Air Thompson Takes United Center Stage
By Brandon Castel
CHICAGO — In an arena that was built on the slam dunk, Sam Thompson took a different path to greatness on Friday night.
Photo by Jim Davidson
In many ways, the high-flying sophomore has patented his game after his childhood hero — flying through the air, suspending gravity for some of the most jaw-dropping, eye-popping dunks imaginable.
If the bar wasn’t set so high, Sam Thompson might just leap up and snatch it away from His Airness. But Michael Jordan was Chicago, and still is in many ways. Walk through the corridors of the United Center in the heart of the Windy City and Jordan’s Bulls still loom large.
They cast a mountainous shadow over the city Thompson called home before he signed with the Buckeyes two years ago.
“I have been here a lot and I went to a lot of Bulls games growing up,” Thompson said Friday night after scoring 19 points in his return to Chicago.
“I have been coming here since I was three or four years old with my father, just watching games. I have a lot of memories I’ll never forget.”
Now he can add this one to the list. Probably right at the top, considering Thompson’s breakout performance helped the Buckeyes overcome an agonizing start against Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
He didn’t grab a rebound or hand out an assist, so all Scottie Pippen comparisons are out the window; though he did have a block and a steal. But Thompson was at his best in the town where he once helped Whitney Young High School to a Class 4A championship as a sophomore 2009.
He almost got to play in the United Center, too. Whitney Young was good enough to play for a City championship against Brooks High School during Thompson’s senior year in 2011.
They lost that game, 67-54, but even more disappointing was the fact the Chicago public leagues had moved the location of the championship game from The UC downtown to the Jones Convocation Center out in Roseland, about 20 minutes south of the city.
“It was a big time letdown,” Thompson said.
“The last one I went to was Derrick Rose’s junior year. He put on a show and I was really excited to come play.”
Thompson sat right behind the basket that night as Rose, a Chicago native who played at Simeon Career Academy, electrified the crowd at the United Center. He scored 25 points and threw down some marvelous dunks that would have made Jordan proud.
“The word I’ve been using is surreal,” Thompson said Friday night.
“I’ve seen Michael Jordan play on this court. I’ve seen Derrick Rose play on this court. It was just a good experience to play well, but most importantly be able to get the win.”
On the way back into town, Thompson and the Buckeyes passed his old high school. They passed his middle school too. It was a chance for the 6-7 forward to remember where he came from, but also an opportunity to move one step closer to where he’s trying to go.
“It was cool. We got here about 30 minutes before we were able to touch the basketball and stuff,” Thompson said of the cavernous NBA arena, which can seat nearly 21,000 fans for a Bulls’ home game.
“Just coming out here, seeing all the banners, seeing the Madhouse on Madison United Center, it was a great feeling.”
The east side of the arena features a bronze statue of Michael Jordan known as “The Spirit.” It depicts the NBA’s No. 3 all-time scorer soaring high for a signature one-handed dunk, though it lacks the famous MJ tongue wag.
At one point Friday, it looked like Thompson might take off for one of his own signature rim-rattlers. He caught the ball on a breakaway pass from fellow Illinois native Lenzelle Smith Jr. and went up for the flush.
There would be no acrobatics this time, just a simple two-hand slam with a quick point of recognition in Smith’s direction.
“I’m too old for that,” the sophomore joked with a wry smile.
“It’s a long season. I thought I was going to get fouled on that, so I wanted to make sure I got that one in.”
That one accounted for two of Thompson’s 19 points, a career night for a kid who came into the game averaging only seven points this season. He made eight of his nine shots against the Cornhuskers, include three of his four attempts from behind the arc.
None of them felt better than the three he hit to open the game.
“Any time you can get one down early, get some of the jitters out early, it’s a good feeling,” said Thompson, who averaged 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game as a senior in high school.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it jitters. It was more excitement than anything. I’d always wanted to play in the United Center. It was good to be back home, hadn’t been here in a while, so it was fun.”
And the Buckeyes won, which means he will get to do it all over again on Saturday.
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