ASHEVILLE, NC – Not far from Race Thompson’s home in Plymouth, Minnesota is a steep hill covered in lush green grass and speckled with small patches of dirt from a continuous tread. In the spring, when weight rooms closed and gyms closed due to COVID-19, Thompson took to the hill with his brother and a few friends.
They started training in the morning shortly after students from across the country were sent home. Thompson donned a weighted vest and hammered a pair of new Adidas cleats into the ground during the sprints up the hill. They made circuits with resistance bands. They brought a deck of cards, each color was a different exercise while the number decided the number of repetitions.
Later, Zoom, Thompson worked on his ball handling. He was in the field, working on adding a consistent jump shot. After his workouts were over, Thompson took to the track to find out more. When the gyms reopened, he worked on body control and core strength.
Indiana head coach Archie Miller called it one of the most impressive offseason he has ever seen on Monday.
There was Thompson, on Harrah’s Cherokee center court, realizing his first career double-double with 22 points and 13 rebounds in a 79-58 win over Providence in the first round of the Maui Invitational. He played 35 minutes, 10 more than his previous career high. Each hill climb has paid off.
There was Thompson, who battled injuries in his freshman and sophomore seasons in a red shirt, finally healthy. There was Thompson, who made his way into the rotation at the end of last season, triggering an offensive attack for Indiana. There was Thompson running Indiana.
“His emergence, to me, is one of the special things about this offseason and just watching him get a little bit of reward for what he’s done,” Miller said. “… I’m so happy for him just because of his development over the past eight months, his attitude, his leadership and the way he plays, it’s the way he trains every day.
It’s, of course, important what Thompson did on the court over the summer. But to really get the full picture of Thompson’s transformation, you need to understand what happened off the pitch.
On May 25, less than 20 minutes from Thompson’s home, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by police. Floyd was killed near Cup Foods, a local restaurant in town. Thompson had been there before.
“This is my home for me,” Thompson said over the summer. “It touches the house.”
As the protests spread across the country, Thompson spoke passionately on a call from Team Zoom. He was featured in an IU basketball video that promoted racial equality. With a black mask covering his face, Thompson has witnessed peaceful protests. He walked among the crowds during chants of “chasing the police”. During a demonstration at the end of May, a semi-truck arrived on the closed road, which caused numerous dispersions. Thompson helped others get off the side of the freeway and through a fence.
With these experiences came maturity and a voice. When the Indiana players returned to campus in July, Thompson was named the offseason champion. When senior Al Durham was asked who had taken over as leader, without hesitation, he replied Thompson. When the captains were appointed, Thompson was included.
“I feel like he has a purpose for him,” Athletic Performance director Clif Marshall told Inside the Hall over the summer. “It’s almost like he flipped a switch.”
With all of that in mind, consider Thompson’s performance on Monday afternoon. Indiana was already lean in the frontcourt playing without senior forward Joey Brunk, who suffered from back pain. After Indiana’s victory over Tennessee Tech, Miller criticized his team’s ability to bounce back. The Hoosiers needed someone to intervene.
From the start, it was clear that Thompson was that guy. He scored Indiana’s first two points, cleaning up a missed Armaan Franklin layup. Then Thompson followed with a block at the other end.
When Providence went to an extended area, Thompson rolled side to side over the baseline, showing a feather-shaped float one after another. On a defensive possession, he did not bite on a false pump. Instead, he walled himself in, forcing a shot that bounced harmlessly off the top of the backboard.
With just under seven minutes to go, Thompson checked in for Trayce Jackson-Davis, who had just picked up her second foul. On the next possession, Thompson cleaned up another check for two more runs.
All the while, that quiet leadership was manifesting itself. Thompson applauded for the encouragement. At a pause, he twirled his finger, motioning for the Hoosiers to maintain the intensity. He patted first year guardian Khristian Lander on the chest.
“I would just say confidence,” Thompson said after the game. “It’s essential. The coach told me before the game to go out with extreme confidence and do what you do.
Thompson’s dominance continued after halftime. With a few minutes passed in the half, Thompson threw another dunk. On the next possession, Thompson fed Durham for a 3 point. A broad smile appeared on both of their faces as they slapped their hands. Durham, who was in the same recruiting class as Thompson, has seen his growth as much as anyone.
“He’s been through a lot as everyone knows since he came here,” said Durham. “Just to see him have a game like this and show you everything we see. When he’s healthy and himself, I mean he’s had a spectacular game. I am so proud of him. I can’t even say how proud I am of him.
The final call came with eight minutes remaining when the game was already out of reach. Thompson caught a Miss Jackson-Davis and thundered a two-handed slam, swinging the ball behind his head. He screamed so loudly that he couldn’t be overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd or even the uproar from the bench.
Thompson wanted to let everyone know he was in the building. Once for all.
(Photo credit: Maui Invitational)
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