“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Corny Thompson – A big man like a playmaker
In the history of the EuroLeague, from 1958 to today, very few title games were decided with a shot or play in the final moments. Among the few players who won a game that way is Cornelius Allen Thompson, an American big man who spent most of his career in Italy (Varese) and Spain (Joventut and Leon). His happiest day probably was April 21, 1994. In the EuroLeague title game that day, Thompson nailed a three-pointer to give Joventut Badalona the trophy against Olympiacos by the final score of 59-57. Thompson’s three-pointer was not the last shot of the game, but it was the final basket and therefore, it was decisive.
When Corny Thompson, who was born on February 5, 1960, in Middletown, Connecticut, scored the last three of his 17 points that night, there were still 18 seconds to go, which is a lot of time in such a dynamic game like basketball. However, Zarko Paspalj missed 2 free throws that could have tied the game and the Reds then missed two more shots on a play that, because of error at the officials’ table, lasted longer than it was supposed to, especially for Joventut fans. However, before and after that shot, many things happened for Corny.
With a little over 2 minutes to go, Olympiacos was winning 57-53. Jordi Villacampa’s three gave Joventut some hope. Panagiotis Fasoulas then missed his shot for the Reds and that gave the Spanish team a new chance. Ferran Martinez missed the shot but the offensive rebound by Villacampa gave the Badalona possession again. And when Martinez missed again, Mike Smith pulled down another offensive board. Eventually, the ball reached Corny’s hands. He was guarded by Roy Tarpley, a 2.11-meter big man who was late getting out to challenge Thompson. Corny was alone behind the arc and he didn’t miss. With 18 seconds to go, Joventut was ahead 59-57. With 4.8 seconds to go, Smith fouled Paspalj. The Montenegrin player missed the first attempt and then he did the same with the second, on purpose. With some help from the table that cannot be understood, the Greek team had time for two more shots that never went in. It was the first European title for a Catalan team.
Explosion in Varese
Corny Thompson always stood out as a player, since his start as a kid until his retirement at 36 years old. At 14 he was 1.95 meters tall and had great potential for rebounds, something that would become a trademark in his career. He led Middletown High School to three state championships. Several universities were interested in him, even North Carolina, whose coach, the famous Dean Smith, traveled all the way to Middletown to see the kid that made the all-American high school team in 1978.
Corny chose the Connecticut Huskies, especially because he wanted to be close to home. Until Thompson arrived, the UConn team was a mediocre one, but with him, the program gained status. Four years later, Corny would leave college with several records under his arm. He is still ranked in the school’s top 10 players ever in free throws attempted (496), scoring (1,810 points) and rebounds (1,017).
Thompson’s next logical step was the NBA, but as in many other cases, he landed on the wrong team at the wrong time. He was selected by Dallas in the third round of the 1980 draft, but the team already had Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Pat Cummings and Brad Davis. Thompson didn’t earn the trust of coach Dick Motta and after barely 20 games, with an average of 3 points, he had to look for options outside Dallas. He played one year in the CBA with the Detroit Spirits, where his 15 points and 10 rebounds opened European doors for him.
The best decision for Corny Thompson was signing with Varese, a team with a name, tradition and great players in the past. Between 1984 and 1990 Corny spent six years in Varese. He played 211 games and scored 4,704 points (22.3 ppg) while shooting 58% on two-pointers and 42% on threes. That’s not to mention his 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game. His best scoring average was 24.7 points in 1986-87. His personal highs were 39 points against Tracer Milano and 22 rebounds against Desio, both in 1987.
However, something was missing: titles. Varese was not as strong as it used to be. It reached the finals, but the titles slipped away. In his first European final, the Korac Cup against Milano on March 21, 1985, in Brussels, Varese lost 91-78 with only 8 points by Corny. Russ Schoene was unstoppable for Milano with 33 points. In the Italian League, Varese lost the final series in 1989-90 against Scavolini, coached by a young Sergio Scariolo. Despite his 27 points and 13 rebounds in the third game and 26 plus 15 in the fourth, Thompson could not help Varese claim the title. That made him want to switch teams in order to win trophies.
Badalona, the perfect destination
Corny’s decision to leave Varese coincided with the construction of a great team at Joventut. Coached by Real Madrid legend Lolo Sainz, that team had a strong core of Spanish players, with Jordi Villacampa, Rafa Jofresa, Tomas Jofresa and Ferran Martinez. The club had also signed an excellent American, Harold Pressley, an NCAA champ with Villanova who also brought good numbers from the NBA. With the Sacramento Kings, he had played 299 games in four seasons, averaging 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds. There was another spot for a foreigner on the team and Joventut set its eyes on Thompson, marking the birth of one of the best duos of American players ever in the Spanish League.