Former Kings center LaSalle Thompson dishes on the origin of his nickname, playing in front of sold-out Sacramento crowds and more.
A bruising 6-foot-10, 260-pound center, LaSalle Thompson, who earned the nickname “Tank” for his powerful physique and tough-nosed playing style, was selected fifth overall by the Kings in the 1982 NBA Draft.
Thompson went on to play six-and-a-half seasons with the team, averaging 10.5 points (.500 FG%, .730 FT%), 8.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, and set Sacramento-era records for boards in one half (15) and a non-overtime game (22). One of the League’s premier defenders, he ranks second in blocks (697) and sixth in rebounds (4,214) in franchise history, and holds the highest total rebound percentage (18.9) of any Kings player with over 100 games played.
Since retiring from the NBA, Thompson has served as the general manager and head coach of the American Basketball Association’s San Diego Wildfire (2001) and assistant coach for the Charlotte Bobcats (2008).
Recently, Kings.com’s Fan Correspondent Alex Kramers caught up with the multitalented former Kings big man, who has also ventured into real estate development, broadcasting, automobile sales and construction, to reflect on No. 41’s basketball career and more.
Which players did you admire growing up, and after whom did you model your game?
“I started playing basketball pretty late, and my favorite player was Moses Malone, who at the time, was one of the best players in the League. I always liked George McGinnis a lot, too, so those were probably my two favorite players growing up.”
How did you earn your nickname?
“It came from a guy I went to college with, named Bob Hughes, who’s a high school coach in Fort Worth, Texas now. He’s the one that invented “Tank” Thompson. When I was a junior in college (at the University of Texas), everybody on the team had a nickname. During the course of one of our first games of the season, I ran over this guy on (the opposing) team and (Bob) said I looked like a tank. So the name just kind of stuck- they called me “Tank” Thompson, which had a nice ring to it.
“When I came into the NBA, I was 21, but I was the second-youngest guy in the League, so I was (considered) a kid on a veteran team in Kansas City. They did the same thing – they said, ‘You have to have a nickname,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have one.’ They said they were going to give me a nickname, and they started making up all of these corny names, so I said, ‘You know what, you can call me Tank.’ They liked it, and it just stuck.”
The Kings seemed like a very close-knit team during your tenure. What was the atmosphere like in the locker room?
“One of the things I always thought I was blessed with in my career was that I played with a lot of guys who got along well – we had a great group of guys. People always ask me, ‘Do you miss the game?’ I never miss playing, but I miss being around my teammates. We had Eddie (Johnson), Woody (Mike Woodson), Reggie Theus, Otis Thorpe – I love Otis like a brother to this day – Carl Henry, Rich Kelley. We had all these guys who were close and liked each other, and were willing to make sacrifices to make the team better.”
You were renowned for your defense and rebounding. Can you describe your mindset when you entered the game?
“I wanted to get as many rebounds as I could. I wanted to get as many blocked shots as I could. We had some pretty good scorers, and I always wanted to get them open. I was really good friends with them, and Woody would (say) during games it was my job to get him and Eddie open. So that was one of my priorities, along with playing defense and rebounding.”
Who were the toughest players you faced in your career?
“In my career, I think the toughest players I ever had to guard were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and probably Hakeem Olajuwon.
“I was a physical player, and my coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, used to tell me that Abdul-Jabbar didn’t like to be hit a lot. Cotton told me, ‘Just let sleeping dogs lie. This guy is going to score 20 or 25 points, but if you start beating him up the way you do to other guys, if he gets mad, he’ll score 50 or 60 on you.’ Kareem was that good.
“I think I had 40 points scored on me twice during my career – once was against Moses and the other was against Patrick Ewing.”
How would you describe the fan excitement when the Kings first moved to Sacramento?
“When they moved the team from Kansas City, I think everyone in the organization was ecstatic about it. Before the team moved (to Sacramento), we (went there) and we practiced for about a week, and the fans were really enthusiastic about the team. We were kind of a middle-of-the-road team. We barely made the Playoffs, and we had a lot of fan apathy in Kansas City. But just coming (to Sacramento) and practicing, there was so much excitement and so much enthusiasm for the team, so we were all pretty excited about coming out here.”
What moments stand out most from your Kings career?
“We had the loudest arena in the League. We sold out every game, and coming to a Kings game was a big deal. It was always louder than anywhere else in the League.
“The first game we played in the original ARCO (Arena) – that stands out a lot. There was a lot of build-up to the game, and we had a sold-out house. The way they built that arena, our stands were wooden, so when the fans stomped on the floor, it created this thunderous noise. I just remember you had to yell to the guy standing right next to you. It was almost the kind of noise you’d hear at a Finals game. Just remembering our fans, how excited the people here were, that’s what stands out the most.
“The last game we played in the original ARCO stands out, too, because back then, (the NBA) didn’t have a rule about players going up into the stands, and I remember our players went up into the stands and shook hands with the fans.
“Also, I think in the old ARCO, the time we beat the Boston Celtics right after the All-Star Game was exciting. Boston had the best record in the League and won the championship that year, and we beat them.”
When did you know you wanted to become a coach?
“I knew I wanted to become a coach during my playing career. The thing I enjoy about coaching is helping young guys get better. Over the last few years of my career, I wasn’t playing much, so I did that a lot. I’d like to say I helped Antonio McDyess get better (when he was with the Denver Nuggets), but he was just good on his own (laughs). But all of the younger guys, I would just give them tips on stuff I picked up from being in the League for 14, 15 years. I just remember when I was a young guy, there were always older guys who helped me out, and so I tried to help the young guys out. That’s when I remember wanting to be a coach.”
In 2008, you served as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats. How would you characterize the experience and possible future coaching plans?
“Larry (Brown) is a great coach and a humble guy – he had told me a couple of years before he got the job in Charlotte, ‘LaSalle, if I ever get a (head coaching) job again, I’m going to hire you.’ So, he brought me in – we had five assistants, and everybody except for me had 20 years of coaching experience. So for me, it was like going to school, and I was able to ask all the questions I wanted. Larry would make me work with some of the big guys, but I just got to learn a lot from some really good coaches.
“I’d like to get back into coaching, but I’ve got to balance it with my current situation. Right now, I have a development company and I’m focused on working on my business (in Sacramento). I work with a lot of young guys here – I did some volunteer work with (the University of Pacific’s) big men at the end of the summer. I watch the game a lot, and mostly, I make sure I stay connected to the game.”
You’ve also had the chance to work in real estate, car dealerships and construction. What led you to your non-basketball ventures?
“I mostly got into the used car dealership business because it was a good deal that fell into my hands. From there, I started getting into customizing cars – all of the ‘Pimp My Ride’ kind of stuff – with my partner, (former Kings player) Henry Turner. We like cars, so we both really enjoyed doing it.
“When the real estate market was really hot, I went to a seminar and I started buying and flipping houses. I did that for a few years, and then when the market went bad, I started learning to get into real estate development and have my company here now.”