The Tragic Story of David “Skywalker” Thompson and What Could’ve Been

Dick Raphael/Getty Images
Dick Raphael/Getty Images

The NBA is a league full of ‘what if’s.’ What if the Trail Blazers drafted Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie? What if Len Bias didn’t tragically pass away shortly after draft night? The list goes on. A ‘what if’ story that stands out above many of the rest is that of David Thompson. The high flying 6’4” guard had the potential to be an all-time great basketball legend. Unfortunately, that would never materialize.

Stats courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com

Thompson’s Origins

Thompson burst onto the scene as a rising star at North Carolina State. There, he averaged 26.8 points per game in his 3 collegiate seasons. He also led the Wolfpack to an NCAA Championship in 1974.

Thompson was more than just a typical college phenom, due to his unparalleled athletic gifts. He could jump out of the gym in a way that’s comparable to elite dunkers of today. Though never officially recorded, Thompson claimed to have had an insane max vertical leap of 48 inches. This high-flying athletic ability earned him the famous nickname of “Skywalker.” 

Thompson’s ability was so special that none other than Michael Jordan idolized him. The fellow North Carolina native’s play-style took after Thompson. Jordan expressed this admiration in his 2009 Hall of Fame speech. Thompson has received high praise from other great players over the years, including Hall of Famer Bill Walton. Walton called him “Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James all rolled into one.”

One could even argue that David Thompson was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. It’s never easy to compare anyone to MJ. Yet, if there’s anyone from before Jordan’s era that resembled him the most, it’s Thompson. Both were athletic freaks of nature with solid jumpers that could light up arenas with their dynamite scoring abilities. Jordan is obviously the better player and achieved far more. However, it was Thompson who set the example as an ultra-athletic scoring machine at the shooting guard position.

Thompson in the NBA

Both the NBA and the ABA took notice of Thompson’s rise to stardom. They both selected him 1st overall in each of their 1975 drafts. He opted to play for the Denver Nuggets of the ABA and instantly proved his worth as a superstar.

Thompson averaged 26 points per game on an efficient 51.5 FG% in his first pro season, earning him Rookie of the Year honors. He was also selected to the All-Star game where he outdueled the legendary Julius Erving en route to winning All-Star Game MVP. Not only that, but he also led his Nuggets squad to a league-best 64 wins before losing in the ABA Finals. And most impressively, Thompson did all of this at just 22 years old. The future couldn’t have looked brighter.

The ABA merged with the NBA after Thompson’s rookie year, but the increase in the competition didn’t matter much, if at all. He put up similarly great numbers in 1977 & 1978 and made the All-NBA First Team each year. But these accolades — albeit impressive — are only the tip of the iceberg when talking about Skywalker’s greatness.

The main thing that separates David Thompson from other talented stars was his 73-point outburst on April 9, 1978. In one of the most impressive offensive performances of all time, he did this on a mere 38 field goal attempts and before the league introduced three-pointers. Even today, only Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant have bested the single-game total. Games of that nature don’t happen on accident, and Thompson’s performance is one of the many things that prove he was on his way to being in the discussion as a top 10 player to ever step foot on a basketball court.

So what happened? Why isn’t David Thompson regarded as a transcendent player nowadays?

Thompson’s Downfall

Thompson’s downfall from NBA superstar started with a foot injury that sidelined him for a good portion of the 1979-80 season. He returned to star status the very next year, but the injury was the beginning of the end for Thompson. During his recovery, Thompson developed an addiction to cocaine due to loneliness and isolation from basketball. This addiction took its toll on Thompson over the coming seasons, limiting his effectiveness and ability to focus on the sport.

After a poor 1982 campaign, Denver dealt him to the Seattle Supersonics, but the fresh start didn’t change Thompson’s inconsistencies on & off the court. He showed some promise after making the All-Star game in 1983 but missed almost all of 1984 while rehabilitating. Unfortunately, the dominos kept falling. He suffered a knee injury that offseason after being pushed down a stairwell in an altercation and was never the same. Thompson tried making a return with the Indiana Pacers but was unsuccessful. The once-promising David Thompson had played his last NBA game at the age of just 30.

It took time, but Thompson did get over his addiction and reinvented his life because of it. Today he’s a devout Christian and works as a motivational speaker. His story as a basketball player is a sad one, but his story as a regular human being is one of recovery and triumph against the odds.

It’s extremely unfortunate that the league only got to see a talent like David Thompson for a limited time, and fans can only imagine what could’ve been if his career wasn’t tarnished by off-the-court issues. Either way, what The Skywalker accomplished on the hardwood has only been matched by a number of other players. His talent is undeniably special and his influence helped usher in a new era of basketball. For that, he deserves the utmost respect and recognition as a basketball legend.