Returning home to hero’s welcome
NBA All-Star guard’s jersey retired at high school where his legend began
RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA, Orange County — One evening in the late fall of 2004, Klay Thompson was zoning out at the family dinner table.
His father, former NBA player Mychal Thompson, sensed something was wrong. With a little prodding, he learned that Klay — then a spindly 14-year-old at Santa Margarita Catholic High School — had been relegated to the Eagles’ freshman basketball team.
“Even as a freshman, he thought he should be on the varsity and thought he could start on the varsity,” the elder Thompson recalled. “I just told him to be patient. His time was going to come.”
Friday afternoon, in front of a crowd of more than 1,800 at his old gymnasium, Klay Thompson became the first basketball player in Eagles history to have his jersey retired. It was an elab-
orate event for the school’s most famous alum: streamers falling from the rafters, four Jumbotrons mounted to each wall playing Thompson’s Warriors highlights, cheerleaders with pom-poms lined up pep-rally style.
When Thompson stepped onto the stage wearing his 2008 CIF Division III state championship ring, the two-time NBA All-Star saw 13 of his high school teammates, numerous former teachers and the head coach who pushed him to be more than just a spot-up shooter. It was an ideal way to spend an off day for someone who has made a point not to forget all who contributed to his success.
“This is where I planted a lot of my roots,” Thompson said. “I owe Santa Margarita big-time for what they’ve done for me.”
His is the gift of good genes: a father who was the No. 1 pick of the 1978 NBA draft and won three championships with the “Showtime” Lakers; a mother, Julie, who was a standout volleyball player at USF. When Klay was 8, Mychal told Julie that their middle son would “play in the league someday.” Klay, a third-grader at the time, was already hitting NBA-range threepointers.
But becoming one of the top 20 players in the world requires more than prodigious talent. It was at Santa Margarita Catholic, a picturesque 42-acre campus in one of Orange County’s most affluent neighborhoods, that Thompson set the foundation for his record-setting career.
Shortly after moving with his family from Lake Oswego, Ore., Thompson played freshman football at Santa Margarita Catholic to get to know his new classmates. By the time he was free to try out for the basketball team, practices had already started.
Jerry DeBusk, the Eagles’ longtime varsity coach, boasted a stacked roster. Careful not to rush Thompson’s development, DeBusk placed him on the freshman team. It was fuel for a player whose competitiveness belied his introverted nature.
“When he came in as a sophomore,” DeBusk said, “we could see he had really advanced. He could absolutely drill it.”
The more Thompson played on varsity, the more comfortable he became. The same teenager who subsisted on twoword sentences as a freshman was directing the offense as a part-time point guard by his junior year.
Though Thompson was already an elite shooter, DeBusk stressed the importance of defense and playmaking ability. It was Thompson’s knack for thriving in big games that convinced point guard Jason Pancoe that he was facilitating for a future NBA player. The Division III State Player of the Year as a senior, Thompson hit a record seven three-pointers to score 37 points in the 2008 state championship game.
“It was so fun to be able to just get him the ball and take pride in being a good passer,” said Pancoe, echoing a sentiment Stephen Curry knows well. “Because if you put it right where you needed to, he was knocking them down.”
Nine years removed from his days as the Eagles’ rail-thin sharpshooter, Thompson is a reliable perimeter defender who has perfected the art of catch-and-shoot opportunities. He needed only 88.4 seconds of possession, 52 touches, 33 shots, 11 dribbles and 29 minutes to score 60 points in a Dec. 5 rout of Indiana. In his second year of a four-year, $70 million deal, Thompson owns the NBA record for three-pointers made in a quarter (nine) and the playoff record for threes in a game (11).
At Santa Margarita Catholic, he is the standard-bearer for every aspiring basketball player. Nancy Keane, who taught Thompson in English and film classes, knows the best way to gain instant credibility with her students is to tell a Klay story.
“Bragging rights,” Keane, who is still Facebook friends with Thompson, said with a chuckle.
“It’s just crazy to think an NBA champion went to our school,” said Adrease Jackson, a senior forward who has committed to play for Dartmouth. “It’s just crazy to think we can actually be like him one day.”
After the video montage, after the jersey retirement, the man who was once too shy to raise his hand in Keane’s class spoke to a packed gym for four full minutes. His message: If he can reach the top of his chosen field, so can any of Santa Margarita Catholic’s 1,655 students.
“I started on the freshman team,” Thompson said. “Anything’s possible.”
Klay Thompson is cheered by a gym full of fans at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, where his jersey, below, was retired.
Klay Thompson makes brief remarks during the retirement ceremony for his high school jersey.