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On Corny Thompson: The legendary Connecticut big man
Thompson was the best in-state recruit to ever choose UConn when he joined the team in 1978.
Photo Credit: UConn Athletics
Cornelius “Corny” Thompson was UConn’s first superstar of the Big East era. He was a thick, physical force in the middle for Dom Perno’s Huskies teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is his story.
A 6-foot-8 forward from Middletown, he was an out-of-the-box sensation in his freshman year, 1978-1979. He earned New England Player of the Year honors in the last year of the old ECAC configuration, averaging nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game for the New England champions and NCAA Tournament-bound Huskies.
Thompson anchored the UConn team that entered the Big East the following season. He earned All-Big East first or second-team honors as a sophomore, junior, and senior. In all three seasons, UConn reached the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) back when that was still a significant accomplishment for major college programs. Thompson’s name sits alongside such conference luminaries as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Sleepy Floyd on the Big East’s early all-league teams.
Following a brief stint in the NBA, Corny Thompson became a name known to basketball fans around the world, playing for championship teams in the Italian and Spanish professional leagues.
Check out our podcast episode with Clayton Trutor, who went deep on Jim Calhoun’s origin story, from local high school coach to success story at Northeastern.
Cornelius Allen Thompson was born on February 5, 1960, in Middletown, Connecticut. The son of Alice and Alexander Thompson, Corny was the youngest of six children--three boys and three girls. His older brother Danny was a standout at Middletown High and earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, but his game was nothing like that of his younger brother. Corny looked and played like a proto-Zach Randolph by the time he turned 14.
The Middletown Tigers had been a Connecticut prep powerhouse in the 1960s, making four trips to the State Tournament. The program fell on hard times for much of the 1970s until Corny arrived. As a freshman, he was a fully grown 6-foot-8 and dominant, averaging better than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game.
Under head coach Tom LaBella’s tutelage, Thompson became a deft passer, capable of hitting home runs with outlet passes much like Wes Unseld. At the same time, Thompson was an honor roll student at Middletown High, making him the envy of college recruiters.
LaBella named him team captain as a sophomore and the 20/20s kept coming, despite every opponent focusing the brunt of their defense on the big guy in the middle. Thompson powered the Tigers to state titles in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons. At one point, Middletown High had an 80-game winning streak that ended after Thompson headed to college. In 1978, Thompson was named to the second-ever McDonald’s All-American Team.
Photo: UConn Athletics
Ken Fiola, one of the greatest prep players to come out of Fall River, Massachusetts (B.M.C. Durfee High), recalls playing against stacked AAU teams from Connecticut that featured Thompson and future NBA first-round pick Wes Matthews.
A 6-foot-1 guard from Warren Harding High in Bridgeport, Matthews was a slick ball-handler and scorer who later starred at Wisconsin before becoming the Washington Bullets’ top pick in 1980. Matthews spent eight seasons in the NBA and scored two championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers. For his part, Thompson may have lacked some of the agility of modern centers but moved well for such a big player (well over 250 pounds) in his era.
“[He was] more physically advanced than most players. A 6-foot-8 playmaker. Highly recruited and marketed. A man against boys in some instances,” Fiola, a 6-foot-6 forward who played his college ball at Boston University, said. Fiola later matched up with Thompson on a couple of occasions during an injury-abbreviated career with the Terriers.
The likes of North Carolina and Georgetown started recruiting Thompson early in his prep career. The Tarheels were clearly Corny’s most serious out-of-state suitor. Sufficiently smitten, Dean Smith came up to Middletown to watch Thompson play. Fred Post, longtime sportswriter for the Middletown Press, got calls regularly from one UNC fan, asking how Corny had played that night because he was certain that Thompson was headed for Chapel Hill. But he wasn’t.
New UConn coach Dom Perno pressed hard to keep Corny in-state and succeeded. According to Corny’s mother in a 1982 Hartford Courant profile, Thompson was a “homebody” by nature and inclined to play close to home. Perno may have been as significant in Thompson’s decision. The UConn basketball star-turned-coach built strong relationships with his players. Then in his mid-30s, Perno proved to be a persuasive recruiter who found plenty of basketball gold in his New England backyard.
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Bijan Bayne, the author of several brilliant books on basketball history, cites Thompson’s matriculation at UConn as an example of Dom Perno’s ability during the late 1970s and early 1980s to win recruiting battles in the Nutmeg State. Other excellent players that Perno kept home in this era included fellow big man Chuck Aleksinas, a Litchfield native who transferred in from Kentucky; Bridgeport forward Mike McKay; and Earl Kelley, a standout from New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School who scored nearly 1,600 points in a Huskies uniform. Though UConn lost out on heavily recruited local players like Bridgeport’s Matthews and John Bagley as well as Masuk High’s Mike Gminski, Perno brought in plenty of talent to make UConn a competitor in its dynamic new league.
As a freshman, Thompson was not only the best first-year player in New England. He was the best player period. Residing on a roster that included just one future NBA player (Thompson himself), Corny ran roughshod over the region, leading the Huskies to regular season wins over New England powers Holy Cross, Rhode Island, and Fairfield. UConn and their New England Player of the Year Thompson went on to win 21 games and earn a spot in the four-team ECAC-New England Tournament, then the only way that a team from the six most-northeastern states could reach the NCAA Tournament. UConn pummeled BC in the semifinals at the Boston Garden before outlasting Rhode Island in the finals at the Providence Civic Center. Thompson posted double-doubles in both games and earned Tournament MVP honors.
In the NCAA Tournament, Connecticut fell behind Syracuse by two dozen in the first half before mounting a wild comeback that came up short, 88-81. McKay’s 21 points and Thompson’s 18 points were not enough to surmount an eighth-ranked Syracuse team that would join them in the Big East the following season.
Bayne, who has written extensively on basketball in New England, has fond memories of watching Thompson play collegiately. While living in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, he remembers tuning into the ECAC Games of the Week on Boston’s WSBK TV-38. The telecasts featured Thompson’s battles against the likes of Rhode Island’s Sly Williams, who went on to a six-year NBA career (and, incidentally, was the last member of the New York Knicks to wear number 33 before Patrick Ewing).
Bayne described Thompson as a “twin tower paired with fellow Connecticut native, Chuck Aleksinas, who helped the program transition from the Yankee Conference era of Mike McKay and Tony Hanson, to inception in the Big East. Skilled and quiet, a force to be reckoned with down low.”
Thompson made a strong impression on Rick Pitino’s Boston University (BU) teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pitino’s “Kamikaze Kids,” who played relentless full-court press defense, were a program on the rise in the ECAC North (now America East conference) and regarded their games against longtime regional power and now Big East member Connecticut as a measuring stick for their improvement.
UConn and BU played all four years of Thompson’s college career. Connecticut won every matchup but, with the exception of a 74-53 pummeling at the Hartford Civic Center in December 1981, each contest was a pitched, back-and-forth battle that featured wild swings of momentum and moments when both clubs seemed completely out of the game. Consistent as ever, Thompson averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per contest against the Terriers, roughly on point with his career averages.
“[Thompson] was a very strong low post player. Very good moves with his back to the basket. If he got you on his hip, his strength and power could not be stopped,” former BU forward Steve Priscella said.
“Awesome player, very fundamental, and a class person” is how BU guard Gene Jones described Thompson, whose career on Commonwealth Avenue mirrored Thompson’s in Storrs.
“He had a little bit more athletic skill than you would expect out of someone his size,” BU sharpshooter Jay Twyman recalls. A force in the middle like Thompson helped further energize UConn’s always enthusiastic fan base. Twyman remembers how intense an atmosphere that visitors to Greer Fieldhouse faced when they played the Huskies.
The back-and-forth first-round battle between Syracuse and UConn in the 1979 NCAA Tournament was emblematic of the kind of basketball the Huskies would play regularly in the Big East. The likes of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire would be replaced on Connecticut’s schedule with Georgetown, St. John’s, and, of course, Syracuse.
Thompson, McKay, and the transfer Aleksinas made UConn competitive in a league full of heavyweights. Thompson kept chugging along in the new conference, averaging nearly a double-double each night for the duration of his college career. UConn won 20 or more games in its first two seasons in the Big East, finishing in the middle of the pack of the briefly eight-team league and falling just off the NCAA Tournament bubble in favor of the NIT. After a strong 16-4 start to the 1981-1982 season, UConn dropped 7 of its final 8 games, including a first-round NIT matchup with Dayton.
The sluggish final turn of the 1981-1982 season signaled a downward spiral for the Dom Perno era, which ended after four consecutive losing seasons from 1982 through 1986. (The reasons for the decline were numerous and worthy of an article all its own). But they in no way indicated a declension in Corny Thompson’s performance. He led the conference in rebounding as a senior and once again earned all-conference honors. At the conclusion of his UConn career, Thompson was the number two scorer in school history and number four rebounder. He remains sixth on both lists all time.
The NBA, Europe, and life after hoops
In June 1982, the Dallas Mavericks made Thompson their third-round selection in the still ten-round NBA Draft. Apparently, concerns about his fluctuating weight pushed him down the draft boards. It certainly wasn’t his resume, which was one of the most complete in the ’82 draft class.
Corny’s landing spot proved inhospitable. In Dallas, he played for NBA lifer Dick Motta, whose fiery personality and in-your-face coaching style were quite the opposite of the personable Dom Perno. Moreover, Motta’s flex offense, replete with continuous motion and screens, was not well suited for a low-post banger like Corny Thompson. He spent his one NBA season planted firmly on the bench behind Jay Vincent and Pat Cummings.
Thompson played in 44 NBA games, started two, and never reached double figures in points or rebounds. In the summer of 1983, Thompson suffered a serious knee injury while preparing for the upcoming season. The Mavericks waived him in late 1983, never giving him the chance to recover from his injury.
After recuperating his knee, Thompson spent a season in the Colonial Basketball Association before beginning a decade-long overseas odyssey. Beyond the bad luck of his NBA landing spot, the length of Thompson’s NBA career is almost certainly a product of his coming of age in a 23-team league. In the current 30-team configuration, Thompson would have had plenty of additional opportunities to extend his career in the Association.
Corny Thompson made up for it with a long career in European professional basketball. He signed on with Pallacanestro Varese of the Italian professional league, Lega Basket Serie A. He spent six years with the northern Italian club, flourishing in the wide-open, offensively friendly league. He averaged better than 22 points and 10 rebounds per game in Italy, dished out several assists each game, and developed into a strong three-point shooter. In his final season for Varese, 1989-1990, the club reached the league finals.
In pursuit of a championship, Thompson ventured into the top Spanish professional league, Liga ACB. Then thirty years old, he signed on with Joventut Badalona, helping lead the club to back-to-back Liga ACB championships in 1991 and 1992. One of his teammates was former Villanova star and Connecticut resident Harold Pressley, one of the local recruits that Perno lost out on in his final years in Storrs. Thompson and Pressley are two of just four McDonald’s All-Americans from the state of Connecticut.
In 1994, Thompson and Joventut Badalona won not only the Spanish League title but the Euro League championship, defeating Greek powerhouse Olympaicos. Thompson spent his last two seasons as a professional player with León of Liga ACB before returning to the United States.
For a time, Thompson owned a restaurant/jazz lounge in Hartford called Corny T’s. He relocated to Texas during the late 1990s, where he’s enjoyed a highly successful career as an executive for LAZ Parking.
In February 2007, UConn inducted Thompson into the “Huskies of Honor” as part of the initial group of men’s basketball inductees on display at Gampel Pavilion. Thompson was recognized as a foundational figure in making UConn a legitimate player in the country’s best basketball conference. His name and number (52) hang alongside those of Jim Calhoun, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, and so many others that helped make the University of Connecticut the premier basketball program in the Northeast.
Clayton Trutor teaches history at Norwich University in Vermont. He is a freelance writer and the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta — and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports (2022) and Boston Ball: Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Gary Williams, and College Basketball's Forgotten Cradle of Coaches (2023). He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor