Thompson just 'fits in' with Cavaliers

The camel-colored mohair coat he slipped over his shoulders and chunky-striped scarf he wrapped around his neck formed the kind of outfit that suggested much cooler weather than the early-May-in-Cleveland air outside, but after starting in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 106-91 Game 2 win over the Chicago Bulls, Tristan Thompson was dressing for success.

"My role hasn't changed all season," Thompson said when asked about being thrust into the starting lineup. "Just come in and play hard. Go hard, rebound, defend, get extra possessions and just run the floor."

Thompson finished with more than twice as many rebounds (12) as shot attempts (five), staying true to his strengths. And he grabbed nearly as many offensive rebounds (six) as the nine combined by Chicago's starting five. His energy from the jump helped Cleveland build a 20-point lead after the first quarter that it wouldn't let dip below double-digits the rest of the night.

Kevin Love, whose season is over because of shoulder surgery, is among the best rebounders and 3-point shooters in NBA big man history. He's a three-time All-Star and a darling of advanced statistics, even in what has been a down season for the seven-year veteran.

But Thompson, who started 164 straight games at power forward before Love's arrival, offers something Love can't: minimal drama.

The questions have hung over the Cavs all season: Are Love's skills wasted next to ball dominators in James and Kyrie Irving? Does Love get along with LeBron, the Cavaliers' de facto GM? Most importantly, will Love leave in free agency this summer?

In Love's absence, Cleveland now turns to the player the team jokingly calls"Radiation."

"It wasn't really until the whole Vince Carter era where basketball started taking off for myself and really for my city," Thompson recalls. "I'd be at home after school watching highlights of this guy named Vince Carter dunking, and the crowd was going crazy."

Tristan's father, Trevor, would sometimes spring for $15 tickets in a promotional area called the "Sprite Zone."

"Basically like nosebleed seats," Thompson remembered. "But you get a free hot dog, a can of Sprite and tickets to the Raptors game. So that is kind of where I fell in love with the game, really."

The plan

Thompson's parents emigrated from Jamaica to Canada and settled down in Brampton, Ontario, a suburban town on the outskirts of Toronto, where they raised Thompson and his three younger brothers. His dad drove a truck, and his mom drove a bus.

Thompson's Jamaican roots got him hooked on soccer as a child. He played midfield and goalie, but it wasn't long before he was itching to apply that footwork and agility to the basketball court, thanks to a certain high-rising star for the Toronto Raptors.

Thompson grew from 6-feet to 6-foot-7 between seventh and ninth grades, and he developed a plan: He was going to leave home to play basketball for a top hoops high school in the United States, continue on to big-time Division I hoops in the NCAA and eventually find his way to the NBA.

Thompson's mother, Andrea Brooks, always knew there was something special about her oldest. "Tristan was always advanced as a kid," Brooks said. "He was not the regular of my three other kids -- he was always advanced."

As mature as Thompson might have been, he was still not even 15 years old when he asked his mom for permission to leave the country to pursue his basketball dream on his own.

"He was doing all this research that I didn't even know that he was doing," said Brooks, who speaks with a thick Jamaican accent. "So when he came and sat down with me, [hearing] the language that came out of his mouth, I knew that he was ready. The words that he was saying, I put them all together and analyzed everything and I [knew] what was the right thing to do."

Dan Hurley, the basketball coach at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, set up a call with Thompson before his sophomore year of high school. He was blown away when Thompson arrived in Newark, some 500 miles away.

"They didn't wait two weeks until Tristan could set up nice, comfortable travel," said Hurley, now the coach at the University of Rhode Island. "He was hungry to elevate his career as a great prospect."

Said Thompson: "No disrespect to Canadian talent back then, but I had to go down to the states to become a better player."

Thompson's first season with Hurley couldn't have gone any better. "I went down there, had a great sophomore year, was No. 1 in the country, good things were going, and I committed early to Texas," Thompson said.

Surprisingly, Thompson's plan was on track -- until Kyrie Irving screwed it up.

"I'll tell you, my thoughts on Tristan are [he is] always ready, always energetic and always willing to do whatever it is to help the team," said coach David Blatt, who dubbed Anderson Varejao the starter at center, over Thompson, as one of his first orders of business in training camp, without so much as a peep of disappointment out of Thompson. "Those three things are what make him special for us."

Thompson's teammates would suggest a fourth.

"Tristan, he's like one of the more genuine guys on the team," Cavs rookie Joe Harris said. "He's friends with everybody."

"Always positive," said Matthew Dellavedova.

"The first thing we can say is he's a really, really good guy," said Timofey Mozgov.

Said Brooks: "Teachers would say to me, 'Wow, this kid could be the next president! Everybody looked up to him. Everybody wanted to be around him because of the encouragement that he has and the words that he gives to others."

Kicked off the team

Halfway through his junior season, Thompson's course was altered significantly, thanks in large part to Irving.

"Me and him talk about it all the time," Irving, who would go on to be drafted three spots ahead of Thompson in 2011, said with a smile.

St. Benedict's started the season 19-0 and had a date with Irving's St. Patrick High School (Elizabeth, N.J.) at Rutgers University. More than 4,000 fans filed in to see one of the most celebrated high school matchups of the season, and they saw Thompson's team lose in a rout.

Irving scored 21 points, and St. Patrick's rolled to an 88-62 victory. The perfect season was over. Thompson didn't know how to process the disappointment.

Hurley, who had emerged from the long shadows cast by his brother, Bobby Hurley, the two-time champion point guard at Duke University, and his father, the legendary Bob Hurley Sr., who coached one of the most successful high school programs in the country at St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, N.J., was similarly out of sorts when his shot at the mythical high school national championship was scuttled.

Thompson and Hurley got into an argument after the loss that escalated to Hurley's kicking Thompson off the team.

To this day, both coach and player swear they remember few particulars.

"We flopped. We failed," Hurley said. "And I don't think either one of us knew how to handle it. I look at it, myself, as the situation that I've handled the worst in my 20 years of coaching. I wish I would have done some things differently with Tristan. Because it haunts me. He's such a great kid and a great talent and a great competitor that I wish I would have had the chance to finish his career with him at the high school level.

"That moment, that really bad moment that we had together will always be my biggest regret in coaching, more than any loss ever will," Hurley said. "Just my inability to get that situation under control will haunt me because of the quality kid that he is. Not because of the quality of talent and the player he became ... Yeah, it sucks."

"We both wanted to win so bad that because we lost that game, I think we both, just mentally, we were both out of it, and mentally we both went off emotions more than just thinking it out," Thompson said. "But it's a mistake we both made, and we learned from it. It helped my growth as a man, and for him, he said it helped him grow as a coach, just to understand players. And for me, just to be more responsible. Be a player. Don't try to coach. Stay in your lane."

Thompson and his coach are back on good terms today. Hurley has used the cushion of time to try to rationalize what went so wrong in his relationship with Thompson that he went from "almost son-like" to estranged for a spell.

"You can actually blame Kyrie for this, for me switching schools," Thompson said. "He always pokes fun."

Thompson transferred to Findlay Prep Pilot in Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas.

Thompson says he loves playing with Irving. "It's definitely made my job easy," Thompson said. "My job is to just catch and finish."

But Thompson is waiting for revenge and sees his leading role on a rejuvenated Team Canada as his chance.

"We definitely will be playing each other in a medal round," Thompson said. "That will be coming in a short amount of time. We'll definitely be playing against each other. We always talk smack, and obviously, he has more to say because it's USA, and they've won the Olympics, and he's got a FIBA gold medal and an MVP.

"I can't wait until we play each other internationally because that's just a whole different game," he continued. "Obviously, they have the advantage ... but when it comes to FIBA, that NBA talent stuff kind of gets wiped out, and it's who plays the best team basketball."

Lunch pail mentality

While at Findlay, Thompson's team was the subject of a web reality series called "The Season." In one episode, Thompson unknowingly offered an opinion about what he would one day become.

"Lottery [picks] are guys that have the potential to change the NBA," Thompson said. "That's what lottery means: guys that can change the NBA."

Thompson, who was drafted fourth overall in 2011 after one season at Texas, has no illusions that he is doing that.

"I bring the construction workers back," Thompson explained, surprised to hear the quote from his high school days. "Doing the dirty work. If you look back in the early to late '90s, when you had the Horace Grants, the Dennis Rodmans, the Bill Laimbeers, the guys that kind of just did the dirty work, did the little things, that might not show up on the scoreboard but definitely helps your team win and takes your team to the next level.

Thompson currently has the second-longest consecutive games played streak in the league, trailing only the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan. He also ranked fifth this regular season in contested rebound rate (47.5 percent), meaning nearly half of all of his rebounds came in traffic.

He sums up his approach with his motto: "See ball. Get ball."

"He's just important to our team," James said. "He plays above the rim. He's a relentless offensive rebounder, and he's a good finisher around the rim. When a guy plays as hard as he does, you don't care about the mistakes he makes because it doesn't show up as much because you see him attacking the rim, you see him playing defense, switching off on smalls. And also, he's here to listen and a guy that wants to get better, you love that. He's around every day. He's trying to figure out ways to get better, and he's been doing that throughout the season."

"The only guy ever," Thompson said of what he accomplished the past season, when he switched his shooting hand.

"I was actually just messing around, shooting right hand, and Jeremy Pargo, he used to be on the Cavaliers, he said, 'Man, that looks better than your left!' I said, 'Shut up, man. You don't know what you're talking about. I got to the NBA left-handed. I'm going to stick in the NBA left-handed,'" Thompson recalled. "He said, 'All right, well, if you shoot right-handed and you become a better player, just send my check in the mail.'"

"Ultimately, he should be praised for a phenomenal accomplishment: To switch hands and be a better free throw shooter," said Steve Nash, general manager of Team Canada and a career 90.4 percent free throw shooter in the NBA. "And I've been in the gym with him after he started changing it, and I was blown away. The strides he made in such a short period of time to change hands shooting the ball was phenomenal. And the balls to do it and the work ethic? I think that just tells a lot about him."

National duty

Thompson is seen as the unofficial leader of a Canadian team with a talent pipeline that rivals that of any nation on the planet. Once the Cavs' season is over, with stress over his next NBA contract swirling, Thompson plans to lead the team in qualifying for next summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"He was the first ... I don't want to say 'charmed' guy, but he was the first guy who, I think, went down and almost right away was on an equal playing field with his peers in the U.S.," said Michael Grange, a Toronto-based journalist who currently works for Rogers Sportsnet. "He's kind of created a bit of a blueprint for what the experience should be like and what the expectations should be. So, I think, in that sense, he's really a flag-bearer for this next generation of guys."

Of the record 101 international players at the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, 12 were Canadian, including four -- Kelly Olynyk, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and Nik Stauskas -- who became lottery picks after Thompson entered the league.

"It's huge," Nash said of Thompson's impact. "I think he was kind of the wick of the bomb, so to speak."

Brooks said the wave that followed Thompson was part of her son's plan all along. "He would say, 'I need to go down there. I need to go to the States so I can open the doors for all the rest of the Canadian kids,'" she recalled. "And I'm like, 'Wow.'"

Although Wiggins might be considered Canada's heir apparent to the two-time MVP Nash, it's Thompson who is considered the unofficial captain of the national team.

"As young as he is, he's definitely the leader of this wave, I would say, for sure," Grange said.

Teammates call him "TT," "T-Square," "Double-T," "T-Dot" or "T-Top."

But there's another nickname Thompson picked up this season, during a Cavs road trip to play the New York Knicks. "Tristan made a comment that will go down in Cavs history," Harris said as he began to tell the story.

Cleveland assistant coach Larry Drew engaged the team in a game of hangman prior to tipoff. He wrote 10 blank lines on the white board and went around the locker room asking each player to select a letter to reveal the word he wanted the Cavs to ponder before they took the court.

"Everyone was guessing, and half the team couldn't get the right letter, so I got a vowel," said Thompson, who asked for an A. "I actually got it correct. So if I get one of the vowels and it's correct, I can take a guess. My guess was radiation. That's non-basketball-related, but I still guessed that."

Never mind that radiation is a nine-letter word and Drew was going for the 10-letter word validation. Thus, Thompson's newest nickname, "Radiation," was born.

"Everyone was like, 'What the hell? That has nothing to do with basketball,'" Thompson recalled with a smile.

LeBron's guy

Thompson has another nickname: "Young King." Thompson uses it as a hashtag, and it's one sign of his deep ties to James.

"Yeah, he's The King, and we the Young Kings," Thompson said. "Me, Ky -- we the Young Kings."

Thompson and James are represented by the same agent, Rich Paul, and with James having a clear influence in Cleveland's personnel decisions since his return the past summer, Thompson's impending free agency becomes all the more interesting. Insiders say the connection between Thompson, Paul and James helped heal the wounds of "The Decision" in 2010.

Paul negotiated with Cavs management on an extension for Thompson right up until tipoff of opening night in October, but he failed to strike a deal, which set Thompson to become a restricted free agent this summer.

In January, Yahoo Sports reported Thompson turned down a four-year, $52 million offer from Cleveland, a figure Paul would not confirm or deny to ESPN.

"I got gmail," Thompson quipped when asked about it. "I have a gmail, so I wouldn't know Yahoo news. But I'm not worried about that. I just play. Just go out there and let Rich Paul handle all that stuff."

The triangle between James, Paul and Thompson leads to perception, fair or unfair, that Thompson will eventually receive the deal he wants from the Cavs, considering their proclivity to please James.

Thompson sidestepped any insinuation that he benefits from the James connection.

"You want to know what LeBron James does for me? He makes my job easier on the court," said Thompson, who averaged 8.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the regular season and is averaging 6.3 and 7.8 so far in this year's playoffs. "He makes my job way easier on the court. All I got to do is screen, hold the screen and finish around the rim. So that's what he does for me. That's all he does for me: on the basketball court, makes my job easier."

Thompson never wears the same outfit twice, shamelessly poses on Instagram and doesn't blush when fans make favorable comparisons to the actor Michael B. Jordan.

When Love appeared on the February cover of GQ, he said Thompson was "by far" his most jealous teammate.

"He thinks he's the most handsome man in the NBA," Love said.

"No. I wasn't jealous," Thompson insisted. "Me and him have our own little thing. We joke about it all the time. We say we're the two handsome guys. Kevin Love says he's the most handsome guy for 'Rolling Stone,' then for me, I'm 'The Source' magazine."


With Love out and a contract at stake, the pressure on Thompson to perform through the remainder of the Cavs' postseason run could become suffocating.

Thompson sees this as no time to expand his game from his role as, in his words, "the lunch pail guy."

"You always have that one guy where it's like, 'Ugh, I got to go against that guy tonight? It's going to be a long night. I better get my rest,'" Thompson said. "So for this team, that's what I want to be able to bring -- just that toughness and that grit and that kind of 'F you' mentality."

"It's a sign of maturity, it's also a sign of intelligence," Nash said. "It takes somebody with a pretty keen eye and level head to be able to say, 'OK, I'm not Hakeem Olajuwon. I really cause problems because I out-hustle and out-tough people.' You just can't live without a guy like that."