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KLAY DAY: OH, HOW WE MISSED THE MOST RELATABLE ATHLETE IN SPORTS
Inspiring as it was to see Thompson return from two devastating leg injuries, it was more rewarding to see him unite with his adoring fans, who appreciate him as a simple, unassuming star
This wasn't simply the return of a cursed man, his soul battered by a torn left ACL in his career prime, his mind tortured 17 months later by a frayed right Achilles. What we had Sunday night was an unusual pause in a sports world swirling in tumult and idiocy, the warm celebration of a beloved star who never has taken himself seriously, from his trusty dog to the sailor's cap he wears on boat jaunts through San Francisco Bay.
Flush Antonio Brown down the commode. Klay Thompson, an unassuming mensch whose life perspective resonates with fans in ways that jerk athletes should heed, is playing competitive basketball again. And we are better for it.
He could have quit, taken his three championship rings and five All-Star Game memories, and floated away. He could have retreated with Rocco, faded into a smoky haze, planned more hikes, maybe launched a broadcasting career like his father, Mychal. His fellow Splash Brother, Stephen Curry, is a global sensation now. Why risk a third injury, one final blowout, and the despair that would accompany him through life?
No, just because he had feet of clay didn't mean Klay was finished. He preferred to showcase what is inside him, beneath that old-school headband, beyond a shooting stroke that rivals Curry's for magnitude and magnificence — beyond his record 37-point quarter in 2015 and his 60 points in 29 minutes two seasons later.
"I couldn't keep saying, 'Why Me?' You only have one option, to fight and get back,'' he said. "I knew I was going to make it back. There was a lot of sacrifice and work, but it was worth every second to get back and do what I love. I realize how easily it could be taken away.''
Nine hundred and forty-one days since he last played in an NBA game, in the Finals crusher that rudely interrupted the budding dynasty of the Golden State Warriors, Klay Thompson was in uniform. He has been gone so long, this was his first game in the Chase Center, across the bay from Oracle Arena, but the night felt more like a resumption of organizational grandeur than a hopeful reunion of a brilliant player with his teammates. Wondrously, rather than shoot a stock-in-trade jumper, his first attempt had him curling at the three-point arc, catching a pass from Andrew Wiggins, driving through the lane, lifting off his left foot — on a knee fully healed — and making a floater from six feet. He followed in the second quarter with a monstrous, one-handed dunk, proving he still can explode.
"It was an emotional night. I didn't know I was going to dunk on somebody,'' Thompson said. "So hooray for me. After the (first shot), I thought it was going to be one of those nights where I might be unconscious. I did not shoot as well as I wanted to, but I’m so happy I can even look at the stat sheet and see my name there. It’s been a long run. I’m not going to say it was equivalent to winning a championship, but, man, it was pretty freaking close.”
He scored 17 points in 20 minutes, on a reduced work schedule that won't include back-to-back games until further notice. But nothing that happened in the 96-82 victory over Cleveland suggested the Warriors, a contender without Thompson, won't feed off his energy and experience and launch a fourth title run. No one is expecting him to dominate games with scoring flurries, at least not yet. But what's possible is that Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green — surrounded by skilled complements in Wiggins, Jordan Poole and, soon enough, big man James Wiseman — are preparing for another run that conceivably could challenge the six titles of the 1990s Chicago Bulls, a dynasty discontinued by Michael Jordan's baseball career. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, the common denominator between those teams, compared the excitement of Thompson's return to that of Jordan's comeback from a baseball career. "He wasn't shy, was he?'' he said of Thompson's 18 shots. "Not that we would ever expect Klay to be shy, but I was amazed at his poise out there and confidence after being out for so long. I drew the first play up, not for him, but for him to catch it and move it on, I should have known better. He just caught it and drove and scored. It was a phenomenal moment. The introductions of the starting lineup, amazing. Just hearing the crowd — a beautiful night.”
Only a fourth Larry O'Brien Trophy was on Thompson's mind before the game, when he was showered with a thundering standing ovation. "LET'S GET IT!'' he shouted on the video board, referring to a title. He didn't come back just to break a sweat.
"I'm excited to prove to people who I am," Thompson said. "I know they forgot because I've been out for two years, but I've never been hungrier seeing that stuff. Never been hungrier. And the best way at revenge is to win. Seriously."
Said Curry: "He's quickly turned it to the fuel-to-the-fire type of situation. But it's also, for him, having been away from the game for that long, he's like, 'People forgot how good I am.' So that's his mission — remind people."
As if a comeback from devastating injuries wasn't enough motivation, Thompson was stoked by his recent omission from the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team. Eleven active players were on a list of the top 76 in league history, including Curry and some who haven't won titles — Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Carmelo Anthony. Thompson fumed, wearing No. 77 in practice. He all but vowed, in an ESPN interview, to force a recount.
"I know myself. I know how good I am. I know the things I've done,'' said Thompson, who also passed two milestones — 12,000 points and 1,800 three-pointers — on the night. "It's like — how many times do I have to do something that no one else has ever done before and get respect? Do I have to go score 50 in a quarter now? Like, what the hell? It's whatever though, man. It's over with. I'm going to use it as fuel.
"I don't even care about that list. I just want to win. If I want to score 28 a night and not worry about defense, sure. But I want to get back there and do it again. To not be on the list and still win a championship, that is fine with me every day.''
The NBA isn't a league of pleasantries. Much of the grist involves the social media angst of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, along with drama surrounding anti-vaxxer Kyrie Irving. All of which makes Golden State a safe haven for fans and media. Thompson's return adds to the romance.
Said Durant, his former teammate: "I'm excited for him. I know it's a huge, huge day out there in the Bay Area. It's going to be electric. Talking to Klay over the last couple years, you can just feel it through text messages how excited he is to get back on the floor. I'm looking forward to his return and a healthy rest of the season and the rest of his career as well. I'm glad he's back."
Said Gregg Popovich, he of the five NBA titles: "It's another big thrill for the fans. The league is about players, it's about talent, it's about show. And him being one of the best shooters in the world, and also a hell of a defender, just adds to the aura of their team and to the NBA.''
For now, Thompson will sleep well knowing he dunked in his first game back. "It's funny, because I didn't dunk the (last) two months of scrimmaging. It felt so good to throw that down. I did not expect that,'' he said. "I threw it down with authority. That felt really good, guys.''
He is not required to elaborate. Much has transpired on Planet Earth since June 2019 and, for that matter, since November 2020. COVID-19 could have been his reason to walk away. He took on the pandemic, too, and there seems to be no stopping him, health permitting.
"I’ll never forget this night. I’ll never forget the reception the Warriors fans gave us, especially myself,'' Thompson said. "Gosh, it was fun. It was worth every single day of being away and in that squat rack or on that shuttle board and all the conditioning days. It was worth every single moment. I was so grateful to just compete again. It’s been a long road, but I’m also proud of myself for persevering. It was a special moment. There were times where you second-guess yourself. You think if you are going to be the same player or have the same explosion or whatever term and just to be able to go out there and shoot the ball and play defense and compete.
"Man, it was special.”
The feeling was mutual.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.