Monday morning I was listening to my favorite podcast, The Tony Kornheiser Show. Kornheiser is one-half of the long-running ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption,” and his PTI Co-host Michael Wilbon is a frequent guest on the podcast. The conversation earlier this week turned to the birthday of basketball great David Thompson, who turned 66 Monday, the same day Kornheiser turned 72.
The conversation between Kornheiser and Wilbon quickly turned to their list of the Top Five Men’s College Basketball players. Thompson legendarily possessed a vertical leap of 48 inches and helped lead North Carolina State to the 1973-74 NCAA Championship. That season the Wolfpack posted a 30-1 overall record. Thompson’s teammates included 7-4 Tom Burleson, 5-7 Monte Towe, and 6-7 forward Tim Stoddard, who later pitched for six teams in the Major Leagues including the Padres. Stoddard along with Kenny Lofton (University of Arizona) are the only two athletes to play in both a World Series and a NCAA Final Four.
The point is Thompson was on Kornheiser’s Top 5 list along with Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton from UCLA, Bill Russell from the University of San Francisco, and Pete Maravich of LSU. In his three college seasons, freshmen were ineligible to play in those days, Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game over 83 games. I saw four of the five players play in person in the pros, with the exception being Russell, and they were all unique talents. Thompson was a brilliant shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets, employing his jumping ability to simply rise and shoot over his defender. His nickname was ‘Skywalker’ well before the lesser talented Kenny Walker appropriated the nickname. Technically Walker’s nickname was ‘Sky’ but you get the idea. Thompson averaged 22.7 points per game over nine combined seasons in the ABA and NBA.
Later Monday on “Pardon the Interruption,” Wilbon amended his Top Five to include Alcindor, Walton, Thompson, Russell, with a tie for fifth place between the Duke tandem of Grant Hill and Christian Laettner, with the criteria being a player in the Top 5 had to lead his team to an NCAA title. Others in the conversation for the Top Five included Patrick Ewing from Georgetown, Phil Ford from North Carolina, and Oscar Robertson from Cincinnati. Ewing won an NCAA title, while Ford and Robertson did not.
Another interesting note from the show was Kornheiser listing the progression of great leapers in the NBA starting with Connie Hawkins, followed more or less in chronological order by Elgin Baylor, Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Thompson, and Michael Jordan.