A former two-sport All-American for Iowa State in basketball and baseball in 1957, Thompson began his award-winning broadcasting career in 1971 as the color analyst for the Big Eight Conference game of the week. His outstanding work led him to offers with other major networks.
In 1977, NBC hired Thompson to be a color analyst for its college basketball coverage. Thompson broadcasted some of the best college basketball games in the nation on NBC from 1977-83. Thompson called the famous 1979 Indiana State-Arkansas NCAA Regional final game that pitted Indiana State's Larry Bird against Arkansas' Sidney Moncrief. The Sycamores earned a Final Four spot when Bob Heaton made a left-handed desperation shot at the buzzer to keep Indiana State's dream season alive.
Thompson was also involved in what was arguably one of the greatest five-minute stretches in NCAA Tournament history in 1981.
"It was called the greatest live switch in NCAA history," Thompson said. "I was broadcasting the DePaul-St. Joseph's game, where top-seeded DePaul was upset in the final seconds to this unheralded St. Joseph's team. When the game ended, we immediately went live to the Arkansas-Louisville game just in time to see U.S. Reed's famous halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win the game for Arkansas. When that ended, we switched live to the Kansas State-Oregon State game and saw Rolando Blackman drive down the sideline and hit the fadeaway shot from the corner to win the game in the final seconds for the Wildcats."
Thompson was also a part of one of the greatest moments in Iowa Hawkeye basketball history in 1980. Thompson had the headset on when Iowa's Steve Waite made the buzzer-beater against Georgetown to help the Hawks earn a Final Four appearance.
NBC lost its bid for NCAA Tournament rights after the 1981 season, but Thompson continued to work NCAA Tournament games for NCAA productions until 1987. In that span, he got the opportunity to call one of the most famous moments in Iowa State's NCAA Tournament history. Thompson was on hand in Minneapolis' Metrodome in 1986 when Jeff Hornacek drained the shot at the horn to defeat Miami (Ohio), as ISU earned its first NCAA Tournament win since 1944.
Even though he covered many Iowa State games as part of the Big Eight package, Thompson assumed the role as color analyst for the Cyclone Television Network in 1987, where he spawned a new generation of Cyclone fans with his brilliant broadcasts. With Thompson's voice, you never got the overbearing homerism you see today. You always received an objective, detailed description on what was happening on the court.
"Gary has taught a lot of people, including myself, an awful lot about basketball," said Bob Helmers, the executive producer of Cyclone Television Network games. "Gary takes his television work very seriously, but always finds a way to make it fun at the same time."
"It was an extreme honor to be able to cover Iowa State games and stay associated with the university I love," Thompson said. "I always tried my best to be objective when I was doing an Iowa State game, but deep in my heart I was always pulling for the Cyclones."
Thompson had time to reflect on some of his greatest Cyclone moments in his broadcasting career:
• Iowa State 73, No. 10 Missouri 72 OT (Feb. 8, 1983) "I can still remember Barry (Stevens) hitting the last-second shot to defeat Missouri. He ended up with 40 points that game and it ended Missouri's 11-game road winning streak."
• Missouri 70, Iowa State 56 (Feb. 7, 1981) "What I remember about this game is that Missouri All-American Steve Stipanovich had just shot himself. The ISU fans came out with toy pistols at the game and shot them off every time he had the ball. Stipanovich was irritated and threw the ball right at Lefty Moore's face on an inbounds play. Johnny Orr was so mad he came on the floor and started chasing the referees."
• No. 20 Iowa State 102, No. 7 Iowa 100 OT (Dec. 19, 1987) "Lafester Rhodes' 54-point game was unbelievable. I don't think I have ever seen a game where everything went right for a player. Every time he would jump in the air, the ball would seem to just go to him."
• No. 23 Iowa State 69, No. 3 Kansas 65 (Jan. 14, 1995) "Fred (Hoiberg) took over and carried Iowa State to victory in that game. I think he scored 18 of ISU's final 19 points and ended up scoring 32 points in the win."
• ISU's final four Big 12 Conference games in ISU's 2000 Big 12 championship season
"I had the opportunity to broadcast ISU's last four conference games during the historic 2000 Big 12 championship season. We had two wins at home against nationally ranked Texas and Oklahoma State. I remember Marcus Fizer's slam dunk over Texas' Chris Mihm to cap off that win and we followed that game with a dominating performance against a great Oklahoma State team in the final home game. The Cyclones clinched their first conference title since 1945 with wins at Texas Tech and Baylor. Watching that team gel into a championship team was really special. With Fizer and (Jamaal) Tinsley taking over games, there weren't many teams better than ISU that year."
Throughout his career, Thompson paired up with many legendary figures in the broadcasting field. Marv Albert, Dick Enberg, Don Criqui, Bob Costas, Charley Jones, Tom Hammond, Gary Bender, Jack Buck, Wayne Larrivee, Ron Franklin, Kevin Harlan and Jay Randolph are just a few of the names Thompson shared a microphone with in his illustrious career.
"The association with the fans, players, coaches and co-workers is what I will really miss," Thompson said. "I love people and I loved visiting with coaches and administrators from Iowa State and other schools when I was broadcasting a game. That is the real joy of this business."