The Legend of Billy Thompson

billy thompson 88 298 (photo credit: )
billy thompson 88 298
(photo credit: )
The deafening roar of screaming fans and the thunder of pounding feet shot through his veins like fire as he landed back on the court from his third lay-up that night. Racing back down court, teammates high-fived the "new guy" making waves on the Israeli basketball scene. Like most of the world, Israelis are soccer crazy. But basketball also has a rabid fan base here, and for the die-hard supporters of Jerusalem's pro team, Hapoel, no player is more fondly remembered than Billy Thompson, a preacher who showed up unexpectedly in 1995 and became an instant legend. Since its founding in 1955, Israel's professional basketball league has been dominated by the giants at Maccabi Tel Aviv, a powerhouse in European play as well. But when Thompson joined the "Reds" of Hapoel Jerusalem, he helped take them from perennial doormats to the first Israeli team to consistently challenge Maccabi for national honors. At first, the athletic talents of the 6'7" pastor from Florida shocked even his teammates, but it was his warm personality that endeared him to a generation of basketball fans in the capital. "I've seen dozens of American players come and go over the years, but Billy stands out," Hapoel's veteran team doctor Jonte Maresky recently told The Christian Edition. "He was an incredible player on both ends of the court, but also a tremendous leader and human being. When he was here, that was our golden era." "Before Billy Thompson came, I never took my kids to Hapoel basketball games. There was nothing to see. But when we read about the new American player in the newspaper, we started going," says Jerusalem resident Avi Bornstein. "Billy made the court bright," he recalls. "My kids loved it, and would point him out on the court. After he left, we stopped going; it wasn't as exciting anymore. My kids really got into basketball during that time. They are playing for their schools now." "I watch soccer, not basketball," says Benny, owner of a corner grocery in Jerusalem, "but everybody remembers Billy Thompson." Playground to pulpit Thompson's long journey to Israel began as a young boy in Camden, New Jersey who loved any sport involving a ball. "My mother says that my first word was 'ball,'" Thompson recalls. "Football, baseball, basketball - I lived it all." Over time his basketball skills soared above all else, as he led Camden High School to a state championship in 1982. Four years later, he paced the University of Louisville Cardinals to an NCAA championship and then won two NBA titles with the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers in 1987 and '88, playing alongside such NBA greats as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Traded to the Miami Heat, Thompson played two more years, but then suddenly decided at the peak of his career to hang up his sneakers and enter the ministry. Thompson had been born into an Episcopalian home, but it was not until his freshman year in college at Louisville that he opened a Bible and realized there was more to the Christian walk of faith than just going to church. In that moment, he re-dedicated his life to Christ and excitedly told his family he now had another great love in his life. The court became his livelihood and "comfort zone," but Thompson says that after only five years in the NBA he felt compelled to answer a calling to preach the Gospel. So in 1994, he left the sport and signed on as an assistant pastor with the Jesus People International Church in Miami. But God was not yet finished using his remarkable basketball skills. Holy Land hoopster Not long after retiring, Thompson received a prophetic word from a visitor at his church that the Lord was going to bring him back onto the court. Intrigued, Thompson began fasting and praying, and decided to contact his agent to see who might be interested. Nothing could have prepared him for the phone call days later asking how he felt about moving to Israel to play for a team in the Galilee. "All I could do was laugh," Thompson says. "They play basketball in Israel? I had absolutely no desire to play ball in Israel."Days went by, and his agent was persistent. Another phone call, and it was Israel again - this time Hapoel Tel Aviv. Thompson's interest began to kick in. Weeks later, Thompson received a call from an old teammate, Milt Wagner, who he had not heard from in years. Lifelong friends, the two had played together in high school, at Louisville and on the Lakers. Wagner was now playing for Hapoel Tel Aviv and was anxious for his pal Billy to join him. "I finally began to wonder if maybe God was trying to tell me something,"Thompson recalls. "I had never even considered visiting the Holy Land, but I couldn't keep ignoring the messages for me to play in Israel." Before long, however, Thompson's agent called back to let him know the position at the Tel Aviv club had been filled. Disappointed, he went back to his knees in prayer. "It wasn't about basketball anymore," he remembers. "I started dreaming about going to Israel and tracing my Christian roots." Finally, Israel contacted him again - and this time there was no hesitation. His wife and two children were ready to move to Israel so he could play basketball on a one-year contract for lowly Hapoel Jerusalem. If there was any doubt in the team's mind that the lanky pastor could play, it was erased in their first game. Thompson did more than make a hard-court comeback - he dominated. For Hapoel fans, the 1995-96 season will always be magical. Coached by the now legendary Pini Gershon, the team featured local favorites Doron Shefa, Adi Gordon and Papi Turgeman, plus American newcomers Thompson and Norris Coleman. Together, they wrested the coveted State Cup trophy from Maccabi Tel Aviv for the first time. In the dramatic finals, Thompson led the charge while Gordon sealed a last-second victory with a high finger roll over former NBA star Tom Chambers. The following year, Hapoel made it back-to-back State Cups with another shocking win over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was not only a new power in the national league, but was making noise in Europe as well. Thompson was dubbed the "Michael Jordan of Israel." Walk of Faith Even though most of Thompson's teammates were Jewish, they didn't seem to care that he was a devout Christian; they were just happy he could play. Laughing, he remembers the jokes in the locker room. "They thought I was a miracle worker, some kind of good luck charm," he says. "I knew I was there to play for my team, but as a Christian, I wanted to succeed for the name of Jerusalem. To represent the land of God was a blessing." However, there were times when Thompson's mbitions were misunderstood. Not long after he signed on for several more seasons, Thompson awoke one morning to find the front pages of the Hebrew papers profiling his faith, presenting it as a threat to the Jewish people. Some believed he was there to convert them and called for his removal from the team and the country. Thompson and his family pressed on, knowing that as long as he was where the Lord wanted him, they would be fine. Soon, those who had doubted his intentions stopped threatening him, and his family was finally able to feel at home in Israel. "Billy certainly was not shy about his faith, nor embarrassed to pray," says Dr. Maresky. "There was a rabbi on the Jerusalem city council that objected to the way Billy said 'Hallelujah' all the time and wanted him out. But in the end, the two of them became best friends." "That was Billy. He had a way with people, especially with the kids in the stands. "I'll never forget how he played in the semi-finals of the State Cup one year with a broken hand," recalls Maresky, the only team official left from those days. "We all knew he was in pain but he was determined to play, so I put a little wrap on it and he went out and was a big inspiration to everyone." Thompson always had a knack for making sure anyone who crossed his path never forgot him. However, it was the intimate encounters in the locker room that will always mean the most to him. He says he understood the stigma against evangelizing his teammates, but that did not stop them from approaching him for prayer and to talk about God. Making his way back to south Florida after three seasons in Israel, Thompson sensed it was finally time to return to full-time ministry. He soon became pastor of a church in the Miami area and has instilled in it a love for Israel and the Jewish people. Four years ago, he rejoined the Miami Heat as one of its three rotating chaplains. [The Heat are currently in the NBA Finals, vying for their first title.] Meantime, Thompson's children have also caught the basketball bug. His daughter Mercedes is set to play college ball for the lady Memphis Tigers, while 13-year-old son Billy, Jr. is already 6'2" and playing for the number-one ranked team in its class in Florida. Last November, Thompson was invited back to Jerusalem to surprise the current Hapoel team during halftime. Carrying the story, the Israeli daily Ma'ariv warmly described him as "the reatest foreign player ever to have played for Hapoel Jerusalem." Thompson hopes to come back to Israel often, and is eager to let the nation know a part of his heart will always be here. "I love Israel. I miss Israel," he gushes. "I pray that during these times of change and turmoil, Israel remembers to turn back to the Bible, to read the Tanach and seek the Lord again for His support and leading. God still has his eye on you and on Jerusalem."