Thompson remembers 1971
SALISBURY — David Thompson had been grounded in Salisbury before.
Before he became regarded as the best basketball player in ACC history, Thompson carried a decorated prep career at then-new Shelby Crest. The Chargers were said to have averaged 90 points a game and took flight with Thompson at the controls his senior year in 1971. Thompson averaged over 30 points a game in unprecedented fashion. N.C. State, UNC and Duke were fawning over the prolific scorer that found the net from 17 feet as smoothly as he did on a layup.
A 28-0 Crest team rolled over A.L. Brown and North Rowan in the playoffs before meeting their match in the Western North Carolina High School Activities Association championship at Catawba. The Chargers ran into a slightly less talented but fundamentally sound and structured team in Boyden led by coach Bob Pharr on the sideline and Kenny Holt on the floor. Boyden, now known as Salisbury, won its third straight championship against Crest, holding Thompson to 3-for-15 field-goal shooting as he concluded his high school days with a 41-33 loss at Goodman Gym.
A trip back to Rowan County Friday morning evoked some vivid memories.
“When you’re undefeated up to that point, it’s kind of a devastating loss,” Thompson said. “It’s something you remember for a while. They ran a box-and-one on me and that was a good strategy. I had one of my lowest point totals — 16.”
The game remains one of the watershed moments in county history and the apex of Pharr’s time on the bench.
“We were fortunate enough that we played one of our better games and David didn’t play very well,” Pharr said. “It was the most important game we ever won.”
Thompson eventually got even, helping N.C. State go unbeaten on probation in 1973, then knocking off behemoth UCLA en route to the school’s first national championship the following year. His professional career followed with sustained success in the early going before injuries and substance abuse brought down what seemed to be an infallible giant.
The 44-inch vertical that scaled the rafters at Reynolds Coliseum is gone, but Thompson’s soaring to new heights now by traveling the state talking to students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Back then, they were the only two things that derailed the man who in 1978 signed the richest contract of any professional basketball player. Many believe a good NBA career could have been great if not for distractions.
“I’ve seen the devastation first-hand,” Thompson said. “It can kill a family and a career. You want these kids to have a good chance to be successful.”
The 6-foot-4 former No. 1 draft pick walked into Salisbury High auditorium still larger than life, but let the youngsters know his head isn’t in the clouds. Thompson, the two-time AP National College Player of the Year, highlighted a cast of former athletes that included former NCSU quarterback Roman Gabriel, Carolina Panthers color analyst Eugene Robinson, former Panther running back Dwight Stone and Notre Dame/Washington Redskins star Renaldo Wynn at SHS Friday.
“I’ve made a greater impact doing this than anything I’ve done on the basketball court,” Thompson said. “You try to impact the next generation and I’ve been able to do that.”
Thompson’s 58 years old now and lives with his wife in Charlotte. He has two daughters, one of which is a professor at Gardner-Webb, right down the road from where he was raised. He’ll still put on a show for kids at basketball camps and plays some at the YMCA. Most folks don’t know Thompson is actually the cousin of Derek Whittenburg, who helped the Wolfpack win a national title on probably the most famous air-ball of all time in 1983.
It was 35 years ago Thompson scored 73 points for the Denver Nuggets, the fourth-highest total in NBA single game history.
Now his biggest accolade? 25 years of sobriety.
“It’s still one day at a time,” Thompson said. “You have to make changes and know that you’re powerless every day. You can’t get overconfident.”