Uncertain past yields bright future for Parkview Baptist’s James Thompson

It still makes me feel like I lost everything … my home, my friends and some of my family that I don’t get to see as much anymore. My dad lives (in New Orleans), and I go see him often. I still have friends there, but it’s not the same.” James Thompson, Parkview Baptist basketball player, on the effects of Hurricane Katrina on his life

James Thompson had the same hopes and dreams of most Louisiana boys when he was younger. Put a football in his hand, and Thompson was in a sports-induced wonderland.

He played quarterback, safety and wide receiver, first on BREC League teams and later for Broadmoor Middle School.

“I played quarterback, but when we needed to score fast, I’d move to receiver and they would throw the ball up for me to catch,” Thompson recalled. “I loved it.”

That was before genetics and a major challenge kicked in. Thompson is now 6-foot-9 and weighs 205 pounds. The Parkview Baptist senior-to-be has different dreams — hoop dreams.

“James has the athletic skills and, if he continues to work and grow as a player, I really do believe the sky is the limit,” Parkview coach Don Green said. “This is a very crucial time for him, and I think he understands that. Right now, James is in a group of 6-8 or 6-9 guys who have the same skills. What can he do to set himself apart from those other guys? That’s a big question.”

And it’s a question Thompson is determined to find the answer to this summer, including this week when he travels to Virginia for the NBA Players Association’s Top 100 Camp. A Reebok Showcase and tournaments with the Louisiana Future AAU team, based in Baton Rouge, also are part of his summer plans.

Thompson played for Capitol as a freshman, then transferred to PBS as a sophomore, averaging 14.8 points and 10 rebounds. As a junior, he averaged 21 points, 14 rebounds and 7.1 blocked shots for a team that lost 58-56 to Farmerville in the Class 3A semifinals.

Recruiting services rate Thompson as the No. 2 senior prospect in Louisiana — behind his good friend Craig Victor of St. Augustine. He is rated 114th nationally by Rivals.com. But there is more to Thompson than talent and potential. There’s a deep baritone voice, a teen who can be both shy and a self-deprecating comedian for teammates.

And there’s his time in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina reshaped his future.

The family way

He is James Thompson IV, and he was born in New Orleans. Although he loved football as a youngster and still plays pickup games, Thompson figured at some point he’d be drawn to basketball.

“My two uncles both won state championships at Cohen,” Thompson said. “Both my parents are about 5-8, but I had a great grandpa who was either 6-6 or 6-7, so I guess the chance for me to be tall was there.”

Thompson’s mother, Yosiata Steptore, knew it, too, based on early visits to the pediatrician.

“Every time I took James to the doctor when he was little, he was taller than the growth charts listed for children his age,” she said. “I don’t know that I ever thought he would be 6-9, but the doctor always said James would be 6-something.”

Thompson lived in uptown New Orleans and played sandlot football and other games with his group of friends. That all changed when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005.

Stormy times

Green said he believes the contrasts in James Thompson came about at least in part because of Katrina.

“Even though he’s a big guy, there are times you wouldn’t know James was breathing because he can be that quiet,” he said. “There are other times when he’s the team comedian. He’s not a guy who acts like he’s already arrived as a player. And he’s not afraid to make fun of himself, either. I think Katrina is part of the reason he stays in a shell at times. I’m not sure you can really understand something like that unless you’ve gone through it yourself.”

Thompson remembers leaving his family’s home to stay with his grandmother in a high-rise apartment. The family left New Orleans three days after the storm — in the height of the post-Katrina chaos.

“I remember seeing bodies floating around,” he said. “There were people getting shot. I saw people jump off the (Mississippi River) bridge because it was so hot. Everybody was living off the MREs. It was bad.

“It still makes me feel like I lost everything … my home, my friends and some of my family that I don’t get to see as much anymore. My dad lives there, and I go see him often. I still have friends there, but it’s not the same.”

When the family left New Orleans, they went to Beaumont, Texas. Next there were months in Crockett and Lufkin before they settled in Houston, where Thompson attended the fifth grade. The family moved to Baton Rouge, where his grandmother had settled, before his sixth-grade year.

Finding a niche

Through middle school, Thompson played football and basketball. But by that life-changing summer before his ninth-grade year, he was between 6-4 and 6-5. That’s when Thompson first started playing for Louisiana Future.

“That first year, James didn’t play much,” Future coach Shon Robinson said. “He could rebound and dunk a little, so his game has grown quite a bit since then. The key is not to be a one-dimensional player. His game has to continue to grow. That’s why we’re working on his mid-range shooting, ball-handling and defense, so he can step out and play on the perimeter.”

Added Louisiana Future Director Titus Randall: “We’ve been able to get James some exposure in addition to what he’s received in high school, but the important thing is for him to focus on getting better.”

Steptore said she had something other than basketball in mind when the family moved to south Baton Rouge before Thompson’s sophomore year.

“The thing I want for James is a quality education,” Steptore said. “I didn’t like the crowd he was around at that time. I knew he needed to get serious about academics to be ready for college.

“Basketball is fun. The whole family loves going to the games. Playing in the NBA is a goal. But what I want for James is an education that will give him the means to support his own family someday without having to struggle so hard.”

Courting offers

While Thompson and his coaches consider his game a work in progress, more than a few high-profile colleges have offered scholarships. LSU is on that list, along with four other SEC schools — Mississippi State, Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida. Other notables include Memphis, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas and UCLA.

Thompson said his talks with LSU indicate coach Johnny Jones and his staff would like to see him put on about 50 pounds and become more of an inside presence. He said he will monitor LSU closely since the Tigers have added two other BR players, Madison Prep’s Jarell Martin and Scotlandville’s Brian Bridgewater.

Thompson said he has no plans to sign in November, but he hopes to develop a list of five finalists during the fall. Work in the classroom also will be crucial for Thompson, who said his grade-point average hovers around the 2.7 to 2.8 range. He also plans to take the ACT this summer as he prepares for a college major in business.

Hoop goals

Thompson said his high school coach stresses the importance of improving academically and athletically, along with becoming a better person.

“(Green) stays on me about all those things,” he said. “I want to be a better player who can shoot and defend better than I did last year when the summer is over. The goal is to help my team win a state title. It’s going to be a big year for me with my classes, too. I can’t let up in any area.”

He’s receiving support from two of last year’s top players, Martin and Bridgewater, via texts and notes that Baton Rouge is also home.

“They tell me to stay strong and do whatever I have to do to lead my team,” Thompson said. “That’s what I want to do.”