Sam Thompson leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes as he tried to piece together the most complete basketball memory from his childhood.
Growing up in the shadow of the United Center in Chicago – the arena in which the hometown Chicago Bulls finished off their dynasty that eventually culminated with six NBA championships in the 1990s – Ohio State’s sophomore forward never came up with a definitive answer. There were a lot.
“I have been here a lot and I went to a lot of Bulls games growing up,” Thompson said. “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.”
On its way to the United Center for its game against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, Ohio State’s bus went down Laflin Street – or Memory Lane for Thompson – to make a pit-stop at Whitney Young High School, the team he helped lead to the Class 4A championship during his sophomore prep season.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder for Thompson about where he has been, something Thad Matta wanted to give his starting small forward before arriving at the place in which he’s spent his entire life dreaming of playing.
“We drove him by Whitney Young High School today, right by the gymnasium and everyone pointed to it for him,” Matta said. “It was on the way.”
The city championship games were once played in the United Center, but the site of that game got changed to Chicago State’s campus the year before Thompson got to high school. His dream of playing in the arena would have to wait.
“I was mad,” Thompson said. “I always looked forward to playing here.”
It was a quick trip from past to present from Thompson, as the bus made the trek that spanned less than a mile from Whitney Young to the United Center. He walked into the floor, stared up at the banners Jordan helped hoist and gazed into the seats in which he once sat.
“It was cool,” Thompson said. “We got here about 30 minutes before we were able to touch the basketball and stuff,” Thompson said. “Just coming out here, seeing all the banners, seeing the Madhouse on Madison United Center, it was a great feeling.”
Perhaps it was the pregame meditation, or maybe it was because Ohio State is playing in the Big Ten tournament poised as ever to make a deep run in March, but Thompson didn’t allow his moment to pass him by.
He knocked down a three-pointer on Ohio State’s first possession, and then he helped the Buckeyes pore it on the overmatched Cornhuskers on the way to a 71-50 victory to advance to the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday.
Thompson made all six of his shots from the field in the second half before finishing with a career-high 19 points, putting together his most complete offensive performance of the season in front of close friends and family.
“The word I have been using is surreal,” Thompson said. “I have seen Michael Jordan play on this court. I have 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.”
High school basketball is a tradition held closer to the hearts of Chicagoan’s than most areas, and Zion (Ill.) Benton graduate Lenzelle Smith Jr. understands better than anyone what Thompson was feeling.
With black and red retro Air Jordan 11s on his feet, Smith – who hasn’t dribbled a ball in the United Center since he was a child – said he was thrilled to see his teammate and fellow Chicago native seize the opportunity in front of their hometown crowd.
“There’s great pride, tradition and history coming from Chicago and great pros have played in this building,” Smith said. “As a basketball player, you dream about playing on the same court they’ve played on and shooting with the same ball they have.
“I saw Sam early. He was hyped about being here and playing here. I was very happy, energetic in warm-ups, smiling. I knew that there was going to be a good chance for Sam to get out here and show much of his offensive game.”
The Buckeyes could benefit greatly if Thompson’s offensive game was a regularity moving forward, especially because the sophomore has become more known as a defensive contributor that can bring crowds to his feet with the occasional rim-rattling dunk.
But when Thompson’s shot is falling, Ohio State is a different team. A dangerous one.
“It was big for him to come out and seize the opportunity and play well in front of his home crowd,” junior point guard Aaron Craft said. “I know it meant a lot to him about playing well out there – he’s been talking about it all week.”
Now he has tomorrow, too.
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