Mr. Up And Down, they called him. Up—as in the fundamentally polished, most acclaimed high school senior of 1982, more famous even than Kenny Walker or Wayman Tisdale. Down—as in the out-of-control college freshman who was blatantly ridiculed as "World" by his senior teammates and who in the dunkathon of the age missed a breakaway dunk that may have cost Louisville the NCAA semifinal game against Houston in 1983. Down—as in being held out of the starting lineup last year after he broke curfew. Up—as in "finding Jesus Christ" last summer just before leading the runner-up U.S. team in the World University Games in Kobe, Japan.
Billy Thompson's basketball evolution has been a chaotic journey up the down staircase ever since he left Camden (N.J.) High and became a fixture in the Louisville lineup, not to mention a human quandary of national repute. Who else has gone from dungeons to pinnacles so far apart in such a short time: the span of a career, a season, sometimes from one performance to another? Cybill Shepherd? And who else has redeemed himself so sweetly: by averaging 18.3 points per game in the NCAAs—"He has been our best player," said Louisville coach Denny Crum—and, paradoxically, by achieving ultimate fulfillment while superbly playing second banana (6 of 8 shooting, 13 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks) in the championship game win over Duke to a very in-control freshman, Pervis Ellison.
On countless occasions Crum has praised the 6'7", 195-pound Thompson's "unselfishness" and hastened to point out that for two years he has been the only player to be listed in the Metro Conference Top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and shooting percentage, both field goal and free throw. But ever loose with the ball in his enormous hands, a purveyor of incomprehensible errors, Thompson long evinced a preference for the spectacular over the mundane, which made him basically a turnover waiting to happen; the kind of fellow who could follow a 17-point, 12-rebound show in a victory over Kentucky with a 10-and-5 line a week later in a loss to Chaminade.
With his old Camden High teammate, Milt Wagner, having returned from injury, Thompson concentrated on becoming a team leader in his final season. And so unto the breach of that funny teeter-totter once more. Up—19 points, 17 rebounds right out of the box against Miami of Ohio. Then, whoops. Down—against Indiana, Thompson scored but seven points. And other weak moments followed: Kentucky, eight; Memphis State, five; Syracuse, eight; Kansas, eight.
April 7, 1986
But gradually Thompson's concentration and effort began to improve. In one eight-day stretch in February, an inspired Thompson put together a quartet of 20-point-plus efforts as the Cardinals turned the corner and became a threat for the national championship.
Then came March, another new beginning, one more escalator for Thompson to negotiate. The marvelous thing about the NCAA tournament, of course, is that—like others before him—"World" got one last chance to show the world. Which is what he did.
In the West Regional at Houston, North Carolina simply could not guard Thompson—he melded 24 points with nine rebounds. In the national semifinals in Dallas he held LSU's John Williams to one basket in the second half while he himself shot 10 for 11. And on Armageddon Monday, in the Louisville-Duke war of foul-out attrition, he overmatched the splendid Mark Alarie, shutting the Blue Devil down to 4 of 11 shooting, jumping over him for the eight-footer that put Louisville ahead to stay 66-65 and then checking him off the board and out of position as Ellison went high to catch Jeff Hall's air ball and flip in the 68-65 clincher with :39 left.
In the victory celebration at the Louisville bench Thompson scanned the crowd and found Ron Kellogg and Greg Dreiling, the Kansas players who had been his teammates at the World Games. "Yo, Ron. Yo, Greg," he shouted. "Remember! Remember!"
What the Jayhawks might have recalled was that the Soviet Union beat their U.S. team and that Kansas beat Louisville twice this season, when their friend was down. But at that moment, "World" Thompson was standing right on top of his name. And at long last, finally, very definitely, he was way, way up.