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The Denver Nuggets' Soaring David Thompson Is on a Rocky Mountain High

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As a youth, Denver Nuggets star David Thompson recalls, the bigger kids “couldn’t say no to me because I got a basketball one Christmas and I said I’d cry and take my ball away if they wouldn’t let me play.” He doesn’t have to beg anymore.

Rookie of the Year for 1975-76 in the now-defunct American Basketball Association, Thompson, 22, has pumped in close to 25 points a game in his first season in the National Basketball Association. His team, the Denver Nuggets, has been among the league’s leaders. And in fan ballots for last month’s All-Star game, Thompson was the highest vote-getter.

Thompson’s physical skills are prodigious. He has outsize hands and arms, and standing still he can spring straight up a remarkable 42 inches, which leads to spectacular dunks matched only by his onetime idol, Julius Erving. In warmups he exhibits his “cradle the baby,” in which he jumps holding the ball in the crook of his left arm and punches it through the hoop with his right fist. Los Angeles coach Jerry West says the soaring Thompson can “decide for himself how great he can be,” and Nuggets coach Larry Brown adds, “David’s one weakness is that he gives too much of himself.”

Thompson gets a lot in return. He and the Nuggets signed a six-year contract worth an estimated $3 million in 1975. At North Carolina State, Thompson had been a three-time All-America and had managed a C average in sociology.

In school the 6’4″ Thompson fashioned a close friendship with 5’7″ teammate Monte Towe, a rabbity white guard of creditable, but not extraordinary, talent. They both continued on to Denver where Towe, the shortest player in the league, has played enough to almost dispel rumors that Thompson insisted he and his sidekick were a package deal.

The two share a taste for rock sounds as well as Thompson’s $90,000, four-bedroom ranch house in a Denver suburb. “I don’t know how many rooms it has—I haven’t been in ’em all yet,” drawls Thompson, who fantasizes about becoming a comedian and often imitates Richard Pryor.

His quarters are certainly fancier than the rural home near Shelby, N.C. where David grew up the youngest of 11 children. His mother took in laundry; his father worked in an Army surplus store and drove a truck. Their combined annual income was $5,600. “It was a struggle for us,” recalls Thompson, who gave his folks a new house and car when he became a pro.

In high school he had a B average and sang in the local Baptist church chorus. But mostly he practiced basketball. “I wasn’t interested in girls in high school,” he recalls.

He has changed his views considerably. In fact, Thompson now is a frequenter of Denver’s discos. One admiring female sighs, “David is sensitive and sincere.” One friend tells about a strip poker game when Thompson, possibly tiring of his sincerity, “purposely cheated to lose.”

Generally, though, Thompson comes out winning. “Pressure,” says David Thompson, “is the greatest. The best feeling in the world is hitting a jumper which wins the game. That is ecstasy.”