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He Puts The Court Before The Horse
Bruce Newman
August 23, 1982
Mychal (Sweet Bells) Thompson of the Trail Blazers doesn't want any ringing changes for his native Bahamas, just one real basketball court
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August 23, 1982

He Puts The Court Before The Horse

Mychal (Sweet Bells) Thompson of the Trail Blazers doesn't want any ringing changes for his native Bahamas, just one real basketball court

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Thompson has been lobbying hard for a decent basketball facility since he shattered a bone in his left leg while playing on a cement court in Nassau three years ago. The injury caused him to miss his entire second NBA season and, as a result, he won't play basketball when he's in the Bahamas. "I'm scared to death of those floors," he says. "Playing on that kind of surface is the same as playing soccer on concrete."

The 27-year-old Thompson didn't start playing basketball until he was 16. His father, who operates an import-export business in Nassau, had encouraged his seven children to participate in sports, but it wasn't until he joined a church league that Mychal realized that he might be any good at hoops. In one of his first games he grabbed 61 rebounds, and in another he blocked 22 shots. Even so, Thompson was having too much fun as the 6'5" quarterback on a local football team to get serious about basketball. But when his older brother Colin insisted he exploit his basketball talent, Mychal began to think about leaving the islands for the first time in his life. Colin knew about lost opportunity. Not long before that, he was a long-ball-hitting prospect whom the Los Angeles Dodgers had assigned to their Double A farm team in Albuquerque. Following his first spring training, however, he packed up and headed back to the islands. "That's the way Bahamians are," Mychal says. "They think they can do everything right away, and you can't tell them any differently once they've made up their minds. That's why I was lucky to get away when I was young and still had a lot to learn. Too many Bahamians don't leave until they're older, and by then they have attitude problems."

A friend of Thompson's who was playing for Jackson High School in Miami offered him a place to stay. That was in 1972. Thompson could think of no logical reason not to go. "I was raw," Thompson says. "I had never played in front of a crowd before in my life, and even though I was only a half-hour flight from Nassau, I felt like I was in another world. I was so nervous before my first game I almost passed out."

Lockhart, who would later wind up at the University of Minnesota with Thompson, was already playing for Jackson, along with his cousin Charles Thompson and Cecil Rose, two other Bahamians who were eventually recruited by the University of Houston. During Thompson's senior year, 1973-74, the school's first six players consisted of four Bahamians and two Cubans, and Jackson went 33-0 and won the Florida state AAAA championship. The so-called Jackson Five beat teams by an average of 30 points, and the real Floridians—people whose families had moved to Florida from places like New York and North Dakota—didn't like the idea of a bunch of foreigners clobbering their kids one bit. An investigation was launched by the Miami News's Bill Brubaker, who discovered that Jackson had used one player, Rose, who was too old (20) and three others—Thompson, his cousin Charles and Lockhart—whose high school eligibility had expired.

Jackson Coach Jake Caldwell was exonerated of the recruiting charges and remains the coach at Jackson. The school was allowed to keep the state title and the trophy, but its record is accompanied by an asterisk.

"I had the potential," Thompson says, "but nobody told me the right way to use it until Caldwell came along. There's no way I'd be a pro without him."

While he was in Miami, Thompson started wearing tassels tied to the laces of his gym shoes, and later he added small bells that jingled when he ran. "That's how I got the name Bells," he says. "It became Sweet Bells after people saw some of my moves on the court."

Thompson had wanted to play for a college in a U.S. city with major media exposure, but wound up in Minnesota. Always eager to create a distinctive identity for himself, he began wearing a beaded necklace on the court and then, in his sophomore year, he decided to change the spelling of his first name, Michael. When other players began asking him about the necklace, he told them they were "voodoo beads." Years later, when he got into a shoving match with the Phoenix Suns' Alvan Adams, Phoenix Assistant Coach Al Bianchi yelled to Adams from the sidelines, "Watch out, he's got them voodoo beads!" Last season the NBA prohibited players from wearing all forms of jewelry in games. "Those were my native beads," Thompson says, "and they were blessed with Bahamian knowledge, Bahamian love. Those beads were how people recognized me off the court, and they brought me a lot of luck. I took them off and I broke my leg."

The beads brought mixed results at Minnesota. Although he did set school scoring and rebounding records, he also got mixed up in a ticket-scalping episode that resulted in Thompson's being suspended for the first seven games of his senior season. "College athletes can't live on what the NCAA allows," Thompson says in his defense. "You need a little money so you can get out once in a while to have a good time, and maybe a little car to get you around. Why is it all right for the coaches to get all these complimentary cars from local dealers, but not the players? The way the NCAA has it set up, it's like they want to make college athletics another Poland—the ruling government has all the money and everybody else is poor."

Portland never expected Thompson to be the team's center. When he was drafted, the Blazers' center was Bill Walton, and the plan was to use Thompson at power forward and to back up Walton in the middle. But when Walton began to have foot problems, Thompson changed positions.

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