David Thompson: Portrait of a Famous Unknown, 1979

[Up next is an interview with David Thompson. It ran in the February 1979 basketball issue of the magazine POPULAR SPORTS. The article comes with an intro, and I offer it here to help set the stage:

By affixing his name to a reported $4 million, five-year contract last spring—a figure neither he nor his financial advisor Ted Shay denies—David Thompson attracted more attention for an off-the-court event than he had during three seasons with the Denver Nuggets. Despite being one of the game’s genuine superstars, Thompson is basically unknown as a person to most people around the country.

POPULAR SPORTS assigned Larry Bortstein, a long-time observer of the national sports scene, who has been based in Colorado the past two years, to talk to Thompson and capture a portrait of the man as he really is. What follows is Bortstein’s account of a 90-minute session he spent with Thompson in Denver one recent afternoon.]

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I had been around David several times before this meeting, and while I couldn’t say I had gotten to know him well, he certainly knew me by name, and I felt we were friendly. So, I was beginning to feel a little put out when, 20 minutes after our scheduled meeting at 2 p.m. at Denver’s Marriott Hotel, David still hadn’t shown up. The interview had been arranged by Ted Shay, the vice president of Northwestern Financial Corporation of North Wilkesboro, N.C., the man who is in charge of David’s considerable amount of money. Shay had assured me that David would grant the interview at the scheduled time, and I’ve never before had any reason to doubt either Thompson or Shay.

Just as my frustration was turning close to anger, Thompson entered the lobby of the hotel in the company of two other men, one much larger than David, the other slightly smaller. The big man, it turned out, was Larry Hunt, 6-foot-11, a former teammate of David’s at Crest High School in Shelby, that rural North Carolina town of 7,000 citizens, where Thompson had grown up. The smaller man was Jimmy Foster of Hoboken, N.J., a former collegiate star at the University of Connecticut who had tried—unsuccessfully—to make the Nuggets’ roster two years in a row, and who now was considering offers to play in Europe.

Coincidentally, the towering Hunt, who had played college ball at East Carolina, had recently returned from Finland, where he had spent the season and now was hopeful of landing an offer from an NBA team. He told me he felt he could shoot and rebound on a par with several other centers currently in the NBA.

The three men were wearing basketball shorts as they entered the hotel lobby, having just returned from a workout on a court near Thompson’s home in the southeast Denver suburb of Englewood. David’s forehead glistened with sweat. He was wearing a tennis sweater upon the sleeve of which I could make out the notation: “C. Dior.”

The four of us went into the hotel’s coffee shop. Hunt and Foster took one booth, while David and I settled into another. Orders of club sandwiches and orange juice were made all around, and as the waitress stepped away, I turned on my tape recorder and David and I began our conversation.

David, obviously this new contract you’ve signed has made some changes in your life, right?

Quite naturally, there’ve been a lot more demands for my time. More people want to get to know me, know about my personal life than before, and I’ve received a lot more personal exposure in this area (Denver) than before. People recognize me more than they did before.

How does this affect you? Are you happy about all the attention?

I’m basically a low-key person. I don’t think I do anything exceptional or out of the ordinary, except maybe play basketball. I’m pretty much an everyday guy. But I guess when you’re a pro basketball player, naturally you’re gonna get a lot of attention. But I’d like for people to know about the things I do besides play basketball, positive things like bikeathons and readathons for multiple sclerosis. I’m glad for people to know about those things.

Don’t you feel that you are largely unknown as far as most of the country is concerned, say, by comparison with other superstars in sports?

Maybe so, but it’s not because I haven’t talked about myself. I’m not embarrassed to say I come from a very poor family. I have seven sisters and three brothers. My father, Vellie Thompson, was a truck driver and later a sales clerk in an army surplus store, and he also worked as a janitor. My mother Ida worked sometimes, but she had to take care of a large family. I don’t know how my parents managed really. The most my father ever made was maybe $7,000 a year. But they had a lot of faith and always worked hard. I was the baby in the family.

Where is your father now?

Most of them are still in North Carolina, and a few of them are in the Virginia-Washington, D.C. area. I bought my parents a new home in Shelby, and they live there now with three of the children. My father’s 65, and he’s retired.

What is your family’s reaction to what has become of you in basketball? Obviously, you’re making more money than they ever must have thought possible.

My family is certainly awestruck about the money. They really can’t conceive of me, or anyone else, making so much money from pro basketball. I can’t either. Of course, I don’t actually see the money, so it doesn’t influence me. Ted Shay puts me on a salary. And he sends me a certain amount of money once a month. I really don’t need any more money now than I was already making. My initial contract was providing me with enough money for the rest of my life. It’s not like I’m going from $200,000 a year to $800,000. I was already making $500,000 a year.

But yet, here in Denver, everyone felt you were going to some other team for more money. What about that?

Well, yeah, I probably could’ve gotten more money if I had gone to some other team. I knew of some offers that were being made. But I was really satisfied with what I got here. I think this is one of the best player-to-player and player-to-coach relationships in the entire spectrum of pro basketball. We have guys that are compatible on the court and off the court. That meant a lot to me.

The New York Knicks made no bones about wanting to get you. Sonny Werblin, who runs Madison Square Garden, went so far as to say that ‘David Thompson belongs in New York.’ Out here, people took that to mean that somehow Denver wasn’t worthy of you. What was your reaction to that?

I was flattered by that remark, but I never really heard it said to me. That’s Mr. Werblin’s opinion.

So, you didn’t really think too seriously about going to play for the Knicks?

Well, Red [Holzman] and I did talk about offers from both New York and Los Angeles. But my personality is better suited to Denver, especially compared to New York. You become a public person there. There’s a lot of pressure placed upon you by the fans wherever you go. New York is such a big sports town that people are gonna recognize you wherever you go, and people in New York may be a little less respectful of people’s privacy. They think that if you’re a big basketball star, you belong to the public.

How do people in Denver react to you when they see you off the court? Do they bother you much?

They know who I am if they see me walking down the street or driving along, but people here don’t come up to me to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. And I think the Denver people respect all the players on the team more than they do in New York. There, you’re in a do-or-die situation. If you don’t win the championship there—no matter who you are—negative things are going to be said about you. That’s what happened to Walt Frazier, for example.

Yet, David, wouldn’t you say that most players, if given the choice, would choose to play in New York?

Yeah, a majority of the guys would want to play there. But they’re only looking at one side of it. They’re not looking at the whole spectrum of being there and playing in that city and the pressures they’ll be placed under. If they don’t produce there, it’s gonna be more destructive to them than any other place.

Is part of that because New York is the major media center?

Sure, and a lot of what’s written by the media in New York has controlled people’s thinking about the caliber of ballplayers. The media have a lot of influence on people’s thoughts. For instance, a lot of people in other cities hear only about me and think I’m the only player on our team. And what about George Gervin [in San Antonio]? How many people know about him? And yet, he won the scoring championship this season.

Speaking about playing under pressure, David, you obviously were under quite a bit of pressure when you signed your new contract right before the Nuggets went into the playoffs. The news of your signing was announced to the crowd at McNichols Arena right before the first game against Milwaukee, and you went out and immediately threw your first shot over the basket. Larry Brown said later he thought the ball was filled with helium, and that it was never going to come down. How severely did you feel the pressure during the playoffs?

Quite a bit. If I had to do it over, I probably would have waited until after the season to sign the contract. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I wanted to do so well, I wanted to win so badly, I began pressing a little, and I wasn’t playing my normal game.

The new contract makes you the highest-paid player in pro basketball. Does this indicate to you that you’re the best player in the game today?

Well, I know I’m one of the best. Let’s say that. I’ve been at first team All-Pro the last two years, so I think it’s fair to say that. I don’t have that big an ego about it. I think this is one of the reasons I get along with people pretty well. I don’t have that big an ego about myself. I’m an easy-going person. I don’t look down on people, and I don’t look up to other people either. I treat everybody the same. Try to, anyway.

Sticking with the subject of money for a moment, do you feel professional athletes deserve the kind of money that’s now being paid?

I think pro basketball is an entertainment for people. Actors and singers get a lot of money, so basketball players, who also are entertainers, should get a lot. We’re on TV a lot and in the newspapers all the time. You have 17,000 or 18,000 people coming out to see you play every night. It’s a spectator sport, and the people come to the games for entertainment. The athletes supply it for them. Besides, only the top players are getting a lot of money. A select few. There still are guys making $35,000 a year who play for only a year or two. People don’t look at the number of guys coming into the game and are shortly out of it. The guys like Monte Towe and the one in Atlanta—what’s his name—Charlie Criss. No one gave him a chance for years. He would have probably come into the league for free. He’s not making a lot of money, and how many more years is he gonna play?

But is there a limit on what can be paid? Won’t the guys coming out of college in the next few years be asking for a million dollars a year, even two million? Or won’t guys now in the league, after looking at your contract, feel they’re worth more and ask their clubs for more money?

I don’t think it’s gonna get much higher. It has to bottom out sometime. There’s not that many guys in the game of basketball that can command that much money. I think the salaries are gonna decline instead of increase in the years to come. There are gonna be so many players of the same caliber that you’re not gonna be able to tell the difference between one and the other. That’s gonna keep everybody kind of on the same plane. It’s not gonna project one player to be much greater than the others. Players are getting better all the time, and you’re gonna be able to get a great player—let’s say a Marvin Webster—for a lot less because there’s gonna be a lot of them.

Don’t you feel a lot of the NBA owners have to be happy about the fact that Atlanta, with a patchwork lineup and a lot of relatively low-salaried players, made the playoffs this past season?

Definitely. As far as talent was concerned, Atlanta might have been one of the four or five lowest teams in the league. But they were well-coached, and they wanted to win. They had the right chemistry, the right group of players. Not like Philadelphia. They had more talent than any team in the world, but they didn’t win the championship. They didn’t have the right combination. That’s why they won’t have the same guys back next season.

Your own team, the Nuggets, have had some pretty good records, winning your division the past two years, but not doing well the playoffs. Isn’t that getting frustrating?

Very frustrating. But each year I’ve been with the Nuggets, we’ve lost to teams that were better than us, except maybe when we lost to the Nets (in the 1976 ABA finals). We could have won the Seattle series this year, the things just didn’t work out. But that’s basketball. It all depends on who’s doing best at the end when it really counts. Seattle was a Cinderella-type story, and this was the year.

Each year, the Nuggets seem to have a new look because of trades. How has that affected you, and the fact you have to switch back and forth between forward and guard a lot? Do you prefer one position over the other?

As far as new guys coming in each year, there’ll the new ones again next year. I’m sure of that. It’s not a problem for me as far as getting along with different people each year. Guys feel comfortable around me. They can sense my inner truthfulness around people. Most people like me. And when a guy’s a teammate of mine, I try to become a friend of his. To me, that’s part of what it’s all about.

As far as which position I want to play, I made first team All-Pro as a forward two years ago and first team as a guard this past season. I’m kinda proud of that. I know I’ll still be playing a lot at both positions next year. It doesn’t really matter, because I’m prepared to do it. But I always was a forward in high school and college, so I consider that my natural position and the guard position something I have to do. Sometimes, mentally, you have to adjust to different things at the guard and forward positions. You have to concentrate on different areas of the game. Sometimes, you’re so into the game, you kind of space out a little, and you might lose your grip on what position you’re playing. Your emotions take over your knowledge. You might have problems which you can’t overcome switching from one position to another.

You’ve played for two interesting coaches—Norm Sloan at North Carolina State and Larry Brown here with the Nuggets. How do you compare the two?

Their basic philosophy of basketball is pretty similar. They both believe in good pressure defense, and they both run the passing game. Norm might not call it the passing game, but that’s what it is. As far as the way they are as people—Norm’s a real good man. A stern person. A strong man. Larry’s a nice man. He’s a little more emotional than Norm was. Larry gets into his players more from a personal standpoint. It really bothers Larry when a guy is traded. He feels for the guys. But in pro basketball, you’ve gotta deal with that. It’s gonna happen.

Which of the two has had the bigger influence on your life?

Well, I would say both have had about the same. The one person I would say has had the biggest influence is my father. I want to be remembered as a respected person and a good man. I get that from my father. He always got respect because he treated other people with respect. He and my mother live in that house I got for them in Shelby. It’s a bigger-and-better house than the one I have here for myself.

What kind of a house do you have?

It’s a four-level, 10-bedroom house. It’s not a great house. I’ve put things into it that I like and that reflect me. I have speakers for a stereo system in every room. I have a large master bedroom, 25 by 25. The house is big enough that when friends stay with me, they can be off by themselves, if they want to be, without seeing other people and having their own privacy.

The waitress began to take away our empty glasses as I turn the conversation to areas even more personal. The expression on his solemn face does not change as I began.

You live with a young woman, don’t you? Has that had any negative feedback for you? Are you planning to get married to her or anyone in the future? Would you like to have children someday?

Yes, I live with my girlfriend. Her name is Cathy. She’s from North Carolina. I knew her back there. She came out here a few months after I did. Up until last summer, I lived with Monte Towe. Then he got cut from the team when he tried out again last September, and now he’s getting married and going back to North Carolina State to work as an assistant under Norm. No, living with a girl hasn’t created any problems. It seems pretty much accepted today. Everybody’s doing it.

I don’t know about marriage. It’d probably be tough to be married and have children and be a basketball player. All the traveling and all the time away from home, even during the summer when you might have camps or trips or whatever. I think I’d like to have children. I like kids. Probably someday, I’ll end up working with kids. I got my degree in sociology, and I like being around kids, trying to help them. I won’t need to work to make a living when I leave basketball, so I’ll be able to do what I like. But as far as having my own kids, I don’t know yet. Not for a while. My new contract has me playing at least another five years, and I like the game so well, I’ll probably keep playing after that. I don’t know if I’ll play as long as John Havlicek, but I really like to play.

You had an accident during the NCAA playoffs in your junior year, when you fell on your head and it looked pretty serious. Do you remember that? Do you ever think about it?

I remember, I remember. Walter Cronkite went on the news on TV and talked about it. It happened so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to be scary. It happened spontaneously. It was against Pittsburgh in the Eastern Regionals. I was going up to block a shot, and my foot got caught on one of my teammate’s shoulders. I fell and landed on my head, and they took me to the hospital. It looked more serious than it actually was. I needed 12 stitches, and I had to get my hair cut short. After [that] my teammates called me “TWA” for a while: Teeny Weeny Afro. My ‘fro had to be cut real short.

I don’t think anything like that could ever happen to me again. I am more under control now when I jump. Then, I would go after just about anything I thought I could get to. That’s dangerous. Most of the time, I wouldn’t get to the ball anyway. So, I toned down my game, as far as that was concerned. I was jumping in traffic too much then.

Wouldn’t you have had to tone down your game anyway to take the pace of the much faster pro game, and because of the length of the pro basketball season?

Yeah, that’s true. You do have to tone down your game for pro ball. You can’t go 100 percent all the time. In college, you get so psyched up [that] you go 150 percent. In pro ball, you play so many games, and every night that you go out, you are against a good team. So, it’s hard to maintain that type of emotion.

Do you feel that being a pro basketball player, making all this money, has changed you? What might you have been doing if you weren’t in basketball? What other interests do you have, and have you developed new ones that require money now that you have a lot of it?

No, I still think I’m the same person I was when I came into basketball. I don’t know what else I could be doing. When I was young, I sang in the choir at church, the Baptist Church of Shelby. My father was a deacon there. I sang soprano. I always could sing and carry a tune, and I’ve always liked music. I have lots of albums, and I make tapes of them for my cars and for my speaker system at home. I like a lot of jazz, reggae, Bob Marley, some rock, some soul. But I never really thought about getting into it professionally. I do sing sometimes for friends.

Aside from a few investments and things, I don’t think I’ve spent a lot of money on expensive things. Ted takes care of all that stuff for me. People come up to me all the time with this deal or that deal, and most of them are just bull. If it’s something I don’t like right away, I tell the person no. If it sounds good, but I don’t want to deal with it, I’ll have them call Ted in North Carolina. He’s handling me full-time now. That was his choice. I told him I didn’t want to do that, if it would hurt whatever else he was doing. But he thought this was the right thing to do.

I have three cars—a blue Bronco, a silver-and-blue Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. A 1969. I bought that for an investment. I drive the Mercedes most of the time. But I have to drive the Rolls sometime, because if you don’t use it, carbon builds up in the carburetor, and you can hurt the engine. But mostly, I got it for an investment. It’s already made me $3,000 since I got it a couple of years ago.

As far as other things are concerned, I don’t think I’ll go out and buy things like art or expensive things to keep in the house. I’m not a very sophisticated person, not sophisticated at all. Those kinds of things don’t really interest me very much. Maybe as I get older, I’ll develop different interests, but I don’t know. I’m only 24 years old now, and I like what I’m doing and the way my life is going. It’s pretty good.

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