David Thompson’s Leap to Fortune, 1979

[Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist and king of the one-liner way back when, decided in March 1978 to badda-boom about the NBA’s high-flying superstar David Thompson. “If David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets had a rotor, he could direct traffic on the San Diego Freeway or give police signal alerts to radio stations below . . . David Thompson doesn’t have feet, he has trampolines . . . He could play Peter Pan without props. His arms are just shorter than a DC-10’s wings, and he tends to lift off just walking down the street in a high wind.”

Nearly 45 years later, Murray’s badda-booms fall flat. But in 1978, readers chuckled right along, mainly because Thompson was such a revelation on the basketball court. Most had never seen a human being jump so high so often, and Murray’s flights of journalist hyperbole seemed somehow appropriate to place the amazing Thompson within some accessible mythical realm. 

But all this overblown hype wasn’t easy to bear for the shy, soft-spoken Thompson. Neither was Thompson equipped emotionally to bear all of the pressure that crashed down upon him in April 1978 with his signing of the most-lucrative contract in the history of American professional sports. The late Dan Lauck, then with Newsday, captured Thompson’s inner turmoil and its effects on the Nuggets and their 1978 playoff run. Lauck’s excellent story appeared, among other places, in The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, 1979.]


David Thompson looked confused, his face twisted up. He was reliving in his mind the last seconds of the game in Capitol Centre, the play Denver coach Larry Brown had set up for him during the timeout, the screen, the inbounds pass, the final seconds beginning to tick. His eyes went blank as he recalled it, recalled beating his man, going up for the shot, and ohmigod . . . Elvin Hayes was right in his face. Elvin Hayes is 6-foot-9; his arm span is forever; David Thompson is 6-foot-3 ½. There was no way to shoot. There was no way to pass, because the Bullets had cut off the passing lanes.

David Thompson was stuck. In the air. No place to go.

“So I jumped a little higher,” he said and then paused. The words struck him. He was confused about what had even happened, let alone how to put it.

“You know what I mean?” he asked.

“No,” the man said.

“I just . . . just jumped up higher.”

“But you were already in the air,” the man said. He was confused. Both of them were confused. All David Thompson knew was that when Elvin Hayes suddenly appeared in his face, he somehow jumped higher, up over Hayes, and shot the ball off the glass and watched it nestle into the basket as the buzzer sounded. Anyone who has a tacit understanding of the falling of the apple and related physical phenomena can tell you that what David Thompson did—or apparently did—is impossible. But, then, there have been other physical impossibilities. 

There was the night in Kansas City and the free-throw circle with the ball, 17 or 18 feet from the basket maybe, when he suddenly stepped once, leaped, and stuffed the ball. Kansas City’s Scott Wedman watched it happen, but it would not register in his mind. He knew that David Thompson had, in fact, scored because all nine bodies began moving the other way. But it wasn’t possible to do what he just did—not from that far away—and while Wedman shuffled back down the court, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. After the game, after he had showered and dressed, after the Denver Nuggets had left Kemper Arena, after everyone was gone. Scott Wedman went back out into the arena and walked out onto the floor and stood where he had stood when David Thompson did what he had done. Wedman just stared at the spot on the floor.

Scott Wedman may never forget that night, yet David Thompson doesn’t remember it. There’ve been so many nights when he has done something singularly amazing that his feats are not singularly amazing. Not if you were there for them all. They have become collectively lost in the sea of such moments in his mind, they seem so commonplace to him. Yet, they’re hardly commonplace. 

There are, in all of basketball, only two players who can play their worst of games—play like any other jump shooter from Oshkosh for 47 minutes, 57 seconds—yet leave 15,000 people awestruck with one incredible moment. There are only two: Julius Erving and David Thompson. It sets them apart from even the immortals. Bill Walton can win you a championship, when healthy. And Kareem can get you close to one, at least. But even they cannot fill the seats in the nosebleed section of any arena on any night.

It was for those moments of David Thompson’s magic—moments when he is in the air, higher than anyone else, doing something that no one in the house has ever seen before—it was for those moments that every proud owner of a 24-second clock would love to bid. Even if most of the teams in the National Basketball Association were out of the game after Bid 1, as most assuredly would be, Larry Fleisher knew it was going to be a fun summer. Fleischer is David Thompson’s negotiator. He figured he would send David away to hide in the North Carolina hills. Those who deal in gossip would crank up the rumor mill. Then Fleischer would sit down across the table from Fitz Dixon and Carl Scheer and Jack Kent Cooke and  20 Century Fox himself, collecting the bids, shaking his head in disapproval. “Higher,” he would say, and push the bids across the table. It would be wonderful.

All of which Carl Scheer realized. So, on a Thursday in April, he placed a call to Larry Fleischer and, as president of the Denver Nuggets and the man who currently signs David Thompson’s checks, made an offer to keep David Thompson from throwing his name into the world of free-agentry. “The offer was substantial,” Scheer says. An understatement. It was five years for $4 million, or $800,000 a year. Eight hundred thousand dollars. It’s a staggering figure, and it staggered some of the Nuggets’ owners at first, and it staggered some of the people around the NBA. 

Top dollar in the NBA had inched up in the last few years: George McGinnis jumped it to $500,000, then Erving got $500,000, then Kareem $600,000, then Peter Maravich $615,000, then Kareem $650,000. And that doesn’t include bonuses. “I don’t think $800,000 was in anyone’s mind,” said one NBA general manager.

It was in Larry Fleischer’s. There have been rumors that the Knicks would go to $1 million, rumors that appeared out of thin air. Compared with $1 million, $800,000 seemed palatable. Besides, without David Thompson, the Nuggets could go down the drain, and Carl Scheer and the conglomerate of 32 owners of the Denver Nuggets knew it.

Yet, at the same time, they have cut back on office space, eliminated telephones, and asked Ralph Simpson to defer $35,000 salary because there were no funds for it—without going to the bank. And they already are operating under a tower of debt to the First National Bank of Denver. So quite obviously, with David Thompson, they could go down the drain, too.

Carl Scheer

That was a gamble that Carl Scheer thought they had to take. They would have to gamble on finances, gamble that the rest of the players don’t demand renegotiated contracts, gamble that the Nuggets don’t begin to play like New Orleans, where everyone stands around and watches Maravich, gamble that they can somehow skimp by until 1980 when they would get to dip their hands into the television treasure chest, gamble that the David Thompson Jackpot wouldn’t blow up their faces.

With that decision behind them, with David Thompson’s John Hancock on the contract, Scheer withheld news of the signing until opening night of the playoffs. With the Milwaukee Bucks and a full house watching, they announced David Thompson would be coming back. The crowd roaring its approval. Carl Scheer shook David’s hand, finding it cold and clammy. And then, David Thompson went out to show everyone what the highest-paid athlete in the world plays like.

His first shot went over the basket.

“It was like it was filled with helium,” Brown said. “I thought it was never going to come down.”


One night in the late spring of 1975, his senior year, David Thompson was at this party, sitting at a table in a dark room, drinking a beer, and talking with another student. Another man wandered in and sat down at the table without realizing whom he was sitting beside. When he got a good look, he discovered his good fortune, and when David finished the can of beer, the man spoke up, “Hey, could I have that can?”

David laughed. Not scornfully, but incredulously.

He shouldn’t have been surprised. Basketball stars are a big deal in Carolina, no matter who they are, and some become superstars, like North Carolina’s Charlie Scott, who came before him, and Phil Ford, who came after. No one, though, ever approached the status of David Thompson. He received standing ovations in games at the University of North Carolina, where no State player ever received anything but torment.

One theory, from a writer who witnessed the David Thompson days, is that he hit the state at precisely the right time. Scott was too early. Ford too late. The whites of North Carolina were ready for a Black hero, someone they could empathize with, relate to. David Thompson was perfect. He grew up in tiny Crest, N.C., his father a truck driver, janitor, tinkerer, who worked two jobs to put his kids through school. The Thompsons had 11 children. David was the youngest, but unbabied, quiet, respectful, went to class, never flaunted his status, corrected his English as he spoke—everything you could want.

Then, during the finals of the Eastern Regionals in Raleigh in his junior year, came the most dramatic moment of David Thompson’s career. State was playing Pittsburgh. Thompson had taken a shot, thought he’d been fouled, and stopped. There was no whistle. Pittsburgh began a fastbreak the other way, leaving Thompson behind and steaming mad. The Pitt player at the other end of the fastbreak went up for a shot. State’s Phil Spence, who’s 6-foot-8, went up to block the shot and, suddenly, out of nowhere, there appeared the figure of David Thompson—he’s just 6-foot-3 ½ remember—way up above Spence, flying totally out of control, trying to block the shot. His feet may have been six or seven feet off the ground. It was another of those moments.

Then he caught his feet on Spence’s shoulder and flipped, landing on his head and the back of his neck. He bounced once, his legs quivered, then he lay perfectly still. There was not a sound in the place. Most everyone thought he was dead. They brought out of stretcher, placed his body on it and rushed him to the hospital. 

Amazingly enough, he was all right. Before the end of the half, David Thompson walked back into the arena, a blood-stained bandage around his head, a la the Spirit of ’76 scene, and exhorted State to win the game. It did, went to the NCAA finals the next week, and won the championship, beating UCLA and Bill Walton. More than that, after the fall, he seemed to have a cosmic effect upon the people of North Carolina. “In their minds,” said one writer, “they saw him come back from the dead.”

He had hardly a moment’s peace thereafter, and though he shrouds it and doubles back when he catches himself saying it, people have gotten a distinct feeling that his superhero status in North Carolina eventually wore on him. It is one reason that he likes Denver. He is still David Thompson, but he is not the celebrity in Denver that he is in North Carolina. “Life here is more mellow. The pace is not as hectic. The people are more laid back. They respect your privacy more,” he said. It wouldn’t be that way in New York. Or Los Angeles. And he knew it. 


The Nuggets were sitting in a darkened room In the Marc Plaza Hotel in Milwaukee, collected around a television. They were watching a tape of a telecast of Game 3, and, unlike the usual antiseptic whir of a projector, the tape was accompanied with sound, including the comments of Tim Ryan, one of the broadcasters. Ryan, at one point, noted David Thompson’s new contract and called him the Four Million Dollar Man. It seemed just a moment later that David was in focus again, missing a shot, and Ryan noted that he was then 4 of 17. There was an almost audible wince by those in the room.

“I know I felt a twinge of embarrassment for David,” Dan Issel said. Issel has been one of the three constants on the floor for Denver in recent years, because at the end of every season, it seems half of the team has been shuffled off to Buffalo or some other woe-begotten place. Issel, meanwhile, has established himself as a star as a small center. He is 6-foot-9, has a nice shooting touch, quick drives, a 21.3 average, and no front teeth. He came out of Kentucky in the 1970s as the greatest thing since the brown suit and signed with the Colonels in the ABA. For security, he got a 10-year contract. 

Security he still has, but next year, when David Thompson will make $800,000 (or $ 9,756.10 per game, $3.39 first second, $10.17 for lane violation; figure it yourself), Issel will make $182,400. Bobby Jones will make $253,000. Ralph Simpson almost $200,000. Bobby Wilkerson $90,000. Anthony Roberts next to nothing . . . comparatively.

Such comparisons cause trouble in locker rooms. Within a week of the signing, there was a rumor that one of the more-prominent players was heard grumbling about being underpaid. If that’s true, it is merely the expected, human nature being what it is. Some of the Nuggets’ personnel suggested that had the same events occurred on the Knicks, all hell would’ve broken loose immediately. They want to think their players are somehow more mature, less egocentric. Like Issel. Even at one-fourth David’s salary, Issel said he did not feel underpaid. “You think the guy who went to school when I did, studied to be an accountant like I did, got better grades than I did, who is an accountant today making $ 40,000—you think that guy thinks I’m underpaid?”

The fact Issel says that, and the fact that no one has yet gone to Scheer complaining, was not causing Scheer to close his eyes. “The season’s not over, yet,” he said. He knows the $4 million will change things. When the Nuggets traded Jim Price for Simpson, a former star with the Nuggets who was then fattening on the Detroit bench, they were confronted with a cash problem. Simpson was being paid $35,000 a year more than Price, and Scheer had no funds for the adjustment. He asked Simpson to defer the difference. Simpson, wanting the trade, agreed. The same was planned for next year. It’s doubtful now, though, that Simpson or anyone else would agree to such a concession. “If they can’t come up with my 35 grand, where are they coming up with you David’s 750?” Simpson might ask. And Scheer might be stumped.

There were, obviously, real questions about the Nuggets’ ability to pay David’s salary. In the press conference, after the signing, Scheer was asked how David would be paid, meaning was the $800,000 coming in life insurance, annuities, season tickets till 2001, and mineral rights to all the abandoned mines in Colorado.

“How does David take his money?” He was asked.

“On the 1st and 15th,” Scheer replied.

Meaning, cash. Reportedly, $750,000 will be current and just $50,000 deferred. That’s a jump of $350,000 in cash next year (this season, he made $400,000 current, $100,000 deferred). On the other side of the ledger, Scheer is hoping to get a better lease from the city on McNichols Arena, and in the new contract with CBS, Denver will get a partial share (“six figures,” Scheer said). 

But they couldn’t sell too many more seats, since their average is the highest in the league, and raising ticket prices could backfire. Nor are the owners planning on kicking in more capital. Simply, Scheer is planning to chop here and there, the same as you cut the bananas and Twinkies from the grocery budget, until he gets the money. He admits he is running a gamble, that he can get by till the 1980-81 season when they get a full share of the CBS loot. He admits it’s possible that they could not afford to sign David Thompson. “The way I looked at it,” he said, “we couldn’t afford not to.”

None of this concerned David Thompson, or so he said. Nor should it. He does not parade his wealth into the locker room. He owns a Rolls-Royce but seldom drives it. He does not come to practice in furs and 17-piece suits. He owns no fur-lined sinks. In fact, his values have not changed appreciably from his days growing up in North Carolina. “Sometimes,” he said, “I don’t follow what I’m making. I still check price tags. When I buy a shirt, it’s usually handmade because of my long arms, but I ask them what it’ll cost.” And he flinches inside at the answer at times. “Then if I like it. I’ll end up saying, ‘What the hell, I can afford it.’” Even then, he avoids the rhinestones.

“If he was a jerk,” Issel said, “somebody who flaunted the fact that he’s a superstar and flaunted the money, we might have had problems. But David doesn’t flaunt it. The only liberty that he takes is that he comes to practice late now and then. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of us.”

That’s why Issel and everyone else could empathize with Thompson as they sat in the darkened hotel room, watching Game 3. And, if that wasn’t enough reason, there was another. They needed him. He had carried them most of the season and now, when they needed him most, he was not shooting well. Maybe it had been Quinn Buckner’s doing that David had not played well. Buckner had developed a theory on playing David Thompson: You don’t jump. There is no use jumping to block his shot, Buckner says, because you can’t jump half as high, and he will just shoot over you. So, Buckner crowds under him, hoping to make him uncomfortable. 

And maybe that’s what was causing him problems, though Larry Brown didn’t think so. On the morning of Game 4, as the Nuggets walked over to the Milwaukee Arena to shoot, Brown walked with David and talked quietly, making no big deal of it. Brown told him that he shouldn’t feel that he had to prove every night that he was worth the 800 million or whatever it was. He had already proven himself, Brown told him, for three years. 

That night, Brown was glad he made his little speech. Thompson had scored 34 points, and the Nuggets won Game 4, going up 3 games to 1. The fact that the Bucks shot 17 percent in the second quarter probably mattered more than Thompson’s 34 points, but no matter. Everything seemed cozy again. They were going home for Game 5 and could close out the Bucks. On the plane, Brown sat and talked about David Thompson for two hours. He didn’t seem to mind a bit.


Game 5 was a disaster. The Nuggets were up 10 points with six minutes left and blew the game. In the last minutes, when the game was on the line, only Ralph Simpson seemed to want the ball. David Thompson was nowhere to be found. Larry Brown noticed. When you are the highest-paid American athlete on any team in any sport, you are expected to take charge. But David was struggling, missing easy shots. He seemed tired, lifeless to Brown. Brown must have said that four or five times afterwards: that David looked tired. Brown seemed to be waiting for someone to ask why. Somebody asked. 

“I can see why David is tired,” Brown said, leaping out. “He’s got NewsweekTimePlayboyEsquireSports Illustrated, and Mademoiselle after him every day. I don’t know how he does it. I’m so tired of answering David Thompson questions. I don’t know how he does it. I really don’t.”

David was asked if that might be the reason that he looked tired. “Maybe,” he said. He didn’t push it, noticing that one of the two writers there was from NewsweekTime, etc. Interestingly, no one else came by. He was the focus of most everyone’s story, but he was treated with deference, as if he had suffered enough already.

The next day, the Nuggets boarded the plane at 4:20 in the afternoon to go back to Milwaukee for Game 6. All, that is, except for David Thompson. He was nowhere to be found. He missed the flight.


David Thompson was ready for Game 6. From the first time down the floor, he was hitting every shot he put up, and he had 20 points at the half. Not that it mattered. Milwaukee already was up by 15 points. If Game 5 was a disaster, Game 6 was worse. Dan Issel could do nothing right, making one of the 11 shots. Bobby Wilkerson, who was 0-for-10 in Game 5, was 1-for-8. Anthony Roberts and Bobby Jones could hardly make up for that.

“it seemed they went to David a lot today,” said Milwaukee’s Junior Bridgeman, “and since he was hitting shots, nobody else looked to shoot.”

Larry Brown saw the same thing. He looked out and saw the New Orleans Jazz standing around, watching Pete Maravich play. Five days before, his team had a 3-1 lead on the Bucks and were going home to close them out. Now they had just lost, 119-91, couldn’t possibly have looked worse, the momentum was all Milwaukee’s, and they were going home for the last game, Game 7. “I wouldn’t bet on Denver in a million years,” Brown said.

Somehow, by the next morning, when he walked into the locker room for practice, Brown would have to pull himself out of the dumps. Then he would have to pull the team out of the dumps. Brown would have to do his best Norman Vincent Peale: He would remind them of what gave them the 3-1 lead in the first place, remind them how good they really were, convince them they could come back and win Game 7.

Only he wouldn’t be able to convince David Thompson. He wouldn’t be there.


David Thompson dressed and hurried out the door just as everyone was walking off. He looked awful. He said he felt worse. He and Brown and Brown’s two assistant coaches went upstairs someplace to talk. Here, on the eve of Game 7, things could not have seemed worse. The common rumor was that when the Nuggets lost the game to Milwaukee—which seemed inevitable—Larry Brown would resign. The team had had a choke image in the playoffs under Brown, and here they were slumping—i.e., choking, some said—against Milwaukee. And then there was the David Thompson Affair. 

It had all backfired, Brown had said. The signing right before the playoffs had killed Thompson, had put more pressure on him than he was used to. Brown was even quoted as saying, “Milwaukee survived.” Meaning, the Milwaukee franchise survived after Kareem left and went to Los Angeles. The implication was that maybe Denver had made a mistake in signing David. And then, today.

Thompson left the arena unnoticed after his talk, and Brown came downstairs to the offices. He talked to those waiting. He said little. “I do know this,” he commented, “every big game he’s ever been involved in, he was ready to play.” Brown might have been hoping as much as commenting. 

He didn’t have to fret once Game 7 began. David Thompson looked like the David Thompson he had come to know. Same with Issel. And Bobby Jones. And Bobby Wilkerson. And Anthony Roberts. But mostly, it was Thompson’s game. “I guess you could say I had a mission,” he was to say. 

It looked it. He scored 37 points. And he played with as much emotion as anyone could remember. In the last minute or so, he went up for a rebound, came down, and whipped a halfcourt pass to the fleeing Anthony Roberts going the other way. Roberts caught the ball, dribbled, and went up and slammed it through, getting fouled on the way, a play that would put the game out of reach. Roberts turned to the other end of the court and raised his fists in the air. Thompson, like he was going for his all-time slam dunk, seemed to take off at midcourt, bringing his hand from near the floor in a full windup and slamming Roberts’ hand. 

Thompson then went to every teammate and shook his hand. Except Roberts. Anthony Roberts had to dip his hand in cold water so he could shoot the free throw. Larry Brown could only smile. 

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