Saturday the University of Minnesota, of its own free will, will do something that for nearly two years it fought to keep the NCAA from doing—take the shirt off Mychal Thompson's back.
In a ceremony at halftime of the Gophers' final game of the season, against Michigan State, Thompson's No. 43 jersey will be retired, bringing to a fitting climax a playing career that has been, in a very real way, heroic in the face of scandal. The ceremony will also put the 6'10" senior center in the same category with such similarly honored Big Ten stars as Cazzie Russell and Jerry Lucas.
"It will be a storybook finish, that's for sure," says Thompson, a handsome, well-spoken extrovert from Nassau, Bahamas who has both intelligence and a ton of determination. "In the worst of times, playing at Minnesota has been a learning experience for me. I got letters of encouragement from Hubert Humphrey, I got to know another way of life in a different climate, and I was never embarrassed by what I did. Nobody told me not to and I was too young to know any better."
What Thompson did that got him in trouble with the NCAA was sell two season tickets—worth $78—to a pair of Minnesota fans, who paid him $178. It was scalping, pure and simple. But the incident took place in December 1974, when Thompson was a freshman and scalping was a more common practice among major-college athletes. Coming as it did during the last days of the ill-starred regime of Gopher Coach Bill Musselman, whose abuse of power led to an NCAA investigation that turned up more than 100 violations, Thompson's misdemeanor might have been overlooked if he had not freely admitted it in an in-house investigation by Minnesota's own attorney. He gave the money back immediately, and the university thought that would be the extent of his personal troubles. However, in March 1976, when the Gopher basketball team was placed on probation for two years, an NCAA memorandum stipulated that Thompson should be declared ineligible because of the scalping. After the university refused to do this and continued to play him, the NCAA slapped an indefinite probation on all Minnesota teams.
Throughout this hassling, Thompson played as though he hadn't a care in the world. Following a disappointing freshman year in which he was bothered by shin splints and was described as "not tough enough" by Musselman, Thompson caught fire under new Coach Jim Dutcher. In the ensuing three years he has averaged 23.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, shot .574 from the field and triggered a blazing fast break. This season his outlet passing sparked a 22-5 Gopher spree against Ohio State and a remarkable half of shooting (22 for 25) by Minnesota against Iowa. And despite the fact that the Gophers are ineligible for the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, Thompson has kept them in the Big Ten race all season. But a pair of defeats last week—94-87 in overtime at Ohio State and 68-47 at Indiana—mean that the best the Gophers can do is tie for the title with Michigan State and, possibly, Purdue.
In the overtime loss in Columbus, Thompson scored 32 points, knotted the game 77-77 with a driving shot in the last 18 seconds and preserved a tie in regulation time with a block of Kelvin Ransey's layup with :04 to play. In fact, Thompson not only blocked the shot, but he also swatted the ball all the way to midcourt, where teammate Osborne Lockhart, a boyhood friend from Nassau, scooped it up and nearly won the game with a basket that barely missed beating the buzzer. On Saturday, against Indiana, Thompson brought his career scoring total to within 23 of the Big Ten record of 1,461 points held by Purdue's Rick Mount. That mark should fall at just about the time Thompson's shirt is retired.
Over the course of his career Thompson has proved his mettle to NBA scouts by winning duels against the best college centers in the country. As a sophomore he blitzed Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead of Marquette with 29 points and 16 rebounds in a 77-73 victory over the Warriors, then ranked No. 2 in the nation. Four days later he rammed in 34 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against Stanford's seven-foot Rich Kelley, now a starter with the New Orleans Jazz. Last season, as the star of a 24-3 team that many experts felt might have been the best in the country, Thompson led Minnesota to a 40-18 halftime advantage over Marquette in Milwaukee. He ended up with 23 points and 16 rebounds as the Gophers coasted to a 66-59 victory over the eventual NCAA champions. Thompson later scored 35 points against Indiana's Kent Benson, who went first in the '77 NBA draft.
No wonder Thompson may be this year's top pro pick; only Indiana State's Larry Bird is likely to go ahead of him, if Bird decides to forgo his senior year. The three teams with the best chances of drafting first—Kansas City, Indiana and Golden State—all think Thompson, a 226-pounder with speed, can play forward in the NBA, a testament to his outside shooting. But as King Coach Larry Staverman says, "Thompson also easily could be an Alvan Adams or Dave Cowens kind of high-post center. What all the pros like about him is the way he comes to play every night. He's had to be dedicated in his situation or he would have chucked it all and signed after his junior year."
The Buffalo Braves thought he would, and last summer offered him a multi-year contract worth about $1.5 million. Brave General Manager Norm Sonju describes the negotiations: "I met with Thompson and asked him what his goal was. I expected him to answer, 'to be NBA Rookie of the Year.' Instead, he said, 'I'd like to lead the Big Ten in rebounding again, break Rick Mount's scoring record and have my uniform retired.' I told him the only place he could do those things was at Minnesota."
After sitting out the first seven games of this season—a compromise penalty agreed to by the NCAA in return for Minnesota finally declaring him ineligible—Thompson has put together another string of memorable games, among them a 15-for-20 performance against Iowa that included 16 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots. Hawkeye Coach Lute Olson said, "We don't have anyone—just like no team has anyone—who can contain Thompson."
"Mychal will end up with more respect, having handled all his trouble so well, than if he had simply been a great player who never did anything wrong," says Dutcher. "My biggest disappointment is that he never got to the NCAA tournament. Florida State's players came off probation in 1971 and made it to the NCAA finals. The 27-0 N.C. State team that was on probation in 1973 was practically intact when it won the NCAA title the next year. And Nevada-Las Vegas played in the semifinals last year before the NCAA caught up with it. But nobody's going to see Mychal play."
"I had to come back for my senior year because the Minnesota people had gone to bat for me," says Thompson. "I figured the NBA money would still be there, so a friend had a T shirt made up for me that reads WHAT'S A MILLION DOLLARS? across the chest. If I had the ticket thing to do over again, I'd probably lie about it just to avoid the trouble. But it has made me a better person. On Saturday I'll be proud and sad, but it's time for bigger and better things. I don't care who I play pro ball for. I've been through so much adversity that I can handle anything now."
Thompson may be 6'10" but clearly he is still on the way up.