how quickly people's opinion of me turned around," he says. "I felt I deserved better."
Surely there are few more desperate experiences an athlete can endure than to have a "bad year," for unlike the rest of us, the arc of a great athlete's life is marked not by memorable events (the birth of a child, seeing Casablanca for the first time), but by years, good and bad. Ask an athlete to name the best year of his life, and he will know it as surely as he knows his own name.
Thompson had known nothing but good years until the bottom fell out of his life last season. When he reached the most vertiginous heights of professional basketball's salary scale in 1978—signing a contract with the Nuggets worth $800,000 a season for five years—he had already been performing the game's most improbable high-wire act for three seasons in Denver. At North Carolina State he was named College Player of the Year twice, averaging 26.8 points in three varsity seasons, and in 1974 he helped N.C. State wrest the NCAA championship from UCLA, ending the Bruins' nine-year domination of the college game. And as if all that weren't enough, Thompson was so downright lovable that around the ACC they remember him as the Sweetheart of Tobacco Road. "David is the greatest athlete I was ever associated with," says former N.C. State Coach Norm Sloan, "but he was an even greater person."
Though Thompson's height measures only 6'4½", he has a vertical leap of 44 inches. What Thompson does is not so much in defiance of gravity as it is descriptive of gravity's outer limits.
At some point, probably even before last season, Thompson may have gotten too high for his own good, and it was then that he must have looked down for the first time and realized how very far he might fall if he were to slip even slightly. In the moment of that awful insight, Thompson stopped trying to hold himself up and began looking for a safe place to land. His descent was so steep that by the time he struck bottom, the legendary Skywalker had become the alleged Sky-gimp, crippled for half the season by an injury to his left arch that Thompson says was real, but that others implied was only an excuse to cover his fear of flying.
"It was the most humiliating year that I have ever been through," Thompson says, "the way everybody treated me. People came out saying a lot of things about my personal life, which they knew nothing about, the drug thing, my injury. I couldn't believe how many things were going wrong. It felt as if everything had caved in on me."