Not Your Average Freshman

It’s Friday night. The Southern Oregon University men’s basketball team is relying on a big performance from 23-year-old freshman forward Eric Thompson to propel them to an upset past No. 8 Northwest and a possible home playoff game for the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament.

The team is down by three with fewer than four seconds to go and SOU’s Tim Weber – also a freshman, is at the free throw line to attempt two shots.

The near-capacity crowd is on its feet, roaring.

Weber coolly makes the first shot to cut the deficit to two as an anxious crowd watches.

Thompson is lined up on the side of the key, in between two Northwest players.

He doesn’t have the positional advantage, but he does have the size advantage over the player in between him and the basket.

“He was a smaller guy,” says Thompson. “No way I can’t push him into the basket.”

The shot goes up.

Flash back to November, 2010. Thompson is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodger’s AAA-affiliation, the Albuquerque Isotopes.

Thompson has been feeling pain intermittently in his right (throwing) shoulder, which has landed him on the disabled list multiple times in the last year.

Though he is only one step away from the Major Leagues, and thus a chance at fame and possibly fortune, he decides to walk away from the game of baseball.

Thompson clearly fouls his man, pushing him directly under the basket and out of a good rebounding position. But there is no call from the officials.

The ball hits the back of the rim, and bounces directly back into play.

Thompson goes up and grabs it over the two white shirts surrounding him. He takes one dribble with his left hand, pump fakes and releases a high-arcing four-foot shot over the crowd of defenders.

Swish.

With fewer than three seconds left on the clock, Northwest quickly inbounds the ball and tries a desperation half-court shot.

The ball doesn’t get anywhere close to the basket and the game is sent to overtime.

Thompson is burnt out of baseball, tired of only having just one day off every month.

“It gets really boring when you do 14-hour bus rides when you aren’t even pitching on the trip,” says Thompson who is listed at 6-7 and 240 pounds. “I just wasn’t happy.”

But his blue-green eyes light up and a boyish smile appears on his clean-shaven face when he describes the days he did pitch. “The one day you do pitch,” says Thompson as he shakes his head. “Nothing beats that.”

The Raiders have all the momentum going into the overtime period, and the stadium is absolutely rocking, but there is one problem: Thompson is hurt.

He has been playing the season with bone spurs in his ankles, a painful injury that has few options to heal other than rest and rehab.

Thompson saw a specialist earlier in the day who gives him shoe inserts that raise his ankles off the ground so he is literally standing on his toes the whole game, causing his legs to cramp up after 40 long minutes of play.

He starts the period but quickly comes off, clearly limping. After a short break, he comes back into the game and helps SOU take a 75-74 lead.

There is one second left on the clock when he heads to the bench to watch.

Northwest is down to their last opportunity. They inbound the ball from under the basket and quickly hoist up a shot.

Thompson is at a crossroads in his life and his career until one day he gets a call from an old friend, SOU men’s basketball coach Brian McDermott.

Coach McDermott had recruited the two-sport star out of Roseburg High School in Roseburg, Ore. back in 2006. Thompson decided to attend SOU and play basketball, but he pulled out when the Dodgers drafted him in the 23rd round of the Major League Baseball first-year player draft.

McDermott, who stayed in touch with Thompson throughout his baseball career, is finally rewarded when Thompson decides to call it quits.

Thompson, who has a clause in his Dodgers contract that allows him to get a free education was thrilled to not only play the sport that he loves most at the collegiate level, but to receive an education as well.

As the Northwest shot goes up, the crowd lets out a collective gasp that quickly turns into a groan.

The shot banks in from about eight feet. The Northwest players rush the court and celebrate. The arena goes silent.

Thompson slouches and stares straight ahead with a blank expression on his face as the Northwest players jump up and down and hug each other right in front of him.

The 32-year-old freshman scoring record that he breaks early in the second half by scoring his 507th point of the season is no consolation as the team lets a great opportunity for an upset slip away.

SOU loses the game.

 

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Eric Thompson sends the game to overtime.

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