by Jeff Laughlin
Travis Thompson had already dealt with his mortality. At 34, his basketball skills were diminishing — something he spoke liberally about to those who would listen. Still, he put his work in. He played in leagues throughout Greensboro and came to weekly games to work on his moves — sometimes against lesser talent, sometimes against some of the better casual players in the Triad.
In a Ragsdale YMCA league, Thompson decided to try and take once such contest into his own hands.
“I went left at the top of a 2-3 zone. I wanted to get a high-percentage shot. We were down 6 with less than a minute left and this kid tried to get back in front of me. He took out my legs. I fell forward from the free-throw line and a dude in the back of the zone was late to get over. I fell into his knee,” Thompson said. “I felt a crunch and a sharp pain. I saw a black flash.
“I didn’t know I couldn’t move until I tried to put my hands on my injury,” he said, “and nothing moved.”
In a wheelchair, Thompson described the abject terror after learning he was paralyzed from the chest down in Blumenthal Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. He has since regained some of his old form — he can walk for short periods of time, something his doctors thought he had no hope of ever doing. He can do a slower version of the shoulder shake he used to fool defenders with. He can even shake with his off-hand and give a decent grip.
“I have this indignation toward it all. The doctors wouldn’t tell me that I wasn’t gonna walk again. They told my parents, but with me, they told me nothing. Then, my rehab trainers told me my goal of walking out of the hospital was unrealistic. Maybe I was being obstinate, but I was like f*** them. I’m walking out of here.”
Though the hospital didn’t allow him to walk out to the ambulance that delivered him to Blumenthal, he attests he could have.
This obstinacy seems overconfident, but as an athlete, Thompson has always looked a couple moves ahead.
Thompson came by basketball coming from a family of footballers.
“I was going to be the first football-basketball dual-sport star in the pros.” He smiles as he says this — unrealistic goals have always been a part of his life.
“The first time I saw someone get crossed up on TV, I was like, ‘I wanna do that.’ So, I started keeping a notebook of moves I saw — left-to right dribble, switching hands, spin moves — until I memorized them. I could always process visual cues faster than most of my opponents. I could see the moves before I did them and calculate results. And I could still pull them off.”
He calls his process “hearing the music,” and I have seen it firsthand.
The first time I played against Thompson, he played on a weak team. I played on a stacked team — no doubt meant to neutralize him — but we struggled. He dominated defenders from all over the court, floated toward the rim with ease and finished in traffic with both hands consistently.
He came to our Wednesday-night game despite being obviously superior to our level of skill. He mixed a workmanlike ethic with a showman’s flair; the type of game that irked some people. But for those of us who could enjoy it? Watching him operate delighted us as much as it frustrated.
Off the court, we’d stay and discuss the night’s game until gym staff literally begged us to leave. After awhile, they would ask us to close the parking-lot gates behind us when we left.
We’d dissect each players’ game to the point of obsession. Each time I played with him, I felt more visceral and in control of my own limitations. That’s Travis — his understanding of basketball reveals his overall sense of self.
That’s why he fit in our game despite the obvious talent disparity. He molded to us even when competition drove us to the brink of throwing punches or incorrectly calling travels to gain an advantage.
The Wednesday-night crew, once they heard about his problems, stepped into action. Led by Peter Amidon and Kristian Hiers, they have turned a yearly golf tournament into a new goal.
On May 31 at McLeansville’s Country Hill Golf Course, Hiers and Amidon hope to have 100 golfers raise $10,000 — halfway to Thompson’s goal of $20,000—and get him into Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Shepherd is one of the best spinal-injury rehabilitation locations in the country.
“His optimism has been great and his attitude has been great — way better than mine would have been. We knew we had to do something,” Hiers said.
They also plan to build a website for more donations.
When asked about the tournament, Thompson smiled.
“It’s better than sitting around eating Dorito’s, I guess. No, it’s humbling. You don’t expect people to care, but I’m getting help from people I know and love and also people I barely know. It’s surprising, but you don’t know how people perceive you until something like this happens.”
As he spoke, he slowly raised his right arm. Once his dominant side, it would not get above shoulder level. I thought about how it used to curl around my outstretched hand for easy baskets. He seemed sad only when he talked about how he missed basketball. That overconfidence and obstinacy faded.
“I don’t want to come back diminished, but ball has been such a part of my life. I can’t live without it,” he said. “I want to hear the music again.”
I left Blumenthal and turned on my car to a blaring radio, but I didn’t hear a note of it. Travis’ mortality made for a quiet ride home.
To find out more about Travis Thompson, email Jeff Laughlin at [email protected]