David O'Neil Thompson (born July 13, 1954 in Shelby, North Carolina) is an American professional basketball star who played for the Denver Nuggets of both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA), as well as the Seattle SuperSonics.
After leading North Carolina State University to an undefeated season (27-0) in 1973 (in which they were not eligible for the post-season), he led them to an NCAA Division I Men's Tournament Championship in 1974, including vanquishing the reigning national champions, the UCLA Bruins. His nickname was "Skywalker" because of his incredible purported 48-inch vertical leap. The alley-oop pass, now a staple of today's high-flying, above-the-rim game was "invented" by Thompson and his NC State teammate Monte Towe, and first used as an integral part of the offense by NC State coach Norm Sloan to take advantage of Thompson's leaping ability.
NC State's game against the nationally 4th-ranked University of Maryland in the 1974 ACC Tournament finale, in an era in which only conference champions were invited to the NCAA Tournament, is considered one of the best, if not the greatest, college basketball games of all time. Thompson and teammate Tom Burleson led the #1-ranked Wolfpack to a 103-100 overtime win. (See NC State vs. Maryland (1974).) Thompson and the Wolfpack would go on to win the National Championship that year while Maryland sat at home. Maryland's exclusion from the NCAA Tournament due to the loss despite their high national ranking would lead to the expansion of the NCAA Tournament the very next season to include teams other than the league champions.
In a league that included such talents as Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Tim Duncan, Christian Laettner, and Len Bias, Thompson is widely considered the greatest player in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Thompson played basketball in a time in which the "dunk" was outlawed via the "Lew Alcindor" rule. In 1975, against University of North Carolina at Charlotte, playing his final nonconference game at N.C. State, early in the second half Thompson drove the length of the court for his first and only slam dunk of his collegiate career, a goal that was promptly disallowed by technical foul. Head coach Norm Sloan removed Thompson, to thunderous applause. The ACC's most exciting player, who had performed for three years without ever performing the game's most exciting act, thus passed into history.
Michael Jordan, who later grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina said that Thompson was his basketball role model, as a young man. At some of the basketball camps that Thompson ran, Jordan would often tell the campers, "He was the guy I looked up to when I was your age."
Thompson's 44 remains the only number NC State ever retired in Men's Basketball (although others have been "honored").
He was the No. 1 draft pick of both the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association in the 1975 drafts of both leagues. He eventually signed with the ABA's Denver Nuggets. Explaining his choice between the establishment NBA and the ABA--which offered less real money (but more "deferred" over the life of the contract)--Thompson said when he met with the Atlanta Hawks, the organization had seemed almost uninterested, to the point of treating him to a meal at McDonald's.
Thompson and Julius Erving were the finalists in the first-ever Slam-Dunk Competition, held at the ABA All-Star Game at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver in 1976. The competition organizers had arranged the seedings to assure a final round pairing these two dynamic players. Erving won with the first ever foul-line dunk, to this day the standard for leaping and dunking prowess. Thompson, inexplicably, performed even more difficult dunks in warmups, but not in the competition itself -- including a dunk whereby he cradled the ball in the crook of his arm, raised it above the rim, and punched it through (See Loose Balls by Terry Pluto). His season won him the ABA Rookie of the Year Award.
Thompson made the NBA All-Star game four times, and reached his peak in the 1978 season. On April 9, 1978, the last day of the regular NBA season, Thompson scored 73 points against the Detroit Pistons in an effort to win the NBA scoring title (he barely lost the scoring title to San Antonio's George Gervin, who scored 63 points in a game played later that same day). He also led the Denver Nuggets to the NBA playoffs, but they lost to the eventual Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics.
After the 1978 season, he was granted a record-breaking $4 million for five-year contract. That amount was more than any basketball player ever had previously been paid. However, from that point, injuries and persistent problems with substance abuse would trouble Thompson and to the significant detriment of the remainder of his NBA career, which came to an end after the 1983-84 season. He severely injured his knee getting "flanged" down the steps of the notorious Studio 54, epicenter of the New York party scene and antithesis of his humble beginnings. He did attempt a comeback in 1985, but it was unsuccessful.
After his NBA career, Thompson continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol, his life declining to the point where he found himself jailed for a brief period of time. With encouragement from a pastor who visited the jail, he became a committed Christian and put his life back in order. Thompson now devotes his time to working with young basketball players, helping them to aspire to his achievements and avoid his mistakes. His autobiography, Skywalker, charts the highs and lows of his eventful life.
Thompson eventually returned to school at North Carolina State. In 2003 he was awarded a bachelor's degree in sociology, for which he had been only 7 credits shy when he left to play professional basketball in 1975. He completed his studies during the first summer session of 2003, thus finishing before his daughter, Erika, who completed her coursework in arts applications in the second summer session of 2003.