The man still can fly.
That is one of the few things that hasn't changed about David Thompson.
Two years ago, before he signed a gigantic contract and before a serious heel injury, Thompson was near the top of everybody's nice-guy list. He couldn't remember the last time that someone had written a bad word about him.
But then came the pressure of living up to what people expected from a 25-year-old millionaire, plus that crippling injury.
The injury started as a simple bruise early last season. A subpar Thompson continued to play, however, and, on Jan. 9 against Houston, he completely tore a ligament away from his left heel. He couldn't run or jump. To a player with a 42-inch vertical jump and whose spring made him a dominant player, the injury reduced thompson to mediocrity. More critically, though, many of his followers got down on him.
Stories started circulating that Thompson had a cocaine habit, a nervous breakdown, had withdrawn from society and was taking his five-year, $800,000 annually, guaranteed contract and running with it.
It was the first time in his life that everything Thompson did wasn't right. It was hard for him to deal with.
"All of the abuse from the fans and the media came because of his status," said Denver Coach Donnie Walsh. "I think over the summer he realized he had to accept his status. He had and I think that's why he seems like a different person."
The cocaine stigma remains, however, and it bothers Thompson. He says all he can do is ignore it.
"My contract initiated that and then, when I wasn't playing well, people started looking for things to detract from me as a person. Rumors started about cocaine. I got more negative ink about that than some guys who got busted."
Thompson said he understands that the fans perceive collegiate and pro players differently.
"People look at you differently when you get paid as much as I do," he said. "If you don't play like a superstar every game, they criticize you and start looking for bad things. But you can't play like a superstar every night. I can't; nobody can.
"The average fan just doesn't realize that. I've always tried to do the right thing and do the best I could. That's why when I signed for so much money I went out and tried to do more, almost like I had to justify my salary. That was wrong and it hurt my game."
For some inexplicable reason, the Nuggets never came out and said Thompson was out for the season after his heel injury, even though he couldn't walk and was in a cast for six weeks.
Carl Scheer, president and general manager, never gave up on Thompson.
"He was having some problems dealing with some things, but I knew he was a good kid and if patience was shown with him, he'd be all right," Scheer said.
"If you can believe it, the David Thompson of today is probably a better player than the other one."
Nevertheless, words like malingerer, malcontent and troublemaker started being associated with thompson the last two seasons, and his not understanding why drove him more into his own little world.
Thompson returned to his hometown of Shelby, N.C., and his father, a Baptist minister, helped him see the world the way it really is.
Now Thompson is more relaxed. His new personal philosophy is "I am a good person. If you don't like me, tough."
It shows on the court, too.
Going into tonight's game at Capital Centre against the Bullets, Thompson is third in the NBA in scoring. avveraging 27.3 points a game. The nuggets (6-8) have won four of the last five and three in a row on the road. In those five games, Thompson has averaged 34.6 points and shot 53 percent.
He is playing with the same wide-open slam-bang style that made him one of the game's most exciting players.
"I'm almost 100 percent," Thompson said after a two-hour workout yesterday at Georgetown. "Things are coming back pretty well. I only know one way to play, though, so I'm not going at it half-speed."
Because his heel still gets sore, at times, Thompson doesn't do much scrimmaging in practice. Yesterday he sat on the sideline and cheered the blue unit on against the white unit.
He didn't play much basketball over the summer to get back into shape. Instead he ran and worked on Nautilus machines. He wears an uncomfortable pad in his shoe, but other than that, and the soreness, the injury is all but forgotten.
Thompson is having fun again this season, "but it'll never be as fun as when I was at (North Carolina) State. Everything is different when you get paid for it."
Thompson had trouble blending his skills with some of the players the Nuggets brought in, like George McGinnis and Charlie Scott, both now departed.
Thompson has no problems playing with the present Nuggets.
The scoring load is shared by center Dan Issel and forward Alex English, whom the Nuggets acquired from Indiana for McGinnis.
"We're going to get better," Thompson said."But remember, the object of the game is just to score more points than the other team."
Elvin Haves, the NBA player of the week, now is 10th in the league in both rebounds and blocked shots, averaging 10.2 and 2.07, respectively. . . Wes Unseld is second in the league in field-goal percentage at 61.7 and eight in rebounding at 10.7. . . Kevin Grevey leads the league in both three-point field goals attempted and made. He is 13 of 42 and has at least one three-pointer in eight straight games. . . Tonight's game starts the Bullets on a four-game stretch that takes them to Boston Wednesday.Indiana Friday and Atlanta Saturday.