I am only one spot away from naming my Greatest Denver Nugget of all time and I can tell you that it was a tough call which of these 2 players would hold that spot. But I have made my decision and today I bring you the second greatest Denver Nugget of all time…..David Thompson!
Thompson was not drafted by the Nuggets in 1975 as they were still in the ABA at the time. He was the first overall selection by the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA but chose to come to Denver after the Nuggets offered to sign his undrafted best friend, Monte Towe, from North Carolina State. Thompson was one of the greatest college players of all time while at NC State. He was named the college player of the year twice in a row in 1974 and 1975, he was a 3 time consensus All American in 1973, ’74 and ’75. He led NC State to a National Championship over the reigning dynastic UCLA Team under John Wooden that had won 10 titles in the last 12 years. Thompson earned his nickname The “Skywalker” while in college at NC State. His jumping ability was so amazing no one had ever seen anything like it before and he made the Alley-Oop look easy (Even though dunking was not allowed in NCAA basketball at the time due to the infamous “Lew Alcindor Rule”). Thompson was the biggest prize of the 1975 draft but chose to forego the NBA and made his home in Denver as he knew the Nuggets were moving to the NBA the following season in the Merger.
This was huge for the Nuggets as they had just gotten Dan Issel from the Kentucky Colonels in a trade as the Colonels were not one of the 4 teams being absorbed into the NBA when the ABA went under in 1976. Thompson made an immediate impact after signing with the Nuggets averaging 26 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a rookie in the ABA’s final season. For the next 5 years Thompson was widely considered to be one of the top 3-5 players in the NBA along with such luminaries as Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George Gervin, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the Nuggets own Dan Issel. His high water mark as a player in the NBA came during the 1977-1978 season when he engaged in an epic battle with Gervin for the NBA scoring title. On the last day of the season, Thompson scored an otherworldly 73 points against the Detroit Pistons to put immense pressure on Gervin to garner the title. Gervin would go out later that day and drop 63 points to steal the crown away from Thompson. Thompson ended that season with a 27.179 points per game average and the league had to go to the third decimal place to award the title to “The Iceman” at 27.201 PPG.
Thompson would set a precedent that is still in play today for NBA Contracts as he signed the largest player contract in history after that 1978 season, signing for $4 million over 5 years and becoming by far, the highest paid player in the league. This contract would not bode all that well for Thompson as the limelight of being such a high profile athlete got to him and he became embroiled in the drug culture of the late 70’s and became injury prone after signing the deal. This doesn’t take away much of Thompson’s influence on the Nuggets or the league as the league became an “above the rim” league due to Thompson’s unbelievable athleticism. It may be true, it may be Urban Legend, but there is a story that Thompson once had a quarter placed on top of the backboard and he jumped up and replaced it with 2 dimes and a nickel! Probably Urban Legend but this guy could jump out of the gym!
In his Nuggets career, Thompson or “DT” as he became known as in later years, averaged 24.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and shot over 50% from the field and 78% from the free throw line. Had Thompson not gotten into drugs and subsequently sustained the knee injuries that went hand-in-hand with his drug use, he may have been the Nuggets all time statistical leader in every category except blocked shots and assists. He was that good and only played 6 full healthy seasons with the Nuggets before being traded to the Seattle Supersonics after the 1982 season for Bill Hanzlik and the draft pick that ended up being the “Fat Little Hog”, Rob Williams. Here is where he ended up on the Nuggets all time top 10 lists in spite of his relatively short career with the Nuggets:
6th in minutes played with 16,902
4th in field goals made with 4,496
5th in field goals attempted with 8,842
4th in free throws made with 2,996
4th in free throws attempted with 3,844
5th in turnovers with 1,189
10th in personal fouls with 1,397
4th in points with 11,992
10th in field goal percentage at .507
5th in points per game with an average of 24.1 per contest.
That is a really impressive grouping of stats for a guys who only played 7 seasons in Denver and only 5 of them were at full strength.
This guy was so much fun to watch that it became normal in the late 70’s and early 80’s to show up at McNichols Arena early for Nuggets games because Thompson would put on one helluva show before the game doing various amazing dunks and just wowing the crowd before the ball even went up to start the game. Thompson is also very well known for being a part of the very first Slam Dunk contest held at McNichols Arena in the last ABA All Star game to be played in 1976. Thompson and Julius Erving put on a display of dunking that, other than Michael Jordan, has never been equaled in NBA history. This is the contest where Erving first did the “Free Throw Line Flying Jam” and Thompson completed two 360 degree jams and one cuff dunk that was off the chain. Erving won the contest with his flying through the air with the greatest of ease dunk from the free throw line, but no one could say that DT didn’t hold his own. He truly was the “Skywalker” on this night and many others in his career.
My best recollections of David Thompson are on the good side and the bad side. I remember him soaring above all others during the game and dunking in the faces of some of the NBA’s most elite players of that time including Dr. J, Kareem, Artis Gilmore, and many others. He was a joy to watch on the court because you did not know what new awe-inspiring athletic feat he would pull off next. The bad is my disappointment as a Nuggets fan when the accusations of rampant drug use started to surface after he signed his big contract after the 1978 season. Thompson actually ruined his career because of his drug use when he fell down the stairs of the notorious “Studio 54″ Nightclub in New York City badly injuring his knee while extremely high on cocaine. The other good is that DT got his life together. He became a Nuggets Ambassador and a pillar in the Denver Community after getting clean and he is still to this day an iconic Denver Nugget beloved by all those who saw him play….or wished they had!
Thompson had his Jersey number 33 retired by the Nuggets in 1988 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
Once again I can say that deciding the top 3 Denver Nuggets of all time in which order has been a trying time but here you have my 2nd greatest Denver Nugget of all time David O’Neil “Skywalker” Thompson!