For the moment, Mychal Thompson can’t decide whether he’d rather be the next Chick Hearn or the next Lynden O. Pindling.
Now, anyone who has ever been within earshot of a Laker game knows about Hearn, and Thompson says he has an eye on becoming a broadcaster.
But Lynden O. Pindling’s name is guaranteed to stump the most dedicated basketball fan--not to mention most anyone who hasn’t come within a raft’s-eye view of the Bahamas.
Pindling is the prime minister of that Caribbean nation, a place where “there are hoops hanging on every coconut tree,” according to the Bahamas’ only export to the National Basketball Assn. and newest member of the Lakers.
Those hoops weren’t there until Thompson--who grew up playing soccer and became serious about basketball only after moving to Miami during high school--became a star, first as an All-American at the University of Minnesota, then as the No. 1 pick in the 1978 draft.
Now, the game is so popular that last summer Thompson paid $20,000 for a wooden basketball floor to be shipped over from Florida for an all-star exhibition game he arranged, a game featuring Magic Johnson, among others. The crowd mobbed the players--"People follow (the NBA) there with more passion than they do in the States,” Thompson said--but the game was something less than a total success.
A monsoon struck, and though it passed quickly, the court was so slick that the game had to be halted in the second half.
But Thompson envisions the day when he may use his basketball popularity as a steppingstone to a political career, which brings us back to Pindling. Why not start at the top?
“Some day when (Pindling) becomes tired of being prime minister and wants to move on with his life, maybe that will open the door for other people to succeed him, and I wouldn’t mind throwing my name into the hat,” said Thompson, who looked something less than statesman-like the other day while lying on a hotel bed in Chicago, his Laker uniform still on and an ice pack on his right ankle.
A housekeeper who walked into the room took one look and fled. And this guy thinks he can win votes?
“If I have the popularity and support and respect from playing basketball, why can’t I convert that popularity into politics, like Reagan did?” he said.
No one has ever accused Thompson--who is more reggae than Republican but can rival the President in charm and charisma--of lacking confidence.
Listen, for example, to what he had to say about Magic Johnson, who has been a teammate for a week but a friend for a decade, ever since Thompson tried to recruit him for Minnesota’s Gophers.
“He was stuck on staying at home, poor kid,” Thompson said. “He just didn’t realize what a nice town Minneapolis is and how he would have been treated like a king up there.”
They’ve been close ever since, and Magic made a point of going to Thompson’s house when the Lakers visited Portland, Ore., Thompson’s professional home for the first seven seasons of his pro career.
“I’d take all his per diem on the pool table,” Thompson said.
“No contest. I can beat Magic in any sport except, of course, basketball. Anything else he wants to challenge me in, bring it on, because I’d like to teach him a lesson. He’s still a young boy to me.
“The gauntlet has been thrown down, and I’ve slapped him with the glove forward and backward. Pool, backgammon, softball--tell him he can pick the sport as long as it doesn’t have to do with a round basketball.”
So OK, Thompson is having some fun at the expense of his buddy. But listen to what he has to say about a rival--the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale, against whom, if all goes according to plan,542402671the NBA’s final series this June.
After the Lakers had beaten the Celtics last Sunday in Thompson’s L.A. debut, Thompson said that McHale deserved four or five technicals, not just the one he got.
Thompson expects that he’ll hear back from McHale.
“He knows I respect his game and admire the way he plays--he knows I’m not trying to belittle him,” said Thompson, who played with McHale at Minnesota. “But I was just expressing how it is on the floor when he’s out there.
"(The Celtics) do cry a lot and expect a lot of calls to go their way, and you get tired of hearing it. Even though (McHale) is a friend of mine, I don’t like hearing all that bitching and moaning and stuff. Be a man and take it.”
Is Thompson, whose playfulness is as transparent as the Caribbean waters in which he speared fish as a child, to be taken seriously? At times, yes.
But this is the guy, remember, who changed the spelling of his first name so he would stand out, then came into the league having people believe he was a cousin to David Thompson, the North Carolina State All-American and budding NBA superstar who was undone by drugs.
“The media started that,” Thompson said. “I just never bothered to deny it.”
But then some people--notably his coach in Portland, Jack Ramsay--apparently decided that Thompson didn’t take basketball seriously enough. That, more than anything, Thompson believes, is why he was traded last June by the Trail Blazers to the San Antonio Spurs for center Steve Johnson.
“A lot of times, if I didn’t show a lot of sadness or remorse after a loss, (Ramsay) would really yell at me,” Thompson said.
“That was OK. He had his way of dealing with it and I had mine. I respected him a lot. I could see how much a loss used to hurt him and how hard he’d work toward winning.
“I wouldn’t be laughing and joking in the locker room after a loss, but the next day in practice the game’s over with . . . so I’d forget it. Maybe Jack had a little problem with that as far as my attitude was concerned.”
In “The Breaks of the Game,” David Halberstam’s book on pro basketball, the author recounts how after one galling Portland loss, Thompson sneaked two women onto the team bus back to the hotel.
"(Halberstam) read that all wrong,” Thompson said. “The two girls were just friends of mine who were staying at the same hotel and asked for a ride back. He made it seem like I was picking up girls or hookers or something, that I was trying to sneak them back to my room for a night of wild partying.
“There were no cabs--you know how hard it is to get a cab after a game at Chicago Stadium? I wasn’t going to leave them there when it was 20 below outside. We gave ‘em a ride back to the hotel, said good night and that’s it.
“It really upset me. It made me look bad, like I didn’t care about not winning but only cared about partying with women. That’s not me. He didn’t know what he was talking about.”
About his attitude, Thompson says: “Sure I’m laid-back and relaxed, but once the ball is on the floor, I have as much desire to win as anyone else. I just don’t show it on the outside, but on the inside I’m burning to win.”
But Thompson’s arrival in Portland coincided with the gradual decline of the Trail Blazers, who never regained the glories they had known with an uninjured Bill Walton.
In his first season, Thompson was named to the NBA’s all-rookie team, then missed an entire season when he broke his leg in a summer pickup game in the Bahamas. He had his best season as a pro when he returned, averaging 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds while playing center, but his numbers thereafter were consistently unspectacular.
And the Trail Blazers never advanced beyond the second round in the playoffs. Was it Thompson’s misfortune to be playing in the same division as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
“No, it was my pleasure,” Thompson said. “I got to play against the greatest player who ever lived many times a year, something I’ll always be proud of.
“If you’re going to lose, you might as well lose to the best.”
Although Thompson’s role fluctuated with the Trail Blazers--he played both center and power forward--the knock on his game never really changed. For a man his size--he’s listed at 6 feet 10 inches, 235 pounds--Thompson played too soft a game, he didn’t use his body enough, he was unwilling to absorb the punishment underneath the basket. He had lost his aggressiveness, a rap that seemed to be supported by the sharp decline in the number of shots he blocked last season--35, the first time he had blocked fewer than 104.
“When you’re 6-9 and 235, people think you should be body-slamming and putting people in all kinds of headlocks,” Thompson said. “That’s not the way I play.
“That may be great for Charles Oakley or Kermit Washington, but that’s not my style. Not everybody’s a Lawrence Taylor. Some people use finesse instead of brute strength.
“You can’t get a zebra to change his stripes, so to speak. I’d get the job done, using finesse. The bottom line is the box score, not how you do it.”
Thompson was stung by more than criticism while in Portland. He says he lost $2 million that he was investing through a friend, Gregory Hughes.
“Mismanagement, fraud, you name it,” Thompson said. “They ran through the whole gamut of mishandling my money.”
Hughes is in an Oregon penitentiary, serving a 15-year sentence after being convicted on charges of embezzlement and fraud. Thompson is suing the company Hughes represented, New York Life Insurance, in an effort to recover the money, which has never been accounted for.
“It’s probably in some off-shore bank in a secret account,” Thompson said. “It’s probably in the Bank of Bahamas. Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
Thompson also was married for a short time to a Portland woman, but that ended in divorce three years ago.
“She decided us foreigners were just too crazy,” Thompson said with a smile. “Actually, she just decided she didn’t want to be married anymore . . . and I became a bachelor again.
“It was a real quiet and simple divorce, one of those $58 ones you see on TV. Thank God, we didn’t get married in California.”
Eventually, Thompson said, he would like to remarry.
“I’d like to have a little Mychal and teach him how to swim and dive and spear fish,” Thompson said. “Before I could walk, I was doing that stuff.”
Those lessons won’t take place off the beaches of Los Angeles, however.
“You can’t see underwater there--too dirty,” Thompson said. “The Pacific Ocean is beautiful to look at and enjoy the sunset and walk along the beach and hold hands. But as far as swimming in the water, no--it doesn’t compare to Bahamas’ waters. It’s like paradise down there.”
As much as Thompson sensed Portland’s dissatisfaction with his play, last summer’s trade to San Antonio still hit him hard, he said.
“I knew Jack wasn’t thrilled with me, but I didn’t think I’d be traded,” Thompson said. “With Sam (Bowie) coming back 100%, I thought I’d be a real good backup for him and give (Ramsay) a lot of versatility up front.
“I was surprised when they didn’t want me around anymore.”
The stopover in San Antonio, however, proved to be short-lived. The Spurs got off to a horrendous start and decided they needed to rebuild the team. At 32, Thompson was eminently expendable.
After weeks of speculation, he learned nine days ago that he had been sent to the Lakers. “That’s when I did my Hulk Hogan,” he said. “I ripped my (Spur) jersey right off.”
When his first game as a Laker was over, Thompson said it was like “Fantasy Island.”
“That’s over with now,” he said. “Reality sets in. I can’t be too ecstatic, too elated about being here. I’ve gone through that stage. Now it’s time to deal with the game-by-game situation, to get down to business.
“Even though these guys have a lot of fun, they take what they do seriously because they know they’re the best.
“They know everyone’s gunning for them . . . and they don’t want any individuals on this team, just guys who will help each other.”
For now, Thompson--besides giving the Lakers a quality backup for Abdul-Jabbar--gives Coach Pat Riley a variety of combinations to employ in his front line. But will Thompson become the center when Abdul-Jabbar retires?
“I can see me filling in till they make a deal for Patrick Ewing or Ralph Sampson,” Thompson said with a giggle. “Center isn’t the focal point on this team anymore, so I could fit right in and do the job when he decides to hang it up.”
But Thompson isn’t looking that far ahead. For now, he is content to contemplate June, and a possible Laker-Celtic final.
“Sometimes I visualize the intensity that would have, and the near-fights breaking out,” Thompson said. “When the Celtics and Lakers are in the finals, they really get after it. There’s no room out there for Pee-wee Hermans. You have to turn into Hulk Hogans to go out there.”
If all goes according to the Lakers’ plan, the sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers will be heard at a victory celebration in Pickfair, the home of Laker owner Jerry Buss.
“I’ll go up there with some of my reggae tapes and turn him into a reggae music lover,” Thompson said.
“Then you’ll know that the Bahama Underground has surfaced again.”