Take a long look through the crowd at any Iowa State football or men’s basketball home game, and you’ll start to see familiar faces. There’s the 40-year season ticket holders who have held the same seat and will pass their tickets down to generations after, there’s the newbies and there’s so much more.
There’s one family — and one person in particular — that is as popular, if not more popular, than the players they’re in the stands watching. You might think, ‘Wait a second, wasn’t he the one who gave Iowa State the trophy at the Big 12 Championship in Kansas City?’ or ‘His voice sounds just like that Big 8 announcer from the 1970s and 80s!’ And in both cases, you’d be right.
But talking to him, you wouldn’t know you’re in the presence of an Ames legend — or as he’s been known since high school, the Roland Rocket. You might’ve heard the stories about taking down Wilt Chamberlain at the old Armory, or his appearance with Chamberlain and other AP All-Americans on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the pinnacle of television in the 1950s.
But that’s the thing about Gary Thompson: Even as he reaches 84 years on this planet, he doesn’t let on just how big of a deal he is — unless you ask him to.
“[As a kid], I heard stories, yanno, but it was hard to picture the magnitude of it,” his son Scott says. “He was very down to earth, and still is.
“He just kept such an even keel and was so humble about it.”
Gary wasn’t perfect growing up in Roland, Iowa, but he knew what he loved to do, and that was play sports. It was all there was to do in Roland.
“There was only two things to do: basketball and baseball,” Gary says.
Once he went about 20 minutes south to Ames after making a star turn on the court and on the baseball diamond, earning the nickname “The Roland Rocket,” everything changed for Iowa State — and for Thompson as well.
Freshmen weren’t allowed to play college basketball back in 1954, so Thompson spent a big-eyed year learning under the tutelage of then-Cyclones coach Clayton Sutherland. Sutherland was fired after Thompson’s first year and replaced by Bill Strannigan, who Thompson had an immediate connection with. It was with Strannigan that Thompson would etch his name into Cyclone history with one win in 1957.
Before the famous victory happened, though, former teammate Arnie Gaarde said that Thompson had plenty of big moments to go around.
One big win over Colorado sticks in Gaarde’s mind.
“I think it was in ‘55, when we were playing Colorado,” Gaarde said. “It was a close game, and then Gary hit a shot right at the end of the game to win it. He dribbled, he dribbled and then he drove the lane, shot, and made the basket. Then the gun went off [to signal the end of the game] and the crowd hit the floor.
“Then, a bunch of football players lifted Gary up and carried him around the floor.”
Taking down 'The Stilt'
The Wilt Chamberlain Game will always be a part of Gary Thompson’s identity. So much so, in fact, that it was one of the first stories he shared during our first meeting.
In early 1957, the Jayhawks came into the Armory sporting an unbeaten record and one of the greatest players of all time. The Cyclones came out with the win, though, and Gary describes it as “one of the happiest moments in my playing days.” His eyes light up once the game is mentioned and a big smile creeps up his face.
It’s a lot of fun for him to talk about. His favorite part comes up when he describes the first time he saw Wilt.
“We were in Kansas City, and we were out on the floor and all of the sudden I heard a rumble and whatnot and the crowd started to stir,” Gary says, laughing. “I started looking from the bottom and I thought I’d never get to the top of him. That’s the biggest guy I ever played against.”
The Cyclones’ victory over the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks at the old Armory is still one of the biggest victories in Iowa State history. But that season ended with a story he didn’t share the first time: an appearance on the famous “Ed Sullivan Show” in the spring of 1957 as a member of the AP All-American team.
As it turns out, Gary went on the show with the rest of the AP All-Americans, which included the NBA Hall of Famer Chamberlain. In fact, Gary went on the show twice.
“It was live television,” Gary says. “They had a hoop put up, and then they had balls but a lot of them were not good balls.
“You had to take a dribble out and lay it up.”
But son Scott says he didn’t find out about Gary’s television appearance until his late 20s.
“I don’t think I really recognized anything through high school,” Scott said. “He was just who he is.”
But, Scott said it’s just how his father is: Unless you ask him to share a story, he’ll keep it to himself. Even the ones that most people would brag about any chance they have.
And sometimes, his family says, it’s the stories he doesn’t share that tell you the most about who Gary Thompson has been his whole life.
A letter forms a bond
Barbara Chamberlain Lewis, the sister of Wilt Chamberlain, was going through a collection of her deceased brother’s items in her Las Vegas home, when she found something that caught her eye amidst all of the memorabilia: a letter from the year 1957, addressed to Wilt.
The letter came from a competitor of Wilt’s that Barbara had never met but knew plenty about: A young man named Gary Thompson from Iowa State.
“[Wilt had saved just about everything,” Gary says. “Wilt wasn’t the kind of guy to respond to anybody, it just wasn’t his nature.”
After reaching out to Gary, a correspondence emerged, said daughter Kim Wierson.
“They’ve met up a few times, with [Jan] as well,” Kim said. “They’ve gone out to Vegas, and [Chamberlain Lewis] invited them for a ceremony when Wilt was going to be put on a postage stamp.
“They’ve kept contact and kept communication with each other. He still [writes] notes to her.”
Jan and Gary also went to Kansas for a banquet dinner honoring Chamberlain, after it was revealed that the fallen Hall of Famer had left a large endowment to his alma mater.
Jan said that the relationship with Chamberlain Lewis has been “special.”
The letter was one of many that Gary sent to competitors and teammates in his career, a tradition that, according to his biography, started at Roland High School with a letter to his departing teammates.
“I was always one to play as hard as I can, and gonna be tough-nosed against anybody, but when the game’s over, hey, be friends,” Gary says.
Gary says he doesn’t go as much as he used to, but he still likes to be around the Cyclones’ program from time to time, visiting practices and chatting with coach Steve Prohm. That continued relationship with the school is partly why Gary was selected to give the Cyclones the Big 12 Championship Trophy when the school won the conference tournament in Kansas City this March. Gary says that Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard came up to him during the tournament, asking him if the Thompson family would want to present the trophy to the team if they won the title. When they did, it was yet another moment with the Cyclones for the Thompson family to hold close.
Prohm said having former players return to the program has been a big part of his tenure and he makes sure to get stories from Gary as much as he can.
“Whenever Gary’s at practice, I’ll ask him about old stories from the Armory,” Prohm said. “Everyone [who played at Iowa State] — wherever they played and whoever they played for — they’re a big, big part of what Iowa State basketball is and what we represent.
“All great programs bring people back.”
So Gary Thompson, with his name in the rafters and known as an Ames institution, keeps coming back to the school he loves, and the people he loves.