When Jamie Thompson dragged his old bones into the Sporting House, a legendary venue for pick-up basketball games in Las Vegas back in the day, everyone knew the man had arrived.
Even in his late-40s and early-50s, Thompson was the guy nobody could beat.
And it wasn’t a bunch of nobodies trying to beat him, either. UNLV players like Stacy Augmon, Larry Johnson, Lloyd Daniels and Mark Wade were in those games. Occasionally, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird showed up.
“A lot of great pros and a lot of famous people played pick-up games there,” said Las Vegas developer Matt Othick, a former Arizona point guard (1989-92) who knew Thompson, a close friend of his father’s. “But you always wanted to be on Jamie’s team.”
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Thompson never could jump high or run fast. But the former Wichita State standout, who led the Shockers to the Final Four as a sophomore in 1965 and scored 36 points in the national semifinals against UCLA, had a basketball brain and a shooter’s touch.
“Jamie is probably the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” said Othick, whose father, Buddy, coached at Wichita State under Harry Miller in the mid-1970s and met Thompson one afternoon at MacDonald Park golf course, where they began to develop a close bond. “I mean, even when he was 50 years old he never missed.”
Long-time Shocker fans remember Thompson’s stroke. He was deadly from just inside the top of the key and an 85.3 percent career free-throw shooter who kicked himself when he missed one.
Thompson, who died of a heart attack in 2006, grew up across the street from Mac Park and made himself into a scratch golfer, frequently competing with long-time friend Grier Jones, who played professionally for nearly 20 years and is the men’s golf coach at Wichita State.
“We liked the same things,” Jones said. “We liked to golf, we liked to compete. Who knows why people get along?
“But when he passed away, it was tough. He was still playing a lot of basketball, even then, working out at UNLV. I don’t ever remember Jamie being sick a day in his life.”
Thompson averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds during his WSU career, including 22 points and 8.3 rebounds as a junior in 1965-66. He and former East High teammate Kelly Pete were instrumental in getting the Shockers to the Final Four in 1965 after both Dave Stallworth (eligibility) and Nate Bowman (academics) left the team at the semester break.
WSU was blown out by UCLA in the semifinals 108-89, but Thompson made 13 of 19 shots and was 10 of 11 from the free-throw line. Wichita State will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that Final Four appearance during halftime of the Missouri State game on Feb. 7 at Koch Arena and Thompson will be represented by his son, David Nelson.
“We learned how to play off each other,” said Mohamed Sharif, formerly Kelly Pete, who for years has been an artist in Santa Fe, N.M. “We played quite a bit together, even in high school. There were a lot of one-on-one games before practice, after practice – we kind of had that relationship.”
Sharif and Thompson led East to a state championship in 1962. They had tremendous chemistry because of their divergent styles.
Sharif was a tremendous athlete with great jumping ability and speed. He was the Shockers’ best defensive player.
Thompson, those who know him say, may have never been able to dunk a basketball. But he had a sixth sense about how to play the game and worked diligently on shooting.
“The game is an intellectual game,” Sharif said. “And Jamie had good fundamentals and basketball knowledge.”
Thompson’s basketball skills, though, aren’t the first thing those who knew him mention. His friends and teammates were most impressed with how he treated people.
“Such a gentleman,” said former Shockers teammate Bob Powers. “He was a hell of a lot nicer than most of us; he had class. He didn’t have a temper and that was one of his greatest assets as a basketball player. He never got upset with anything or anybody, he just put his head down and went to work and had the ability to not let emotions interfere with what he had to do.”
Thompson, a former business partner of Wichitan Johnny Stevens, spent most of his adult life in Las Vegas, but moved to San Antonio in 2002. He was drafted out of Wichita State by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Chaparrals of the American Basketball Association. Dallas took him in the fifth round, one round later than they picked Pat Riley. But he never played professionally.
Thompson was a dog lover and was always surrounded by friends drawn to his calm nature.
“Jamie was one of those guys who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it,” said Tommy Newman, another former teammate at Wichita State. “I don’t think I ever – and I was around him every day for several years – but I don’t think I ever heard him say anything bad about a person. Not a teammate, a coach or anybody else. He was just a unique person.”
Newman remembers needing to get to his home in Texas during a break, but the engine in his car stopped working. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he called Thompson.
“He gave me the money to pay for an engine,” Newman said. “I’m thinking it was somewhere around $400, which was a lot of money. A little while later, I mailed him a check. But I don’t think he ever expected to see that money.”
Thompson’s son, David Nelson, who played high school basketball in Michigan, said his goal was to beat his father in a game of one-on-one. He never did.
“I couldn’t shoot as well as my dad, but I think I jumped a little better,” Nelson said.
But it never mattered that Thompson wasn’t a great leaper or that he couldn’t run like most of the guys he played for and against.
He had something few of them had: An uncanny ability of knowing where to be and when to be there and of being able to shoot.
“He couldn’t jump six inches, but he would get every rebound in those pick-up games at the Sporting House,” Othick said. “It was unbelievable how competitive those games were when a lot of the great players showed up. Jamie wouldn’t just hold his own, he would dominate.”
Thompson’s other sports passion was golf. He hit the ball right-handed, chipped left-handed and putted cross-handed.
“If you saw him play, you would think that this guy can’t be very good,” Othick said. “But he was a scratch golfer.”
When Michael Jordan came through Las Vegas, he often would seek out Thompson for a round at the Lad Vegas Country Club, Othick said.
“Jordan always want Jamie to play in his group,” Othick said. “Jamie was always a really quaint, subtle guy and I think Jordan really liked that about him.”
Othick doesn’t remember Jordan getting into those pick-up games at the Sporting House, though. But if he had, he might have met the same fate as so many others. It was Thompson’s house.
“Jamie was the man in those games,” Othick said. “He was as humble a person as you’d ever meet so he wouldn’t tell you that, but he was the man.”