It all started in North Carolina. To be more specific, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Cleveland County, to get even more fussy about it.
Or, as a writer once put it so succinctly, “Nine miles from Shelby, and three miles from nowhere.”
At the time, it was nowhere.
My hometown was a rural area primarily composed of pastures, woods, land and cotton and soybeans. The land was also inhabited by cows and other farm animals. This lush, green, beautiful country served as the backdrop of my youth.
Even today I have family who live off that same rural tobacco road I once called home. And it was my family that would serve as the common thread in a roller-coaster life filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
On July 13, 1954, David O’Neal Thompson entered the world with an assist from doctors at Boiling Springs General Hospital. I was the baby—the 11th and final child of Vellie and Ida Thompson, the two best parents a person could have ever been blessed with. How two people could have raised 11 children with such meager resources has always astounded me, yet they provided us with a life that was decent, full and virtuous. They loved us children deeply and never complained about the daunting task it must have been to raise a house full of kids on an income that barely surpassed minimum wage.
Life was never boring with 13 people under one roof, that’s for sure. Sara, my oldest sister, left the house when I was fairly young. My oldest brother was Furman, and then came Johnny, who passed away in 1991. Irene, Mary, Margaret, Joyce, Sara, Etta Mae (who also passed away a few years ago), and Pecora rounded out the girls. Vellie Jr., the fourth youngest—and seven years older than me—played an important role in my life during my formative years. I was also close to my sister Pecora, because she was only one grade ahead of me in school.
The Thompson clan resided in a pale yellow modest cinderblock house at the end of a dirt road a quarter-mile off Highway 150. The house used to be an old roadside café, but my father’s brawn, sweat and tears transformed it into a typical country home. Though it would never be confused with the Taj Mahal, it was home and where I comfortably lived out my youth.
Across the road from our house was a pasture with cows and other animals, and behind our property was a flowing creek that was our swimming hole.
Inside the house, mounted high up in the corner of the living room, was our only television. It was on that old black and white set that I would religiously watch the ACC Basketball Game of the Week every Saturday. They say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, but something else you could count on back then was that every Saturday afternoon during college basketball season young David Thompson would be glued to the TV, watching the North Carolina Tar Heels. Charlie Scott, who played for the Tar Heels, became my boyhood idol.
Some weekends I would also tune in to watch Duke or the Wolfpack of North Carolina State—the team that would ultimately become my alma mater. Also, I clearly remember watching Wake Forest when Billy Packer played and Eddie Biedenbach of NC State in the early 1960s.
Packer had a teammate named Dave Wiederman, and my brother Vellie Jr. nicknamed me after him.
Packer and Weiderman were exciting to watch, but when Charlie Scott came on the scene a few years later, everybody else faded to the background. I was drawn to Scott for two reasons. He was the first African-American player at North Carolina, a real pioneer at the time. And man, he was something to watch, a college All-American whose style of ball I patterned my game after. Scott could run, jump and shoot. He had such grace and great moves and, more important, was a clutch performer under pressure. He was a guy whom I really looked up to, and in a wonderful twist of fate, years later Charlie became a pro teammate of mine.
Of course, when I watched him and other players on our little TV, I was seeing my face on their bodies. Children who are raised in the country tend to have greater imaginations than children raised in the suburbs or inner city. There wasn’t much else to do out in the country.
The other luxury in our home was a console stereo that played gospel music day and night. My mother would hum along while she cooked breakfast for us every morning over a wood-burning stove. Saint that she was, she got herself up at dawn just to ensure we had something to eat before heading off to school. She would awake while the air was still chilly, brave the journey outside to gather the wood, and get the kindling started in the stove. Whether homemade bread with molasses and sugar, or fatback bacon and scrambled eggs, we always had something to fill our demanding bellies. She’d bake cakes and other treats after we left. Considering all of her other household chores, this must have been rough on her, but you would never have guessed it from her always sunny disposition. Back then, I just thought that was the way it was, but you really only appreciate things like that as you get older and reflect. My mother was truly amazing. Her love and care more than compensated for the material things we lacked.
As you might have guessed by now, one of the latter was indoor plumbing. We drew our water from a well, and used an outhouse down by the creek.
We only had three bedrooms, and they were appointed according to sex. My parents occupied one, and the three boys who were still home at the time (me and my older brothers Johnny and Vellie Jr.) shared a room. Our five at-home sisters shared the other room. As for personal space, there was always the outhouse.
Crowded and rundown though it was, our house was always home, sweet home. My parents made it that way by virtue of the love and affection they bestowed upon each of us. They were truly exceptional and extraordinary people.
My father was an honest, no-nonsense, hard-working man. Born and raised on the outskirts of Chesney, South Carolina, he became self-made without the benefit of a complete formal education. Though he did not go beyond the sixth grade, he gained his real knowledge and wisdom from within the pages of the Bible. He was often found with his head buried in the Good Book and based most of his life decisions on what he had read. It served him well.
Some of my earliest memories are of accompanying him on trips to different army bases. It was Dad’s job to pick up supplies for the Army Surplus store that employed him in Boiling Springs. It was an adventure for me to travel to military installations like Fort Bragg, Polk Air Force Base, and Cherry Point. Mostly, I just wanted to be near my father and bask in his love and attention. With 10 other siblings competing for his attention, it was a rare opportunity to have him all to myself. He worked such long hours that there wasn’t a lot of time to spend with him after he came home in the evening. Usually exhausted, he would watch some television and fall into bed. That was his routine almost every night.
On our trips together I often helped him load and unload the truck while we passed the time with idle ordinary conversation. It was the kind of talk that takes place between fathers and sons that can last for hours without seeming important or substantial at the time. And yet somehow those were some of the most meaningful and significant discussions of my life.
Occasionally we stayed overnight in hotels, though they certainly wouldn’t hold a candle to the Ritz Carlton or even your basic Holiday Inn. Mostly, they were rundown rooming-type places. But we did get to eat bologna sandwiches and binge on all kinds of junk food, and to a wide-eyed seven-year-old kid from the country, that was fine dining at its best!
Bologna was meat, and back home we didn’t have much meat to eat—except for the occasional chicken we’d butcher ourselves. If my mother needed a chicken, we’d just go out to the yard and grab one. That’s how you did it back then. Mother took the chicken and held it real tight until the head just disconnected from the body. The body would flop around awhile, and when it stopped, Mother picked up it up by the feet and put it in boiling water for a few seconds. That took all the fight out of it. Mother still had to pluck the feathers, and what she couldn’t pluck off, she singed off over an open fire. Then she carefully washed the chicken, removed all the innards, cut it up and fried or baked the meat. It might have been a painful process—especially for the chicken—but the result for us was always delicious and fresh.
Mother was especially close to my maternal grandmother, Etta Gentry. We called her Mama Etta, and she lived only a few miles away in a house that sat on a fairly large lot. My grandfather was Papa John Quincy Gentry, and he and Mama Etta could sure serve up quite a feast. Everybody pitched in to help buy the pigs and hogs they kept, and would also help slaughter and smoke the animals. The shoulders would be gathered and made into sausage. The less said about that process, the better. Suffice it to say that the chickens probably considered themselves lucky. That was always a large annual event where our whole family would gather for joyous times.
Though my father was a relatively quiet man—not one to always wear his thoughts or emotions on his sleeve—I knew he loved me. When I was just a boy, he often referred to me as his “prize.” In return, my affection and adoration of him were deep and unsurpassed. I can safely say that my work ethic—and much of the man I am today—is directly attributable to Vellie Thompson. For instance, he treated people of all colors equally, a trait that I still emulate today. It must not have been easy to be that way in the Deep South during that time of great racial division, but he was a fair man even in the face of great provocation and adversity.
My father spent 19 years at that Army Surplus store, and right before he would have qualified for his pension, the owner fired him so he wouldn’t have to pay him one. These were the days before the Civil Rights Act or the EEOC took employers to task, and the man just let him go after 19 years of faithful service. Everybody in our family was upset and disappointed, especially my brothers and sisters.
Being the kind of man he was, my father chose to turn the other cheek and never said much about it. Don’t get me wrong—he was very perturbed at the time, but he just wasn’t vocal about the situation. His feeling was that the man had provided him with a job for 19 years, and he chose to focus on that bright side of the picture.
Instead of going around bemoaning the fact that he was cheated out of his retirement, Vellie Thompson marched right down to the Fiber Industries plant in Shelby and secured a job as a janitor. That’s the kind of man my father was. He knew he couldn’t change what had been, but he sure could affect what would be. In my life I have never met a more practical man. He never said much, but when he talked, I listened. My father once said, “No use in shouting, because all that will do is strain your heart.” He talked softly, but carried a big stick.
As you’d expect, my father was very well respected in the community. Honest to a fault, he was also kind to everyone. Though reserved, he loomed large at home and in the consciousness of everyone who knew him.
Faith in God may have had a lot to do with his disposition. A deacon in the Maple Springs Baptist Church, my father was a deeply religious man. He was a chairman of the deacon board and, with some of my cousins, had founded the church. They actually built the original church by hand because they had experience as bricklayers. Though it was small in size, it was powerful in its purpose.
When your father is a deacon, you spend a lot of time in church. Wednesday nights and all day on Sunday we were in attendance at that little church. I started out at Sunday school, then moved on to services, and choir in the afternoon. After that, I went back for a church service at night. We would also go visit other churches in the afternoon, so it was definitely an all-day event.
I sang in that church as a small boy. My family put me up in front of all those people when I was only five years old. I would sing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me,” and the people in the congregation would give me quarters. It might not have been the second coming of Marvin Gaye, but the Motown crooner and I were both getting paid handsomely for our singing chops. While ol’ Marvin spent his money on wine, women and song, I took my stash of quarters and spent it on two-for-one cent cookies at Doc Henderson’s Country Store, or on a six-cent soda at Hambricks, another general store in town.
My passion for singing brought me joy, and I continued with it throughout my church years by performing in the choir. I was even in my high school chorus. In fact, my cousin—professional coach Alvin Gentry—sang in the church choir with me. To this day, music is a great release for me and something I know I could not live without. It has a great healing power.
Of course, as I got older, being a singer and a top area basketball player had its drawbacks. While singing at other churches, there would occasionally be some opposing players sitting in the pews. And they invariably tried everything they could think of to mess me up. They would try to make me laugh by making funny faces and silly gestures. Sometimes they would get to me—breaking me up or making me sing off key—but most of the time I was able to ignore them. I like to think I returned the favor by taking it out on them on the basketball court.
We all played basketball together at the church after services, and sometimes we played off the court. There was a baptismal pool out in the creek behind the church. The grapevine that swung out over the creek provided us with the perfect launching pad to go skinny-dipping. In between services, we disappeared and ended up naked in the creek. “Up a creek” is where we ended when my parents discovered us, laughing it up, splashing each other, and swinging in the breeze. Of course, I had to ask the Lord for forgiveness. The Lord was more merciful than my parents, who communicated their displeasure with a belt or a switch—whichever was closest.
Actually, Mother’s whippings weren’t so bad. It was my father who could light up my backside with his powerful strokes. They did what they had to do to keep us in line, and using the belt from time to time was definitely in accordance with the Bible’s teachings about sparing the rod and spoiling the child.
Despite life’s pesky setbacks, I couldn’t complain. We often took trips with the church and even ventured to Six Flags in Atlanta one year. That was a major event, because we experienced very few family vacations because of the expense. Other than the working trips I took with my father, we rarely ventured out beyond a 40-mile radius from our home.
Mother was entirely different from my father. She was very outgoing and funny, always teasing everyone in the house. She always had something going on, like singing in the church choir, and keeping the entire house on the straight and narrow like a train engine pulls the other railcars along. Mother was a witty and intelligent woman, though she, too, did not graduate from high school. She attended high school and did well, but did not graduate.
Back then, young people were expected to help out their families, and while school was valued, work was necessary to keep food on the table and help to make ends meet. In our case, my parents broke the cycle by having the wisdom and foresight to see that education was the key to having a better life.
I don’t recall my parents ever discussing with us how they met or courted each other. I believe they hailed from the same area of South Carolina, and my father was approximately two years older than my mother. I do know this: The bond that my parents shared was stronger than Pittsburgh steel. They taught me that marriage meant forever, in sickness and in health, and that lesson would serve me well later in life. They were each other’s best friends and always found time to spend together, regardless of how many children and obligations they had. Church and family were their common bonds.
Basketball was a common bond between me and Vellie Jr., and out back, beyond our house, we cleared off an area that would become my personal “Court of Dreams.” What started out as a grassy meadow was quickly reduced to red dirt because of the countless hours we pounded the ball out there. Even in the rain, when the makeshift court ran thick with burgundy mud, we played. I was five and had fallen in love with the game of basketball. With wooden backboards, steel rims, and homemade nets, it felt like Madison Square Garden to me.
The hoops were 10 feet high, so if you couldn’t reach them with the ball, you sat your sorry butt on the sidelines. Sure, it was tailor-made for the big guys, but I did what I had to do in order to stay in the game. Thankfully, being tall for my age at five allowed me to put the ball through the hoop without much difficulty.
The contests were highly competitive, and I was usually playing with older boys who were excellent players. Many of my cousins would come down and play. We’d run full-court games all day long and never tire. That was a common, recurring theme in my development as a basketball player—competing against senior players, which helped me progress faster than other kids my age. In the beginning, I was the youngest and many times they wouldn’t let me play. But since I owned the basketball (a Christmas gift from my mother), they usually had no choice. I had the control, and that’s how I got into the games. That cheap rubber ball was my free pass to furthering my hoops education.
Often when my father would arrive home from work, he would park the car so that I could turn on the headlights and play throughout the night. Sometimes I played a little too long, and in the morning when my father tried to start his car the battery would be dead. Then he pulled a switch from the tree to give his boy another butt-whupping for making him late to work. The sacrifices I made for the love of the game.
It was Vellie Jr. who really taught me how to play. I attended all of his high school games and studied his every move on the court. I really looked up to him during those formative years; he was, more than anybody, the single most influential person in my development as a player.
And it was out on that court, in the middle of a country field, that I began to dream of what I could be. I just couldn’t get enough of the game. We even played ball in our house, which went over about as big as skinny-dipping during church time. Vellie Jr. used to make his own nets, which he hung from rims made out of old springs. He also made nets for our outdoor court out of thick, long nylon cord my father would bring home from the Army Surplus store. He had to because traditional nets wouldn’t last long with as much stress as we put on them.
My basketball education went to a new level when I was 10. That’s when I began playing in competitive pickup games at Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, just a few miles from my home. Vellie Jr. took me everywhere he played, and Gardner-Webb was a favorite venue because of the level of competition there. He would bring me along and match me up against older players, such as future pro players like Artis Gilmore, forward John Drew, and guards Larry Brown and Bob Verga. Going up against those guys, I couldn’t help but get better. As I became older and better, Vellie would seek out greater challenges for me.
Holly Oak Park in Shelby was another basketball hotbed, and I was able to compete there with some other outstanding players.
Not only did I have pretty good basic skills, but I discovered I could literally jump out of the gym. People think that my jumping ability was a God-given talent that came naturally to me. That is the furthest thing from the truth. I worked on my jumping all the time. All the guys who played high school ball wore ankle weights, so I started wearing them, too. I’d wear them even when I was just practicing jump shots. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I was 5’7” and could dunk the ball.
I also took full advantage of the Gardner-Webb Field House weight room and did leg extensions and toe raises. They also had a rebounding machine that reached twelve and a half feet. I would practice on that thing all the time. By the tenth grade I was rebounding all the way to the top. Nobody else on the team was doing that, so not only was I pretty impressed, but the coaches were, too.
But perhaps what really built my jumping ability and agility was the fact that I grew up near a graveyard. Almost every night after I worked out, my buddy didn’t want to drive me all the way home, and so he dropped me off at the entrance of a graveyard that cut through to my house. Because it was dark and spooky, I took off through the graveyard, jumping over and dodging the headstones. I’m not recommending it to your young hoopsters, but try it some inky night and see if you don’t leap like a singed cat.
Growing up in the country was a great way to experience childhood, develop strong family values and forge relationships that have lasted a lifetime. It’s the foundation of my youth, and I wouldn’t change any part of it. School was another integral part of my youth. I know that my parents had high academic expectations for us because they did not graduate from high school, and my dad was relegated to working manual labor jobs. What parents don’t want a better life for their children? In fact, Vellie Jr. was the valedictorian of his senior class and went on to college. He was extremely intelligent and ended up being my tutor. When he helped me with my homework, he hammered home the point that if I wanted to go to college and play basketball, I would have to have good grades all the way through high school. I took that advice to heart in a very serious way and performed well all through my academic career.
I journeyed off to school at the age of five because I could already read and write, and I was big for my age. Mother thought I could handle it both emotionally and academically. Green Bethel in Boiling Springs was an all-black school, and I went there up to the eighth grade. We rode the bus into town every day. Desegregation had not yet become a reality, so the school encompassed K-12. I enjoyed school and did well above average in all of my studies.
Part of the fabric of growing up in the 1960s was racial tension, not that I ever dwelled on it. Though we lived out in the country and didn’t experience it as much as someone who lived in the inner city, I knew what racism was. There were a few incidents that I remember. There were times when ignorant people would throw bottles at me and hurl racial epithets while my brother and I walked down the street—that sort of thing. I also recall rocks and other objects being thrown at the house in the middle of the night, causing both physical and emotional damage.
Because of the cultural landscape back then, this sort of thing was, for the most part, an accepted part of life. Even most black people got used to it and accepted it. My father always taught me to treat people the way you want to be treated. Growing up in the church, we didn’t hold any prejudices against anybody. For the life of me, I never understood why people would do something like that to someone they didn’t even know, who had not done anything to provoke them. It just didn’t make sense to me.
It wasn’t until the ninth grade, in 1967, that I was able to fully experience interaction with both white and black people under one roof. Crest High School in Shelby opened its doors for the first time that year.
For the next four years I grew more as an individual, and a basketball player, than ever before. Education would be my ticket to a better life, but that round leather ball opened doors anywhere I wanted to go.
David Thompson was twice named National Player of the Year while at North Carolina State and led the Wolfpack to the 1974 national championship. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996 and had his number 33 retired by the Denver Nuggets in 1992
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