He was an original Sacramento King, an affable, generous spirit, and a grinning hulk of a man whose humor was as sharp as his elbows in the lane.
And of all the nicknames bestowed on Kings players through the years C-Webb, J-Will, B-Jax his most fit the point.
LaSalle Thompson was indeed tank-sturdy in the post, lumbering more than gliding downcourt, and he was the face of the franchise the moment the Kings arrived in Sacramento in 1985. Thompson was the one relaxing in a recliner, crown tilted on his head, for furniture store ads. His fondness for the community and relentless effort at center made him Sacramentos first beloved King.
Now a development coach with the New York Knicks, who play the Kings tonight, Thompson is sure to draw attention from fans of yesteryear when he strolls into Sleep Train Arena. Of all the original Kings, Thompson lasted the longest into the 1988-89 season. The team record of 13 consecutive double doubles in points and rebounds that he set in 1985-86 was broken this season by DeMarcus Cousins.
LaSalle was definitely the Vlade (Divac) before Vlade, and everyone took to him and just loved him, said Jerry Reynolds, the Kings television color commentator who coached Thompson in the late 80s. There was never a time that Tank didnt give you everything he had. Hes the second-best center we had here, behind Vlade Divac. DeMarcus Cousins has the talent to pass them all, but Tank was pretty good. He set the best screens of anyone I saw in the 29 years I was with the Kings, and he was a tank.
Said Thompson: Its nice to be remembered, really nice. Jerry was always great to me, the fans, the city. Its always great to come home.
Thompson had fan appeal because he was a player willing to do the dirty work. That included taking on a young Karl Malone, who barreled into the NBA in 1985 with the Utah Jazz and retired as the second-most-prolific player in NBA history.
Tank was the one guy who had no fear of Karl Malone, and believe me, 90 percent of the NBA was absolutely scared of Karl Malone, Reynolds said. Malone would hurt you. But Tank asked to guard him, not that he could, but as much as Malone buffaloed others, he never buffaloed Tank.
Though Thompson averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in his Kings career, which began in 1982 in Kansas City, he was especially effective in moving bigger bodies out of the key. Thompson was listed at 6-foot-10 but said hes closer to 6-8. And Thompson said how one deals with bigger players, or faster ones, is something he teaches his pupils today. Thompson was hired last season by another original Sacramento King, Knicks coach Mike Woodson. Though the Knicks coaching staff may be out of work at seasons end with the arrival of new basketball president Phil Jackson, Thompson said he wont waver from his duties.
The great thing about Mike Woodson is he hasnt let anything bother him with the changes, Thompson said. We still come in every day, break down film and coach. We want to make everyone better. I love that about Woodson, and thats a good lesson: Dont get distracted. Its about being professional.
As for what he offers as a big man in a sport often coached by former guards, Thompson said, I tell guys that if you keep a center off the block, you can take away half his game. If youre committed to it, you can make it difficult for big players, if you have the passion to do it. And I try to offer life lessons to players.
One of those lessons is to take care of your body. Upon accepting the Knicks job, a routine physical revealed Thompson had prostate cancer. He underwent surgery and said hes fine now.
It was a real blessing because if I hadnt been hired by the Knicks, I probably dont take a physical for another year, and it mightve been too late, Thompson said. It was pretty scary at first. You never think anything like that can happen to you. But Im doing great. Im 52; my body feels good. My blood pressure is down; PSA levels are good. Im happy.
You just never know, he continued. The day I got out of the hospital, about this time last year, a Kansas City Kings teammate of mine, Ray Williams, died of colon cancer. I went to his funeral. Sad.
Thompson was in the midst of his best NBA season, averaging 15 points and 9.1 rebounds, when he was traded to the Indiana Pacers for Wayman Tisdale in February 1989. Thompson was so upset he learned of the trade from a Bee reporter hours before the Kings spoke to him he considered not reporting to the Pacers. His mother, Alice Cooper, helped talk him into moving on, and he enjoyed his tenure with Indiana.
I didnt want to leave, Thompson said, adding his mother remains the rock in his life. She still lives in Sacramento, where Thompson said he may eventually retire.
Reynolds told then-Kings executive Bill Russell, who engineered the trade, it would be an unpopular move initially. Thompson was that well-liked. The Kings ultimately tried to replace Thompson with the first pick in the 1989 draft in Louisville center Pervis Ellison, who had skills but was no Tank.
I do remember getting a death threat on the Tank trade, Reynolds said. A lady left a message on my answering machine, I wish you were dead for trading Tank. Hey, I didnt trade him. Youd be killing the wrong person, lady. But thats how much people loved the guy.
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