Greensburg Salem grad Julian Thompson hopes to hit Vegas jackpot
For years, Julian Thompson has bounced around basketball courts hoping for an assist. He was a good player at Greensburg Salem but not spectacular, though he had some high-profile moments, most notably his selection to the Roundball Classic in 2012.
He was a 6-foot-4 leaper who had the attention of college scouts after averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds as a high school senior but wound up at Westmoreland County Community College, where he played only a handful of games.
“My grades didn’t allow me to go on to another school,” he said with a hint of regret.
But in 2015, after a stint working at UPS, Thompson, who grew to 6-8 and insists he “can play the block but is more of a wing,” got what he considers a break of a lifetime when presented with a chance to play professionally in the American Basketball Association.
A member of the Tribune-Review’s Terrific 10 high school boys basketball all-star team in 2012, Thompson first played in the ABA for the West Virginia Wildcatz (now Warlocks) of Morgantown before signing with his current team, the South Bend-based Northern Indiana Monarchs, with whom he also spent a brief time playing in the Midwest Basketball League.
“My whole life changed when I went pro,” said Thompson, who lives in Greensburg in the offseason with his girlfriend, Mona-Lisa Rowe, and his two young sons. Rowe is a daughter of former West Virginia star Lester Rowe.
On Friday, Thompson, 24, is scheduled to be in Las Vegas for a unique basketball tournament beginning Saturday, designed to give players a chance to display their skills in a sport that continues to evolve.
Known as ABA Gold, the event will feature 64 players chosen in a special draft involving ABA teams. Games involving eight teams will be played each Saturday through a Sept. 29 championship at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion.
Thompson was drafted by DFW Power.
While the NBA no longer plays a traditional game -- an emphasis on size and speed have been combined with a heavy European influence -- the ABA is no stranger to new trends.
The ABA Gold format will employ a set of quirky rules, most notably teams reaching 50 points or above first when leading by two are declared the winners. It is a concept introduced by the ABA in exhibition games in 2016 and designed to increase the pace of games while shortening their length.
“No matter what the format is, Julian can adapt,” said Northern Indiana owner Chris Coley, who said Thompson is “like a son to me.”
Coley is a former football player for Amsterdam of the defunct NFL Europe. He said his claim to fame is making an official college visit to Mississippi Valley State at the same time as arguably the school’s most prominent alum, NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
Coley decided to stay close to his home and enrolled at Indiana as a walk-on cornerback. He played in NFL Europe and for Schwabisch Hall Unicorns of the German Football League.
Coley then served as an assistant basketball coach for a U.S. Army team in Germany.
He has seen varying levels of professional athletes in two sports and believes Thompson is a fledgling basketball player who could open some eyes at the ABA Gold event.
“I’m not just blowing smoke,” Coley said. “Julian can do everything. He can handle the ball. He can shoot. He can rebound. He’s a beast on the boards.
“In my estimation, Julian has the skills to play in the league.”
Asked to clarify, Coley replied, “the National Basketball Association.”
Without any hesitation, Coley added, “Playing in Europe would not be a problem at all for him.”
When he’s not playing competitively or spending time with his family, Thompson said he can’t sit idle, and he never could.
“Basketball always was my outlet for pain relief,” he said. “It was my go-to thing. If I was by myself, I always was trying to play basketball and work on my form.”
And now, he’s trying to take it to another level.
“This is the biggest milestone and achievement, so far as coming in contact with people who can put you on a stage,” Thompson said. “After all, I didn’t play college ball.”