Dec. 28, 2011
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - For a while, Corey Thompson didn't know how or where to go about things.
He just knew he wanted a life in basketball.
But Thompson didn't play basketball in high school, despite his 6-foot-8 frame. He loved the game, but who was going to give him a shot? Sometimes it feels as though dreams are only for dreamers, not doers.
And what was Thompson doing on the sideline, then? Well, not even the sideline. He wasn't that close to the hardwood. Some might say he never got closer than the bleachers.
But the kid from Lumberton knew he could play. He knew he could help a team. He knew he wanted to be a part of college basketball.
He just needed a shot. But who was going to give him one?
Enter Rick Duckett and Fayetteville State.
Choosing to stay near home, Thompson enrolled at Fayetteville State University. He wasn't on scholarship, and he really wasn't all that much closer to college basketball.
But that didn't stop him. Thompson got to know Duckett, hung around him, asked questions ... and never strayed from the focus of his dream.
"I've had folks tell me before that somebody should write a book about me and have it made into a Disney movie," says Thompson. "It's unusual, because I didn't play much in high school, and didn't really blossom until late. I came to college on a hope and a dream and a prayer. I was one of those guys who just bugged the coach and asked him all the time about tryouts.
"I only wanted an opportunity, that's all. That's the only thing I wanted in life was an opportunity. And I took that opportunity and ran with it."
Thompson was told he could try out for the team with the other potential walk-ons. The opportunity, perhaps unbelievably, was there.
Strong, athletic and possessing the potential to be a dominant defensive force, Thompson quickly made the coaching staff aware of his diamond-in-the-rough abilities. It was all there, and Duckett could see it. Corey Thompson had made himself into a college basketball player.
"I had a dream of playing at this arena, and I can remember coming to games and wondering what it would be like to play basketball here," Thompson recalls of FSU and Capel Arena. "It's a great atmosphere for college athletics, and the student support is unbelievable - the best I've been a part of."
But Thompson wouldn't play for Fayetteville State. His dream took a detour when Duckett left the Broncos to take the reins at Winston-Salem State. He took Thompson with him.
It was a good move for Duckett and the Rams.
Thompson blossomed with Winston-Salem State, proving to be a durable and dominant big man in the paint. He starred for the Rams from 1998-02, helping lead the school to a 97-25 overall record, four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, two Sweet 16 Appearances, and back-to-back CIAA titles. When he finished, he set the school record for most blocked shots in a career.
But even when his playing days were done, Thompson found he could forge a career in collegiate hoops - as a coach.
After stints with Slippery Rock University and Winston-Salem State, Thompson hooked on with UNC Pembroke, serving on a staff that led the Braves to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.
The dream has become a reality for Thompson, who despite his success at Pembroke, still felt the pull of the CIAA. Having played for the Rams when Fayetteville State head coach Alphonza Kee was an assistant there, Thompson jumped at the opportunity in August to return to the FSU campus and coach alongside his mentor.
"I really enjoyed playing in this conference, and felt like this was an opportunity be back in this league and coach for someone I respect and know well," Thompson says. "I still feel like I'm home. And being back in the CIAA is home for me as well."
Fayetteville State's most important recruit this season may not have been a player.
"When you bring a top assistant on board, you want two things: One, you want a guy who can be a role model, someone your kids can look up to and is in it for the right reasons," says Kee. "And with Coach Thompson, he's a man with high character, he's well-educated and he's a great family man. He's a home run. And secondly, the basketball part speaks for itself. He's been a great player and a great coach.
"He knows directly what it takes to win the CIAA specifically. He knows what needs to be done and what we have to accomplish to get there."
Thompson sees a bright future for Fayetteville State basketball.
But it's his future as well.
"I wasn't a highly recruited athlete, but college basketball was something I always wanted to do with my life," Thompson says. "And now I'm coaching basketball, so really it's kind of hard to believe sometimes."
Sometimes all you have to do is believe.