In a dusty yard far down a rural road, a young man aims at a battered hoop that once served as a bicycle tire rim but which has been transformed into a basketball goal. As the light begins to fade, and the buzz of rural evening builds up from the ground, he lofts the ball again and again, sending the rim clattering, savoring the joy of motion and the pleasure of accomplishment. “The thing about basketball—even if there's nobody else around you can always practice on your own,” David Thompson explained, years after his solitary workouts in the small black community of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, helped build him into one of the greatest basketball players the world had ever seen. “I did a lot of that. Just the satisfaction of seeing the ball go through the basket was the thing that kept me going.” 1
But for David Thompson, as for many of his peers, basketball quickly became far more than play. Between 1891, when a young man named James Naismith drew up basketball's first thirteen rules, and the mid-1950s, when Thompson first picked up a worn, brown ball, competitive athletics had grown into one of this nation's most significant cultural institutions, offering talented players countless opportunities to profit from their skills. And so David Thompson embarked on a journey that had become a cornerstone of American mythology. He left Boiling Springs, traveling first to Crest High School in the nearby town of Shelby and then to North Carolina State University, where his great leaping ability and deft sense of the game propelled the Wolfpack to the 1974 National Collegiate Athletic Association title and made him national player of the year. 2
Thompson thus joined a pantheon of sporting heroes—Choo-Choo Justice, Wallace Wade, Sam Jones, Dean Smith, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan—whose exploits have sunk deep into the hearts of North Carolina residents, reaching beyond the boundaries of court or field to touch the pulse of daily life. The day
Opposite: Katie Lee Griffith coached women's basketball at rural Dixie High School in the 1910s. Courtesy of Betty Berryhill McCall.