The Syracuse basketball team had just finished practicing when fans approached.
“Yo, General,” said a kid as he thrust a pen and paper at Sherman Douglas, the Orangemen’s All-American point guard. Douglas was soon surrounded by a horde of autograph seekers.
Derrick Coleman, Syracuse’s All-American forward, also drew a crowd.
Forward Stephen Thompson, meanwhile, was all but ignored. Judging from the lack of attention, you would have thought he was the team manager instead of its leading scorer.
Does Thompson resent the lack of attention?
“It doesn’t matter as long as we win,” he said.
And, Syracuse is winning.
The Orangemen (30-7) will play Illinois (30-4) in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Midwest Regional final today at the Metrodome.
Thompson, a 6-foot 4-inch junior from Los Angeles, has played an important role for Syracuse, which is attempting to reach the Final Four for the second time in three years.
“Stevie is one of the most underrated players in the country,” Douglas said. “He means a lot to our team. . . . He’s our leading scorer and the best defensive player on the team. When we’re down and we need a basket, we go to him.”
Douglas and Thompson have perfected the alley-oop into an art form. Douglas throws well-timed lob passes to Thompson, who finishes the play with spectacular dunks.
“I’m not so sure I’ve seen anybody jump like Thompson does,” Illinois Coach Lou Henson said. “He is unbelievable.”
The alley-oop can be as dangerous as a high-wire circus act. Thompson had to hang on the rim to avoid being injured when Douglas mis-timed a pass to him during an 83-80 win over Missouri in a Midwest semifinal game Friday night.
“It can be really scary,” Thompson said of the play. “You have to go up there just right or you can hurt yourself.”
Thompson learned to play at Crenshaw High School, where he led the Cougars to two state titles. A prep All-American, Thompson averaged 29 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior.
“I’m not surprised that he’s had the success he’s had because of the kind of person he is,” Willie West, Crenshaw coach, said of Thompson. “He has always been dedicated no matter whether it was in the classroom or on the basketball court.”
Thompson credits West with his success.
“My father died when I was in the fourth grade and my mother was my mother and my father for the rest of that time,” Thompson said. “But when I got to Crenshaw, Coach West was like a father figure to me.”
Thompson, who chose Syracuse over Duke and UCLA, was the first player from Los Angeles to be recruited by Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim.
During a recruiting visit, Boeheim sensed Thompson wasn’t enthusiastic about attending Syracuse. Boeheim turned his attention to other recruits and stopped calling Thompson.
But Thompson’s mother, Kathleen, called Boeheim unexpectedly, worried that Syracuse had lost interest in her son. She said he wanted to play for Syracuse.
Boeheim was stunned.
“We couldn’t get a better present if you sent us part of Hollywood,” Boeheim said. “People thought I was just going out to L.A. for the weather when I went out to recruit Stevie.”
In three years at Syracuse, Thompson has blossomed.
After coming off the bench as a freshman, Thompson became a starter last season and led the team in scoring with a 14.8 average during the Big East season. He has averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game this season.
Thompson’s only noticeable weakness is his free-throw shooting. Although he shot 63.8% from the field. Thompson shot just 49.4% from the free-throw line.
He’s obsessed with improving. He works on free throws by taking shots from four inches under the basket. He keeps moving back four inches until he reaches the free-throw line. Thompson shoots three nights a week by himself during the regular season and every night during the off-season.
“Stevie gets the manager to open the gym for him,” Boeheim said. “How many kids do you know that would go off and shoot by themselves like that?”
Thompson says he has a reason for all the practice.
“I want to play this game for a long time, and the only way I can do that is if I work on it,” he said. “I want to get better.”
Thompson is already extraordinary.
Illinois Coach Lou Henson is uncertain whether forward Kenny Battle (sprained right knee) and center Lowell Hamilton (sprained right ankle) will play today. . . . Henson said guard Kendall Gill, the team’s third leading scorer, wanted to attend Syracuse. “I told (Syracuse Coach) Jim Boeheim about him, but he thought (Gill) wasn’t good enough,” Henson joked. Said Boeheim, “Henson’s got a good sense of humor.” Responded Gill: “I didn’t have any aspirations of playing at Syracuse. I just liked the color orange. That’s why I came to Illinois, whose colors are orange and blue.