Q&A with Minnesota Great Mychal Thompson

March 2nd, 2010

In the latest installement of his interview series CHN's Jon Teitel interviewed Mychal Thompson, who is widely regarded as one of the best players in the history of the University of Minnesota program. Thompson also won a pair of NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Jon Teitel: You were born in the Bahamas, moved to Miami during high school, and decided to attend college at Minnesota. How did you first get into the sport of basketball while everyone around you was playing soccer, and how did you survive the move north for college?

Mychal Thompson: I out-grew soccer, which was a childhood love of mine. I was a rare tall kid in the Bahamas (6'9"); I am not sure how that happened. Everyone said I should try basketball, so I just made the transition. I did not survive the move to Minnesota, as I am still trying to thaw out.

JT: You were nicknamed "Sweet Bells". Who gave you the nickname, and did you like it?

MT: My high school teammates gave me the nickname. They used to tease me because I was not as good as Wilt or Kareem, so they called me "Bells" after Walt Bellamy, and later on after they saw some of my moves it became "Sweet Bells".

JT: In 1976 you had a triple-double against Ohio Dtate (34 PTS/12 REB/school-record 12 BLK). Was defense always a key part of your game and does that night stand out in your mind as your best all-around game ever?

MT: I loved playing defense in the post and taking on the challenge of inside scorers: it was a goal of mine every game. I tell my sons about that game against OSU because everything was just clicking that night. It is hard to get a triple-double with blocks: most guys do it with assists.

JT: After numerous court appearances during your junior year, the NCAA suspended you for 7 games in your senior year for selling your season tickets for more than face value even though you claimed that you did not know about the rule and your school claimed that the rule was void due to its vague wording. Did you feel that the suspension was unfair, and how close did you come to turning pro a year early to avoid the suspension?

MT: I did not know the rule, but ignorance is no excuse, so it was my fault. I considered going pro early, but it had nothing to do with the suspension. I just did not want to go to another cold climate in Buffalo (who might have taken me)!

JT: You finished your college career as the all-time leading scorer in school history. Did you realize at the time how prolific a player you were?

MT: You do not realize it while you are going through it, but you do reflect on it afterwards. People were saying nice things about me at the time, but it would be a bigger deal now with so much coverage on the Internet/blogs: I did not go home and read articles about myself after every game.

JT: In the summer of 1978 you were drafted #1 overall by Portland (5 spots ahead of Larry Bird), which was the 1st-time that a foreign-born player had been the top pick. How excited were you to be picked #1 and how excited were you to go to Portland only one year removed from them winning the NBA title?

MT: It was a great honor to be in such a special fraternity, but there is also lot of pressure to live up to. We did not have as much draft coverage as there is today, but I knew I was in uncharted territory coming from the Bahamas. Portland was perfect for me because I had never been to that part of the country before and it was nice to see what life was like out west. With the existing nucleus of Bill Walton/Maruice Lucas/Lionel Hollins, I thought we might win a couple of titles.

JT: You missed the entire 1979-1980 season due to injury. Were you worried that you were not going to be able to come back and play to the best of your abilities?

MT: I was not worried about it: a lot of people prayed for me, and I just had to be patient and get the chance to become healthy.

JT: In the summer of 1986 you were traded to the Spurs, who then traded you to the Lakers several months later. Is it hard to separate the personal side from the business side of professional sports, and how did you feel about playing almost a decade in Portland and then getting traded twice in under a year?

MT: You have to understand that it is a business and you cannot take it personally. It was easier for me because I was single at the time: it would have been much harder if I had a wife and kids. I was sorry to leave Portland because I liked it there, but excited to go to a storied franchise like the Lakers.

1987 NBA Finals

JT: The Lakers brought you in that year to back-up one future Hall-of-Famer (Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) and defend another one (Celtics forward/fellow Gopher alum Kevin McHale). What was it like to back-up Kareem and what was the key to defending McHale?

MT: Being in a locker room with Kareem was such an honor. I was in awe because I had grown up watching him on TV, so I could not believe that I was playing and dressing next to him. I felt like I finally had made it to the big time despite already being an NBA veteran: it was a dream come true. The key to defending Kevin was beating him to his favorite spots and making him operate farther out from the basket, otherwise you were at his mercy down on the baseline.

JT: Several of the Celtics' Hall-of-Fame big men entered the series with various injuries (Kevin McHale had an ankle injury/stress fracture, Robert Parish had a severe ankle sprain, and Bill Walton was unable to play at all due to feet and back problems) after a hard-fought 7-game Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit. Did you or Kareem feel like you were going to have a big advantage because of that?

MT: I like the Karl Malone theory: if your uniform is on, then you are ready to play. We did not take anything for granted. Everyone is sore and beat up by the Finals, and I did not see any problems with their mobility out on the court.

JT: In the 2nd quarter of Game 2 Michael Cooper had a Finals-record 8 AST, and he also ended up with a playoff-record 6-of-7 3PT. Did you think you had the series in hand after winning each of the 1st 2 games by double-digits?

MT: You have to "hold service" as Coach Pat Riley used to call it. Guys like Coop always came through in the clutch.

JT: In Game 3 Boston got back in the series with a six-point win by making 17-21 FG in the 2nd quarter: was that the most impressive 12-minute stretch of basketball you have ever seen?

MT: They were a great team capable of doing anything in the Garden. You almost have to expect them to do something like that: the key is to just maintain your poise and confidence.

JT: Down by one at the end of Game 4, Magic Johnson drove into the key and made a legendary hook-shot over the outstretched arms of McHale/Parish to give the Lakers a one-point win. What do you remember about that play, and where does it rank among the best game-winners ever?

MT: It is definitely up there due to the circumstances. What a lot of people do not remember is that if Magic had missed the shot, then Kareem would have tipped it in anyway as he was underneath the basket all by himself. I felt that Magic would make the shot, as he probably made that hook shot 80-85% of the time.

JT: Kareem showed up for Game 6 with a shaved head, and your own contribution was a double-double off the bench (16 PTS/10 REB) to win the series. How were you able to play so well when it mattered the most, and what did it mean to you to win the title?

MT: It is a combination of believing in yourself, having great teammates around you, and preparing mentally/physically. I knew that Riley would give me plenty of minutes to put up decent numbers. Winning a championship is the reason you put on a uniform: it is the best feeling you can have in the profession. Individual awards are nice, but you play the game to get rings and be called a winner, which stays with you forever. It was extra-special to win it on a historic team like the Lakers.

JT: During the championship parade Lakers coach Pat Riley promised the crowd that your team would repeat the following season (which nobody had done in 2 decades). What did you think of his promise, and did you have a target on your back for the next 12 months?

MT: Every champion has a target on its back, as people want to knock you off your pedestal, but you still have to go out and prove that you are the best team. Riley's guarantee did not scare us: as long as everyone stayed healthy, we felt confident that we could win it all again.

1988 NBA Finals

JT: In Game 1 the Pistons beat your tired Lakers team (coming off back-to-back 7-game wins over Utah and Dallas) by eight thanks to Adrian Dantley scoring 34 PTS on 14-16 FG. Where does Dantley's performance rank among the best shooting displays you have ever seen, and how big a dagger was Isiah Thomas' steal/half-court shot to beat the halftime buzzer?

MT: Dantley was not a flashy player, but he knew how to get the ball in the basket with high-percentage shots. He was a tough guy to guard despite not being super-quick. Isiah is one of the best clutch players in the history of the game, so you almost expect a Hall-of-Famer to make that shot.

JT: In Game 5 (the final game at the Pontiac Silverdome) the Lakers scored 12 straight points to start the game, but the Pistons rallied in front of a crowd of 41,000 to get a ten-point win and take a 3-2 series lead. Do you remember about the crowd having a big impact by standing and waving towels, and did you feel like your team could still win two in a row to capture the series?

MT: The crowd was very loud and very supportive, but we still had confidence going back home.

JT: Game 6 featured Isiah scoring 43 PTS (including a Finals-record 25 PTS in the 3rd quarter on 11-13 FG after stepping on Michael Cooper's foot and spraining his ankle), but Kareem made two free throws after Bill Laimbeer was whistled for a controversial foul in the final seconds to give the Lakers a one-point win. What do you remember about Isiah's performance, and did you think that Laimbeer committed a foul?

MT: That was one for the ages. For Isiah to do that on a sore ankle, it was just a case of mind over matter. As far as Laimbeer, only Kareem could draw that foul. It was a touch foul, but legends like Kareem get preferential calls.

JT: Isiah only played a few minutes in the 2nd half of Game 7 due to his ankle, but no foul was called when Magic knocked him the ground with two seconds left as the home crowd had already started to storm the court. Do you think the refs should have called a foul, and do you think you would have won if Isiah was healthy?

MT: I always wondered if referee Jake O'Donnell was going to blow the whistle. Maybe Isiah would have still done his thing if healthy, but when you have two legends vs. one (Magic/Kareem vs. Isiah), two beats one.

JT: You won back-to-back titles thanks to Final MVP James Worthy's Game 7 triple-double (36 PTS/16 REB/10 AST). Which title was sweeter, and which was harder to win?

MT: They were both sweet, but Celtics-Lakers is the ultimate rivalry and we owed them. Even though the Boston did not go 7 games, it was hard to beat the greatest front line in history, and hard to overcome the mental block we had against the Celtics.

1989 NBA Finals

JT: You swept all three of your playoff series that year leading up to the finals. Did you feel that you were unstoppable or were you worried that the Pistons were out for revenge after losing to you the previous year?

MT: We were 11-0 but knew it would not be easy against Detroit. We felt that we were going to 3-peat, but fate got in the way due to injuries to Byron (Scott) and Magic.

JT: Down by two in the final seconds of Game 2 Worthy was fouled and had a chance to tie it up, but he missed 1 of 2 FT and you ended up losing by 3 points. Did you think he was going to make them both, and even if he had did you think you could win in OT with Byron Scott and Magic out with hamstring injuries?

MT: Of course I thought he was going to make them both (that is why they call him Big Game James!), so we were shocked. Even if we had won Game 2, we knew the odds were up against us, but we were not going to quit.

JT: In Game 3 Finals MVP Joe Dumars scored 31 PTS (including 17 in a row during the 3rd quarter), blocked David Rivers' three-point try in the corner in the final second, and then saved the ball from going out of bounds to seal the win. What was the deal with yet another guy having the quarter of his life in the Finals, and did you think Rivers was going to make the shot?

MT: I thought Rivers had a good look, but Dumars made a great play. When you are an NBA-caliber player you can go off like that, and when a guy is hot you ride him.

JT: The Pistons finished off the sweep with an eight-point win in Game 4, and he Pistons all came out on the floor towards the end to join in the applause for Kareem (who announced his retirement after being in the NBA for 20 years). What was it like to play with such a legend, and did your team feel bad that he ended his career by getting swept?

MT: We felt bad that we could not get Kareem a title, but would have felt worse if we had lost the series with a full set of healthy guys. It was nice for everyone to pay homage to Kareem: he was arguably the greatest player ever (from high school through college and the pros), and he taught me a lot.

JT: You averaged 13.7 PPG and 7.4 RPG during your 12-year NBA career: how satisfied are you with your career, and do you have any regrets?

MT: I was okay, but I regret the two NBA Finals I lost. People think you are being greedy, but I am thankful for the 2 Finals that I won. I just wonder what could have been. I am still proud of fact that I played as long as I did.

JT: You are one of eleven retired players with 2,000 career offensive rebounds, 1,000 blocks, and 50+FG% who are not currently in the Hall of Fame (Alonzo Mourning/Artis Gilmore/Buck Williams/Dale Davis/Dikembe Mutombo/Horace Grant/James Donaldson/Karl Malone/Larry Nance/Tree Rollins). How did you never make an All-Star team during your illustrious career, and how do you want people to remember you on the court?

MT: I had a chance to make a couple of All-Star teams, but the competition for the center position in the West (Moses, Artis, Issel, Kareem, Sikma, Alvan Adams) was just too deep. It is not like now where you almost have to go looking for a center: Kareem/Moses were automatic picks almost every year.

JT: You currently work as the Lakers radio color commentator, and also co-host a sports talk show on ESPN radio. How do you like the two jobs and which one is your favorite?

MT: They are both a lot of fun, but being around the Lakers and watching Kobe win titles is a thrill. I am blessed to be around the world's greatest athletes. They never cease to amaze me.

JT: Your family is starting to develop a very impressive athletic lineage (your son Mychel plays basketball at Pepperdine, your son Klay plays basketball at Washington State, and your son Trayce signed to play baseball for UCLA after being drafted in the 3rd round of the 2009 MLB draft by the White Sox). Is it a coincidence that you had such an athletic family or do you credit at least some of your kids' success to genetics?

MT: Definitely genetics; they all take after their mom! Seriously, she played every sport in high school and college. I am sure that I did my part a little bit, but she played track/gymnastics/volleyball.

Jon's Big Ten Fantasy List 

Illinois: Dee Brown (2006): 1812 PTS (#3), 674 AST (#2), 231 STL (#2), 299 3PM (#2), 2-time All-American, conference POY

Indiana: Calbert Cheaney (1993): 2613 PTS (#1), 55.9 FG% (#2), 3-time All-American, conference POY, national POY

Iowa: Roy Marble (1989): 2116 PTS (#1), 183 STL (#4), All-American

Michigan: Glen Rice (1989): 2442 PTS (#1), 56.9 FG% (#3), 48 3P% (#1), All-American, NCAA MOP

Michigan State: Scott Skiles (1986): 2145 PTS (#3), 645 AST (#2), 175 STL (#2), 85 FT% (#3), All-American, conference POY, national POY

Minnesota: Mychal Thompson (1978): 1992 PTS (#1), 956 REB (#1), 56.6 FG% (#2), 2-time All-American

Northwestern: Evan Eschmeyer (1999): 1805 PTS (#2), 995 REB (#1), 132 BLK (#2), 59.5 FG% (#1), All-American

Ohio State: Jerry Lucas (1962): 1990 PTS (#3), 1411 REB (#1), 62.4 FG% (#1), 3-time All-American, 3-time conference POY, 2-time national POY, 2-time NCAA MOP

Penn State: Jesse Arnelle (1955): 2138 PTS (#1), 1238 REB (#1), 3-time All-American

Purdue: Rick Mount (1970): 2323 PTS (#1), 84.3 FT% (#5), 3-time All-American

Wisconsin: Michael Finley (1995): 2147 PTS (#2), 371 AST (#3), 168 STL (#4), 213 3PM (#3), 3-time All-American