This article appears in the December 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Watching her play now, it's hard to imagine that Whitney Young senior Amanda Thompson once earned a send-a-message seat on the bench with her erratic play. Mariah Carey's comeback may be surprising, but this kind of basketball resurrection stretches the limits of imagination.
Still, it's true. During the first month of her varsity career as a freshman, Thompson was benched during the first quarter of a game and didn't get a whiff of the scorer's table the rest of the night.
"You know, we'd had a full preseason and a fair number of games, and I had to send a message," says Whitney Young fifth-year coach Corry Irvin. "She would make one spectacular play, then she'd commit three straight turnovers trying to make another. She had to commit to improving her fundamentals."
While shocking at the time, being asked to take a seat was a lesson Thompson credits with making her the player she is today. It's a tough-love thing.
"It was pretty tough because I wanted to be on the floor," says Thompson, now a 6-foot guard/forward who averaged 17.9 points, 11 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.9 steals per game last year for the 29-2 Dolphins. "But it woke me up. I knew I had to get better and make a change or I'd be the same player every year. I had to learn to see the court rather than just be on it. I had the hustle part, but I needed to hustle and be under control at the same time."
Seems like things came together pretty well. Thompson, who's rated one of the nation's Top 10 girls' hoop recruits in the Class of 2006 by Scout.com, has committed to Big 12 power Oklahoma. And you can bet the Sooners aren't just taking a flyer on an athlete who hustles.
Thompson is a returning Illinois Basketball Coaches Association All-State selection for good reason. She can score from the low post, off the dribble and with a sweet pull-up jumper. She is explosively quick and presents a mismatch for almost any defender you throw at her — most guards are too small and most frontcourt players are too slow to guard Thompson. And, oh yeah, she's one of the most tenacious, consistent and productive offensive rebounders in the nation.
"I'd rate her as one of the best in the country, which makes her doubly dangerous because she can also get to the basket," says Irvin, a former Fresno State small forward.
Let's talk about offensive boards for a second. Let's face it, Thompson isn't exactly a Shaq-sized presence on the blocks. So why is she so good at gripping and ripping?
"I don't even realize how much I'm rebounding at the offensive end most of the time," says Thompson, who turned 18 on Nov. 18. "I anticipate well. But it's a series of things. You've got to box out, then you've got to have a feel for how the ball is coming off the rim, then you've got to want it."
Sounds simple enough. And Thompson makes it look simple. Of course, if it were that simple, Oklahoma would be handing out a lot more free rides.
Thompson is in demand because she's in command on the court. She seems to play with a chip on her shoulder. As if she's still trying to prove she belongs in the game instead of on the pine.
"The best aspect of her game is that she plays hard all the time, regardless of the circumstance or situation," says Irvin. "She came here as an athlete, and she's developed by learning and understanding the game so she could use that athleticism.
"She doesn't like to lose," Irvin adds. "She always wants to be the best. She takes her game to the next level when she's challenged and she doesn't back down. Rather, she steps up."
But rising to meet the intensity of such occasions didn't come naturally. It required more growing pains. And another heart-to-heart with her coach. Not as an underclassman, mind you. This latest motivational speech took place before this school year.
"She didn't play as well as she wanted to this summer," says Irvin. "We talked about her need to make even better decisions, develop an even more consistent jumper, defend even better and get better at taking over a game. She's always been that type of player, but now she seizes the moment."
"I have a responsibility to lead," says Thompson, the youngest of five children. "Before, I was playing just to play. Now, I have a different mental approach. That doesn't mean my teammates aren't as important as ever. I just have to be able to take the game into my hands and show that I can lead in tough situations."
To Thompson, what is just as important as devoting herself to reaching and attaining that level of commitment is staying fully aware of the reason for such an effort. Where she feels some of her most talented peers fail, Thompson believes she has an edge because she knows the answer to the most important question of her basketball life: Why do all this?
"I do think some people don't know what they play basketball for," says Thompson. "What motivates me in this sport is a chance to use basketball to learn things and take advantage of certain things that might help me make a better life for my family. I want to use basketball to help things off the court. That's what motivates me every day. That's what gets me on the court."
Or, more accurately, off the bench.