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The Night 73 Wasn’t Enough

April 9, 1978. On the final day of the 1977-78 NBA regular season, locked in an air-tight race for the league scoring title, Denver’s David Thompson exploded for 73 points against the Detroit Pistons.

Mission accomplished, right?

Not so fast.

Hours later, George Gervin, needing 58 points to preserve his spot atop the league scoring race, went to work.

He wound up with 63.

in his 2003 autobiography, “Skywalker,” Thompson recalled the events of that memorable day. Wrote Thompson, “I had been locked in a scoring duel with George Gervin of the Spurs for much of the year. Only 14 points separated us at the top of the league scoring chart heading into our last games that Sunday.

“‘Do you want to go for it today?’ Coach [Larry] Brown asked me before the game. Whether we won or lost, we were still headed for the playoffs. So the coach was willing to let me shoot to my heart’s content to win the NBA scoring title. If I put up astronomical numbers, then Gervin, playing in New Orleans that evening, would be chasing me.

“The truth of the matter was that I didn’t much care. I wasn’t ever about individual accomplishments. From my high school coach, Ed Peeler, to my college coach, Norman Sloan, and then my professional coach, Larry Brown, I had consistently been taught a team concept. Lead, but leave the one-man-band stuff to The Gong Show.

“So I told Coach Brown that I just wanted to play, and whatever happened was up to the fates.”

What “happened” was one of Thompson’s finest moments in the NBA. The 6-4 shooting guard out of North Carolina State drained his first 8 shots of the game, mostly on medium-range jump shots. Then came an assortment of dunks and layups. Thompson wound up with 32 points in the first quarter. That broke the league record for most points in a single quarter – the previous record was 31, set by Wilt Chamberlain the night he scored 100 against the New York Knicks.

In that quarter, Thompson went 13 for 14 from the field and 6 for 6 from the free throw line.

Thompson slowed down in the second quarter, “only” scoring 21 points. The man they called “Skywalker” had 53 points at the half.

In the third quarter, the home team Pistons decided that enough was enough. They double- and triple-teamed Thompson, sometimes even surrounding him with four bodies. “I felt like a caged rat,” Thompson recalled, “but still somehow managed six third-quarter points. It wasn’t a lot, but there wasn’t much I could do.”

Thompson finished with 73, and the Nuggets fell to the Pistons, 139-137. At the time, it was the third-highest output in NBA history, and the most points ever scored by a guard. Additionally, this was a couple of seasons before the league’s three-point line was established. Thompson speculated that if the three-point shot had been in effect, his final total could have been in “the high 80s.”

After the game, the Nuggets returned to Denver. At home, Thompson decided to listen to the Spurs-Jazz game.

“If it had been any player other than “The Iceman, I wouldn’t have even bothered,” Thompson wrote in his book. “But George was ultra-competitive, and he already knew what I had done earlier in the day. He needed 58 points to win the scoring title, and I knew that was not far from his reach. George could fill up the bucket so fast you would swear it was raining basketballs.”

Gervin put up 53 points by halftime. “I knew then that my 73 had been in vain,” Thompson recalled.

Gervin’s 63 points that night gave him the scoring title. It was the closest race in NBA history – Gervin’s 27.22 per-game average to Thompson’s 27.15.

To add insult to injury, Gervin even broke Thompson’s newly established record for most points in a quarter. The willowy 6-7 guard they called “Ice Man” scored 33 in the second quarter.

“It took me 16 years to break Wilt’s mark,” Thompson wrote, “but it only took Gervin seven hours to break mine.”

George Gervin (left) and David Thompson were two of the NBA’s most prolific scorers.

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