Standing on a freeway bridge during a protest as a tanker truck barreled towards the crowd, Race Thompson knows what real adversity feels like.
In light of situations like that, stepping up and taking charge on a basketball court seems relatively easy.
George Floyd was murdered 15 minutes away from Thompson’s house in Minneapolis.
Overcome with a sense of obligation to join the rallies in his hometown, Thompson knew he had to step out of his comfort zone and support a cause that has swept the nation.
“It really just hit home for me,” Thompson said.
The rallies in Minnesota were in late May. By mid-June, Thompson was back in Bloomington, where he stepped into the role of being one of two IU student athletes on the Big Ten’s Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition.
The stated goal of the Coalition is “to seek tangible ways to actively and constructively combat racism and hate around the world while also empowering student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest.”
That’s heavy stuff. Basketball challenges — easy.
Nevertheless, there have been issues to address on the IU basketball team as well, and Thompson seems to be on the case.
There has been a glaring void with Indiana’s program during Thompson’s three years with the team.
Former Player Development Director Derek Elston recently described it as “wishing there was an ounce of fight” on the roster.
During his redshirt sophomore season in 2019-20, Thompson looked like the guy that just might finally bring an edge to the team.
“Race is physical. Race is physical, IU head coach Archie Miller repeated himself after Thompson had a particularly impactful performance against Penn State.
“He puts his body out there. He defensive rebounds, he walls up, he offensive rebounds.”
Those attributes alone would have been reason enough to be enthusiastic about what Thompson can bring to the program as an upperclassman.
But after six weeks on campus, Thompson’s teammates are seeing more.
That physical leadership by example is turning into verbal leadership, and Thompson’s voice caught the attention of last year’s team captain Al Durham.
“One that has shocked most of us is Race,” Durham said when quizzed on which players on the team are stepping up as leaders this summer. “He has really stepped his game up and his communication up tremendously.
“I feel like Race has stepped up tremendously this year and become more of an outspoken leader whether that has been on the court or off the court. Race has really stepped into the role of helping to lead the younger guys, taking them under his wing and teaching them how to do certain things and how we operate as a team.”
Thompson took a redshirt season in 2017-18. and he missed most of his second campaign with a concussion.
He finally got things rolling midway through year three.
Over his last nine games in 2019-20, Thompson played 19.5 minutes and averaged 5.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, .9 blocks and 1.3 steals per game.
That late surge in Big Ten play no doubt gave Thompson confidence, while earning the respect of his teammates.
The events in his hometown, the progress as a player, and the experience within the program — it is all manifesting into a mature upperclassman that is taking the lead on and off the court.
What was the driving force behind the change in Thompson that shocked Durham and his teammates?
“It has to do with just being around (for a while) and being comfortable with everybody, Thompson said of his newfound voice with the team.
“Knowing that everybody trusts me, knowing that my coaches trust me. All that stuff just makes it easier for me to have a voice for the younger guys because I’m going into my fourth year here. I know stuff, so I can help people out. It’s really just easy because I already know. So it’s really just teaching everybody because I feel like I know what’s going on.”
Miller spoke of Thompson during the 2019-20 season as being a guy that knew how to physically lay it on the line.
“You need guys that are willing to stick their nose in there and do it,” Miller said of Thompson’s style on the court.
Since the season ended, Thompson has been doing just that in several ways that neither he nor his teammates could have imagined — on and off the court.
Thompson says the basketball part of it all has been easy.
He’s been there, done that.
Relatively speaking, it makes sense that the basketball stuff comes natural.
Because things haven’t been real easy or real familiar at home, and Thompson hasn’t backed down.
He just sticks his nose in there, and does it.
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