CHICAGO -- Sam Thompson knew he'd get his chance to shine inside of the United Center. He just figured that the opportunity would've came sooner than this.
Growing up in Chicago, Ill., a fan of Michael Jordan's Bulls dynasties, Ohio State's sophomore forward spent plenty of time inside of his hometown arena, watching the likes of Derrick Rose win Illinois high school state championships. But when it came time for Thompson's Whitney Young high school teams to take center stage, the state title game moved to Carver Arena.
"It was a big time letdown," Thompson said. "The last one I went to was Derrick Rose's junior year. He put on a show and I was really excited to come play."
It wasn't until Thompson's second team at Ohio State played in this past weekend's Big Ten Tournament that the Buckeyes' high flyer was able to play on the same court that housed six Bulls NBA championships. And once he did, Thompson made the most of it.
The 6-foot-7, 190-pounder stole the show in Ohio State's tournament opener against Nebraska on Friday, scoring a career-high 19 points in the Buckeyes' 71-50 victory. Thompson led all scorers with his effort, that not only featured his signature highlight reel dunks, but three 3-point makes in front of his hometown crowd.
Picking up a win and moving on to the Big Ten tournament's semifinals may have been the most enjoyable part of Friday night for the player known as "Slam" Thompson, but stepping onto the United Center's hardwood floor for the first time was a close second.
"We got here about 30 minutes before we were able to touch the basketballs and stuff. Just coming out here and seeing all the banners, seeing the 'Madhouse on Madison,' the United Center, it's a great feeling," Thompson said. "I went to high school a block and a half from here, it felt great to be home and play in front of my family and all that. It's always fun to play back in Chicago."
Despite living out a lifelong dream, Thompson claims that he wasn't nervous to play in the United Center, and it showed in his play.
"I wouldn't call it jitters. It was more excitement than anything," he said when describing what he felt before the Buckeyes took the floor against the Huskers. "It was fun."
In Ohio State's semifinals win over Michigan State and championship game victory against Wisconsin, Thompson failed to match his box score from Friday night, but still managed to make his presence felt.
Fewer than four minutes into the Buckeyes' win over the Spartans, Thompson nailed a 3-point shot to tie up the game at six. By game's end, the Windy City native had contributed eight points and two made 3-point attempts, while continuing to establish himself as a legitimate offensive threat from long distance.
"We've got a great coaching staff. They've worked with me with the mechanics of the shot," Thompson said. "I'm getting more and more comfortable. I know where my guys are going to get me the ball, where they're going to be on the floor. I know where my shots are coming from."
Against the Badgers, Thompson briefly got back to basics, slamming home the game's opening points, before converting on two jumpers and one layup in another eight-point performance. By the game's end, the Buckeyes were cutting down the nets as the Big Ten tournament champions, and Thompson was finally able to celebrate a title inside the United Center alongside his friends and family.
"This week, being able to get a championship in my hometown was absolutely one of my favorite moments," Thompson said. "I've always dreamed about playing at the United Center, and to win a championship here, it's just a great feeling."