By Christopher Dempsey
There were about 300 people at Stapleton International Airport on the night of April 9, 1978, all waiting on the Nuggets’ plane to arrive. They were there to greet David Thompson, just hours after one of the franchise’s greatest players scored 73 points in a game at Detroit. Among those in attendance were Nuggets president and general manager Carl Scheer, and Bob King, Nuggets executive vice president. And then there were the fans, all present to immediately celebrate one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history.
It was the final game of the 1977-78 season and, going into the game, one thing was already certain: The Nuggets were going to the playoffs, win or lose. Thompson, meanwhile, was in the thick of an NBA scoring race with San Antonio legend George “The Iceman” Gervin. The stage was set, then, for Thompson to have carte blanche to secure the scoring crown.
Prior to the game, Nuggets coach Larry Brown asked Thompson if he wanted “to go for it.” Thompson shrugged it off. He’d proceed however the game flowed, he told Brown. He’d not force anything just to win the scoring crown.
Shots started falling fast. Thompson made his first eight from the field. He hit from all angles — jump shots to alley oop dunks. By the time the first quarter ended, Thompson had hit 13-of-14 from the field and made all six of his free throws. He’d poured in 32 points in the period, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA record for points in a quarter. Thompson was on his way.
The shots kept falling in the second quarter. Thompson put in 21 more points in that period to ring up 53 in the first half. The Pistons, who desperately wanted to win in what was the last game in that arena, Cobo Arena, were forced to make major changes at halftime or be beaten.
Detroit’s solution: Throw everyone AND the kitchen sink at Thompson.
The Pistons’ defense, now fully tilted to stop Thompson, found some success in the third quarter. They held him to just six points. But that defensive success was short-lived. Thompson got right back on track in the fourth, and the Nuggets needed every point he could provide. He rang up 14 in the final stanza, but the Nuggets could not pull out the game, dropping it by two points, 139-137. Thompson’s eye-popping performance, however, outshone everything.
His final line: 73 points on 28-of-38 shooting (73.7 percent) from the field and 17-of-20 from the free throw line. It still stands tied for the fourth-highest scoring game in NBA history.
NBA great Bill Walton faced Thompson in college, and for a documentary on Thompson once said: “When you dream of the perfect basketball player, you visualize David Thompson.” On one 1978 spring night in April, the NBA could do nothing but agree.