Texas’ Thompson has to like what he sees in mirror
TULSA, Okla. – Almost any high-level athlete will admit that, at some point in their career, they pinned a list of goals on a bedroom bulletin board or hung them in their locker.
Tristan Thompson wrote his on a bathroom mirror.
Each and every night during middle school, phrases such as “Get a scholarship” and “Be the No. 1 player in the country” stared back at Thompson in black magic marker as he brushed his teeth. Goals were removed after they were accomplished but, for years, one word never fell victim to the eraser in his family’s Ontario home.
Thompson underlined the letters. He circled them and put a star to the left of the “M.”
“I’ve always been hungry,” Thompson said Saturday. “That’s been one of the biggest keys for me. I’ve always been driven.”
The mentality served him well in high school, when he was named one of the top 10 prospects in the country. It helped him win the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year award this season at Texas, and it will guide him Sunday when the Longhorns face Arizona in the third round of the West Regional at the BOK Center.
A victory over standout forward Derrick Williams – one of the few players in the nation who can match Thompson in both size and skill – and the Wildcats will give Texas a berth in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008.
“Without Tristan,” Longhorns swingman Jordan Hamilton said, “we probably wouldn’t be here.”
Hamilton is Texas’ scoring leader and token first-team All-Big 12 selection, guard Dogus Balbay earns national acclaim for his defense and J’Covan Brown is one of college basketball’s top players off the bench. No Longhorn, though, impacts the game in as many ways as the 6-foot-8 Thompson, who averages 13.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks.
“You try to block him out, and he jumps over you,” Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said of Thompson.
Kansas forward Marcus Morris, the Big 12 Player of the Year, agreed.
“He’s a long kid and he’s very active,” Morris said. “If you don’t block him out, he’ll get 10 or 11 offensive rebounds a game. Tristan is going to be a very, very good player.”
Most would say he already is.
As big of a difference as Thompson makes on the court, he’s even more unique off of it. Though he’s projected as a first-round pick in June’s NBA draft, Thompson and Hamilton told reporters Saturday they would return to Texas next season. Thompson was particularly adamant about his intentions, adding that he told high school teammate, Texas signee and fellow Canadian Myck Kabango, that he would play with him for at least one season.
“All right, [I’ll] just say it: I’m coming back for another year,” Thompson said. “I’ve already signed up for summer classes.”
Texas coach Rick Barnes seemed exasperated that reporters would even pose such a question to Thompson and Hamilton before they had time to analyze the situation.
“I think when they answer the question, I think truly at this point and time that’s what they feel,” Barnes said.
Whatever happens, Thompson always will be appreciated for what he brought to Texas’ team this season. When Thompson arrived in Austin, the Longhorns’ locker room was somewhat divided following a 2009-10 campaign that saw Barnes’ squad drop 10 of its final 17 games.
Hamilton and Brown had developed reputations as selfish players who took bad shots and barked at the coaching staff. The Longhorns had a handful of seniors with leadership qualities, but only one, Gary Johnson, played significant minutes.
Thompson and freshman point guard Cory Joseph, also from Ontario, helped change the vibe. Within weeks of their enrollment, Texas’ locker room suddenly was a fun place to be. Months later, that remains the case. Thompson broke out his rendition of the cabbage patch dance after Thursday’s win over Oakland. During the game, he celebrated a dunk by flashing the “Hook ‘em Horns” sign toward the crowd.
The Longhorns always have had skill. But now – finally – they’re showing some personality.
“He’s a character, man,” Johnson said. “Think about the year we had last year. It was so frustrating, no fun at all. Even when we were winning, it wasn’t fun. So now you bring in a guy like [Thompson] who could arguably be a top-10 pick if he left.
“He and Cory could’ve easily come in with the mindset of, ‘This is going to be our team. You guys weren’t good last year, so we’re going to take over.’ But instead they came in, bought into what we do and now they’re key players for us. We’re only going to be as successful as Tristan is.”
Thompson downplayed the effect he has had on Texas’ chemistry. And he shrugged his shoulders when asked about the constant smile he wears on the court.
“What’s better than playing basketball?” he said. “It’s the thing I love. It’s more fun than sitting at a computer.”
Thompson smiled at the reporters encircling him.
“No offense,” he said.
Raised in Ontario, Thompson played soccer until he was 10, when a coach told him he eventually would be too tall for the sport. Thompson switched to basketball and quickly became a force. He starred for his high school team as a freshman before transferring to Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict’s to play for Dan Hurley, the son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley.
Hurley, though, dismissed Thompson from the team because of insubordination - the player and coach moved past the incident and now are close friends - and Thompson surfaced at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, where he blossomed into the player he is today.
Thompson was asked why he chose to leave Canada when he was in high school.
“If I stayed, I probably would’ve gone Division I,” said Thompson, who committed to Texas as a sophomore. “But I wanted to actually be ready to come in and contribute. Going around the United States and playing against guys that would be in Division I programs … I knew it would help me have an impact from the start. It definitely helped me take a big step.”
Thompson hopes to take another big step Sunday. He’ll certainly have their hands full with Williams, who averages 19.2 points and 8.2 rebounds. A 6-9 sophomore, Williams scores as much from the perimeter as he does in the paint. Although Williams is a more skilled offensive player than Thompson, Thompson is by far the superior defender.
Look for Johnson to guard Williams away from the basket, with Thompson providing help on Williams when he works his way into the paint, where Thompson alters twice as many shots as he blocks. Thompson said he compares himself to “Dennis Rodman with post moves.” He laughed when asked if he ever would wear a dress, which Rodman did years ago to promote his autobiography.
“I don’t think my mom would like that,” Thompson said.
Perhaps not, but Thompson better get used to the limelight that continues to brighten the more he has success. Along with catapulting Texas into the Sweet 16, a strong performance against Williams on Sunday will move him one step closer toward his goals: being one of the country’s top players, winning a championship and making it to the NBA someday.
Just like it said on the mirror.