By Cam Huffman
In a room full of 12- to 18-year-olds, basketball nicknames like “Vinsanity,” “Durantula,” “King James” or, in Greenbrier County, even “Bimbo” can turn some heads.
But “Skywalker?” Few relate to that name, unless it’s associated with Star Wars.
When the video of David “Skywalker” Thompson with his arms above the rim throwing down acrobatic dunks was flashed upon the wall and Michael Jordan popped on the screen exlaining that Thompson was his idol growing up, however, suddenly the speaker standing in front of the students at Lewisburg’s Davis-Stuart, Inc. Thursday had the crowd’s attention.
“You could see their faces just light up,” said Davis-Stuart spiritual life director Dale Elwell, who explained that he wanted Thompson, a former N.C. State and NBA star, to speak to the students at the residental treatment facility, which serves youth in the custody of the State of West Virginia for various reasons, to help meet the facility’s mission statement of helping children and their families find physical, spiritual and emotional wholeness. “Once they realized who this guy was, they were excited. We could have made this a huge community event, but they were excited to know that he came just for them.
“He’s been from the top to the bottom, and through it all he’s acheived success. He’s just a great guy. I’m pretty picky about who I bring in. I need to know that they’re real and that they really care about kids. I got to meet him a couple of times, and I saw that.”
Thompson’s story quickly grabbed the students’ attention. The facility’s chapel was almost silent as the now 58-year-old athlete recounted stories from his past, and the questions came fast and furious after his presentation, including the obvious one of whether Thompson could still dunk like he did in the video.
“I can still dunk,” he laughed. “But it’s getting harder and harder.”
A four-time all-star with the Denver Nuggets and the Seattle Supersonics, Thompson led N. C. State to an undefeated season in 1973 — the Wolfpack was on probation and couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament — and an NCAA championship in 1974 when his team knocked off UCLA in the semifinals and Marquette in the finals. He won the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player award in 1974 and was the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1975, before being selected with the first pick of both the NBA and ABA drafts later that year.
Thompson played nine seasons in the two professional leagues, where he averaged 22.7 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. His No. 44 is the only retired number at N.C. State, and his No. 33 is retired by the Denver Nuggets.
In 1996, Thompson became a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Thompson's NBA career, though, was cut short because of injuries and substance abuse problems, and his drug and alcohol use only increased at the conclusion of his career.
“I was careless with my actions,” Thompson, wearing a Denver Nuggets sweatshirt, told the intimate crowd. “I was going to places I thought I’d never be and being around people I never thought I’d be with. You end up hurting the people you love the most.”
Once the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports when he signed a 5-year, $4 million contract with the Nuggets in 1978, Thompson said he once owned two houses and at least four luxury cars. But because of his addiction problems, he lost self esteem and eventually his freedom, as he was incarcerated for four months at one of the many downpoints of his life.
“It took me from the top all the way down to the bottom,” said Thompson, who competed in the first-ever slam-dunk competition at the 1976 All-Star game, reaching the finals against Julius Erving.
But with the encouragement of a pastor, Thompson got his life back in order and now devotes his time to working with youth, inspiring them to reach their dreams and avoid his mistakes.
“I don’t want them to go down the road I went down,” he said, explaining that his problem began when he started drinking and partying way too much in college, eventually totalling his car while driving under the influence of alcohol. “There’s a much easier way to do it than what I did.
“We get a lot of letters from people who say they avoided bad decisions because they heard me talk. It’s a great feeling and lets us know that our efforts are not in vain.”
Thompson has now been sober for 23 years, and his life is back on track. In 2003, he went back to N.C. State to complete the final seven hours he needed to complete his degree in sociology at N.C. State.
“I’m more proud of that than winning the national championship,” he said.
In 2009, Thompson was chosen to introduce Michael Jordan for his Basketball Hall of Fame induction.
Thompson told the students at Davis-Stuart his path back was not a typical one, because addiction is so difficult to overcome. The best way to avoid it, he said, is to never start.
He shared with those in attendance his SCORE philosophy — which identifies sacrifice, confidence, organization, respect and education as the keys to success.
“Make good choices, and you will score in life,” he said.
Thompson, who grew up in the small town of Boiling Springs, N.C. left the students with the message that “If it can happen for me, it can happen for you.”
That, he said, is both a positive and negative.
Thompson overcame his humble upbringing to reach the top of the mountain in professional basketball, and he told the assembled students that they could also reach their dreams by making good choices.
But he also warned that anybody — even one of the world’s best athletes — can be reduced to almost nothing by making bad decisions.
“Drugs don’t discriminate,” said Thompson, who also led a spiritual service at the facility later in the evening. “They don’t care who you are.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.