Mychal Thompson felt he had an obligation to the University of Minnesota, so be politely turned down a $1.2 million offer from the Buffalo Braves to go pro last year and returned to Minnesota for one more college season.
This was to be the Gopher's year and Thompson had visions of leading them to the national championship. But the NCAA said there would be no postseason play for Minnestoa, even though the Gophers may be the best team in the Big Ten.
The 6-10 Thompson is certainly the best big man in college basketball today. Former Marquette Coach Al McGuire goes further than that: "There's no question he's the No. 1 player in the country," McGuire said.
Thompson figures to be the first or second player chosen in this year's National Basketball Association draft and he is assured of getting the same big money he passed up last year. But Thompson had his sights set on that national championship and the fact that he and his team have been denied the opportunity for it by the NCAA, does not sit too well with many people in these parts.
The trouble between Minnesota and the NCAA started in Thompson's freshman year. The NCAA was investigating the Gophers for 128 recruiting and other violations within the basketball program under previous coach Bill Musselmen. During those investigations, it was discovered that Thompson and 6-10 forward Dave Winey had sold their complimentary season tickets given them by the school. That is a violation.
Thompson, who sold his two tickets for $180, said he didn't know he couldn't do that and never denied that he did. When he was told it was wrong, he gave the $180 to the athletic scholarship fund at Minnesota.
The NCCA continued its investigation and midway through his sophomore year recommended that Minnesota declare him ineligible and placed Minnesota on probation for three years for the Musselman violations.
According to NCAA rules, that oganization cannot declare a player ineligible but can tell its member schools to do so. If the school doesn't comply, action can be taken against the school.
The NCAA wanted Minnesota to declare Thompson and Winey ineligible, but failed to say for how long. Minnesota balked.
The probation stood, but Thompson obtained a temporary injunction through the courts which prohibited the school from suspending him and Thompson missed only one game that season during which he averaged 25.9 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
He played in all 27 Minnesota games as a junior, leading the Gophers to a 24-3 record. He averaged 22 points and nine rebounds.
He put his name on the NBA hardship list "to test the waters", as he puts it, but never intended to skip his final season of college eligibility.
Buffalo and the Washington Bullets, with the third and fourth picks in the draft last year, were very interested to him and if Buffalo didn't take him, Washington would have.
"He told me along that he was coming back to school", Minnesota Coach Jim Dutcher said. "When you turn down a million bucks because of a loyalty to a school, that says a lot about you".
Prior to the start of last season, the NCAA said that since Minnesota hadn't declared Thompson and Winey ineligible, it was putting the entire athletic program on indefinite suspension, despite the fact the original probation was due to expire March 4, 1978.
Still Thompson decided to come back to Minnestoa.
After Minnesota exhausted its appeals, even in the courts, it capitulated and declared Thompson and Winey ineligible last Oct. 28.
A few days later, the NCAA announced that it was lifting the indefinite probation in all sports except basketball and reduced the basketball probation to the original pently, making Minnesota ineligible for this year's national tournament.
The NCAA also said Thompson had to sit out seven games and Winey three. Winey got off lighter because he sold his tickets for face value.
Minnesota's first game of the season, against the Cuban National team, did not count in its overall record, but counted as a game Thompson had to miss. In the six offical games he missed, the Gophers went 2-4. Since his return, they have won 14 of 17 and are tied for first place in the Big Ten.
One might expect Thompson to be bitter that he stayed a school just to be given the runaround. No way.
"I don't have any regrets about anything," Thompson said. "We can't go to the tournament, but we can still win the Big Ten. That's enough for me now. I never thought about what would have happened if I had gone pro, because I never really planned to (at the time) anyway."
By staying at Minnesota Thompson has further demostrated how good he is and may have increased his market value.
Because of the probation, Minnesota did not play on network national television until yesterday's game against Louisville.
"It's just unfortunate that Mychal hasn't gotten the national look," Dutcher said. "He is the best player in America and a lot more people would have gotten to see for themselves."
Thompson, from Nassau in the Bahamas, is cool and calm on the court, yet very intense. He has a good outside shot and a nice array of insider moves as a complement. His transition is good and, most games, plays the entire 40 minutes.
Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry calls Thomspon "a great shooter. I put him in the finesse type rather than the power type as a scorer. His best position in pro ball may be at forward. He has natural offensive talent. He is able to get himself open."
"Forward is my natural position", he said. "I like it better. Coaches don't believe me, but it's the truth. I can handle the ball fine."
One of Thompson's biggest assets is that he doesn't hold onto the ball: either shooting, making a quick move inside, or passing the ball.
"His biggest problem is that he makes everything look so easy that the average person can't appreciate how good he is," McGuire said. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Thompson weighs 226 pounds and is built like Bill Walton.
"He's not a banger, but he gets his rebounds," Dutcher said. "He doesn't dish out punishment, but he can take it."
Osborne LockHart, who came from the Bahamas with Thompson and has played with him for seven years, says the most impressive thing about Thompson is that he is always improving.
"In high school he used a just rebound and play defense and shot only five or six times a game," Lockhart said. "He went to college and went wild."
This is not a particularly good year for big men in college ball and Ferry says that most of them are the forward-center types like Thompson.
"I don't think any of them will come in and be dominating-type centers like (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar and Walton."
The other top big men are Rock Robey and Mike Phillips of Kentucky, Davie Corzine of Depaul, Jerome Whiehead of Marquette, Bob Miller of Cincinnati and Mike Santos of Utah State.
But Thompson appears to be a cut above the others. He is leading the Big Ten in scoring with a 23-point average and before the season is over, will pass Purdue's Rick Mount as the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer.
"Thanks for coming back, Mychal", were Dutcher's last words.