Michael Jordan had his pick. Dean Smith. Phil Jackson. Maybe even his good friend Charles Barkley.
Each would have been an understandable choice to present Jordan during his induction Friday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Smith was Jordan's legendary coach at North Carolina. Jackson helped guide Jordan to six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. Barkley shared the role of rival and running buddy.
Jordan passed on all of them. Instead, he chose someone who had never coached him or played with or against him.
He chose David Thompson. The former NBA high-flyer who had starred at North Carolina … State.
"I got a call from the Hall of Fame and they asked me if I was willing to be a presenter for someone," Thompson recently told Yahoo! Sports. "I said, 'Yeah.' I didn't know who it was. … They said Michael Jordan. I was like, 'Wow.' He told them that he was a big fan of mine and I was the one that really inspired him. Being that there was so many North Carolina people he could've chose, I was honored.
"I was kind of surprised, and also was really flattered that he chose me over Coach Smith. You know how important he is?"
To Jordan, Thompson's college ties didn't matter as much as his game. Before Jordan became Air Jordan, David Thompson owned the skies.
Thompson grew up in Shelby, N.C. Jordan was just 11 when Thompson led the Wolfpack to their first NCAA championship in 1974. Nicknamed "Skywalker," he captured Jordan's imagination – and that of the rest of the nation – with his 48-inch vertical leap and acrobatic dunks. Thompson went on to play for the Denver Nuggets, and was the runner-up to Julius Erving in history's first dunk contest during the 1976 ABA All-Star weekend. He once scored 73 points on the final day of the regular season. Drug and alcohol problems shortened his career and kept him from realizing his potential, but he recovered and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
"Even when I go out to speak, that's how they introduce me, 'Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan,' " Thompson said. "Charles Barkley once said, '[Thompson] took the game to the air. … He got people out of their seats.' I saw a lot of my game in Michael Jordan's game."
Thompson first began to hear about Jordan when Jordan was playing at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C. He knew Jordan was not only considering North Carolina, but N.C. State, too, in large part because Thompson played there. The Wolfpack, however, never asked Thompson to help recruit Jordan, who went to help lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA title as a freshman in 1982. The Wolfpack won the national championship a year later.
"We would have had a couple more championship banners up there if he came," Thompson said.
Thompson met Jordan for the first time during the 1984 Final Four in Seattle. Jordan was there to receive a National Player of the Year award while Thompson was in the midst of the final season of his NBA career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
"My friend took a picture of us together while saying, 'These are the two best to ever play in the ACC,' '' Thompson said. "A couple years later he ran into Michael and had the picture on him. Michael got a kick out of it, especially since he had hair back then."
Thompson said Jordan went out of his way to help him while he was a community ambassador for the Charlotte Hornets in the early 1990s. Then with the Bulls, Jordan would sometimes arrive hours early for road games in Charlotte to meet with underprivileged children.
"The kids treated him like he was the Beatles or Michael Jackson," Thompson said. "Little girls would shake. He was really good with the kids.
"They didn't really know who I was, but once he told them I was an inspiration for him they would look at me in a different light. They wanted my autograph. One kid said, 'You must have been really good if Michael Jordan said that about you.' "
Thompson won't have to give a lengthy speech for Jordan; those days are over for the Hall, replaced by video tributes. But NBA Entertainment recently interviewed Thompson for an hour for Jordan's introduction, and Thompson will attend all the ceremonies in which Jordan is honored, and stand with him during his induction speech.
Thompson is still overwhelmed Jordan picked him to help celebrate his greatest honor. Over Smith, Jackson, Barkley and everyone else.
"I've been smiling ever since," Thompson said. "I've been telling people and they've been congratulating me like I was getting in. I'm already in."
Come this weekend, the game's greatest legend will be inducted alongside his own idol. Even Michael Jordan knows the importance of recognizing those who came before him.
"I built my talents on the shoulders of someone else's talent," Jordan wrote in his 1998 autobiography, "For the Love of the Game." "I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era. Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor, there would never have been a Michael Jordan. I evolved from them."