Billy Thompson was embarrassed at Laker practice last December in Richfield, Ohio, when he reached into his gym bag and pulled out two left sneakers.
But things got worse. Much worse. In Denver last April, Thompson tried to put on his left sock and couldn’t bend his knee far enough to do it.
“I was just frozen,” Thompson said, recalling the wave of fear that passed over him in the visitors’ dressing room on the night the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets from the playoffs.
It is six months later, and although Thompson can put on his socks again with ease, he still is unable to play basketball. If the fear is gone, it has only been replaced by uncertainty.
“I was not aware it would go this long,” said Thompson, who hasn’t taken the court since being knocked to the floor by Maurice Martin on a slam-dunk attempt.
“I was praying the pain would subside and go away and I could get back in motion, but it hasn’t happened that way. The pain’s still there, although it is subsiding.”
For now, Laker Coach Pat Riley said the second-year forward who was a No. 1 draft choice last season doesn’t fit into his plans. Thompson will start the season on the injured list, and it may be some time before he returns.
“I’m like Tom Landry that way,” Riley said, referring to the Dallas football coach. “As long as a guy is hurt, I can’t count on him being here.”
Thompson’s injury was originally described as a hyper-extended knee, and it was thought he would be ready well before the start of training camp.
When Thompson struck the floor after colliding with Martin, however, he also suffered a deep bone bruise just below the left kneecap. Riley described it as a dent in the bone. That’s where the pain remains, said Thompson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery last summer.
“The bone jammed together upon impact,” Thompson said. “There were some chips around the bone that they removed, and I had a stretched medial collateral ligament. Most of the pain now is in the area under the kneecap.”
Thompson has begun jogging, but so far is unable to move laterally. That, he figures, will come in time. What he wonders about is whether he’ll be able to jump out of the gym the way he used to. Thompson’s playing time might have been short last season--he averaged just under 13 minutes and sat out 23 games--but there were some electrifying moments, sparked by his spectacular dunks.
“I’ve been thinking about that: Will I be able to jump again like I used to, and maybe even better,” Thompson said. “I still have my right leg. I’ll just start dunking left-handed, if I have to.”
The playoff game against Denver had long since been settled--the Lakers were ahead by more than 30 points--when Thompson stole a pass from Martin and dribbled downcourt for a breakaway jam. Martin, also a rookie, pursued from the opposite side, and when Thompson went airborne, Martin ascended as well. The collision that followed was fearsome.
Thompson, who says he is a born-again Christian--he signs off on his telephone answering machine by saying, “God bless you"--puts a moralistic twist on what happened.
“I guess I was a little prideful going to the basket,” he said. “I didn’t see him--I knew he was there--but it didn’t matter: I was going to make that slam dunk.
“I made it, but I paid the price. Next time, I know I have to go a little stronger or go underneath the basket and do it from the other side or something, and not be so prideful.”
Was Martin, not wanting to be shown up, guilty of overdoing it?
“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,” Thompson said. “I think it was just his athletic enthusiasm. I had stolen the ball, he had passed it and he was willing to make a good play to cover up his bad pass.”
Thompson, a star forward on Louisville’s National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship team his senior year, didn’t make all the right moves as a Laker, though he showed enough to make General Manager Jerry West one of his biggest boosters.
Thompson averaged 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds a game, but projected over 48 minutes, those numbers grow to a shade under 21 points and 11 rebounds.
“He met my expectations,” West said. “I liken him to A. C. Green the year before. It’s hard for kids to play on a team with so many veterans, but I think Billy made really good progress. I thought there were times last season when he made a real contribution.”
Then there were other times, such as the day of the matching left shoes, taken straight out of the Benoit Benjamin playbook. Benjamin, the Clippers’ 22-year-old center, pulled the same stunt at an exhibition game last fall.
“Can you believe that?” Thompson said, chuckling at the memory of his own foul-up. “I’m in Cleveland, and what’s going on there? Nothing. I’m not running around . . . I’m walking around the hotel, doing nothing and then I get to practice--and two left shoes.
“I said: ‘Man, can you believe this?’ ”
The Lakers could. Thompson had a few lapses last season, the kind that aren’t uncommon for a rookie.
“I was late to some practices and missed some buses--as was reported in the papers all year,” he said ruefully. “I got it together by the end of the season. It took me a whole season, but I think I got it figured out.”
Thompson, a finance major at Louisville, obviously decided he didn’t want to part with any more of his money, in the form of fines that went toward a team party at the end of the season.
“I heard they had a good party,” he said. “I’m glad I chipped in.
“I wasn’t able to put it on my income tax returns,” he added, deadpan. “I don’t understand that--hundreds of dollars I donated to that party, and no tax write-off?”
Thompson, a two-time high school All-American in Camden, N.J., had his best season statistically at Louisville his junior year, when he led the Cardinals in scoring, rebounding and assists. His future in the National Basketball Assn., however, was clouded by reports--in the words of one team general manager--that Thompson was “into the nose candy.”
His involvement with cocaine is a closed chapter in his life, Thompson said, a big step even for someone with a size 17 shoe.
“I used to try drugs to the point where it wasn’t doing any good for me,” Thompson said. “It was destroying the body. I changed because of my relationship with the Lord. I stopped messing around with drugs and partying, because I came to realize it wasn’t helping me at all.
” . . . When you’re being real, you’re being righteous. And when you’re righteous, you’re pleasing God. And when you please God, you get all the blessings.”
The first to come his way, Thompson said, was Louisville Coach Denny Crum’s telling him he’d been selected to play in the World University Games in Kobe, Japan. After that, an NCAA title at Louisville, and then a draft-day trade with Atlanta that brought him to the Lakers.
While he waits to play again, Thompson is lifting weights with his knee, working on a trampoline and riding a bike, and undergoing some electrical stimulation. It’s a routine he follows twice daily.
“I’m looking at coming back, hopefully very soon,” he said. “It’s frustrating to know that when (the injury) happened, I was improving to the point where my confidence--knowing what had to be done--was growing. To see it go on this long is frustrating, because I knew I was getting better and stronger.”
West said team doctors have indicated that Thompson has shown significant improvement in the last three weeks.
“He’s young enough,” West said. “It shouldn’t bother him.”
If everything goes the way Thompson hopes, Magic Johnson will be inviting him to his slam-dunk competition next summer.
“Anything you do that’s different, it’s a ’10,’ ” Thompson said, describing some of his cosmic creations, such as the bounce-off-the floor, grab-in-midair, reverse two-handed dunk he did in one game last season.
“That’s cool, that’s fun, but we all do that because we’re talented,” he said. “Nobody’s showing off--it’s serious. I’m serious. When we’re up there, we’re not trying to make some bull moves. Everybody has confidence in what they’re doing.”
Thompson laughed. “Like Kurt (Rambis), man. Did you see the behind-the-back pass he threw the other night? That was cool.”
Thompson would gladly settle for that right now. A chance to be cool.