CHICAGO -- Wearing a black Northwestern jumpsuit with a gray hoodie underneath and purple low-top Nikes, Michael Thompson pulls open the front door and steps into Loyola Park on a recent evening.
He’s home again.
Park supervisor Mary Hopkins and other employees greet him as he walks in. His father, Joel Thompson, has stopped by to see his son, too. The Thompson family still lives only five blocks from Loyola Park in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, and Joel still coaches basketball at the park district.
Thompson makes his way through the main hallway and is met with two options for gymnasiums. The one on the left is where the older kids and adults usually hold court. The one on the right is where the youngsters are sent to work on their games.
Thompson turns left. He spent plenty of hours in the smaller gymnasium, but those days are long gone. He proved he belonged in the larger gym when he was 11 and hasn’t been questioned since.
Thompson takes a seat a couple rows up in the wooden bleachers and looks out onto the court. On this night, there are young kids, maybe 7-8 years old playing on one side of the court, divided by a Chicago Bulls’ logo at its midpoint, and slightly older kids playing a game at the other end.
Thompson smiles at the sight. He’s now 22, considered one of the Big Ten’s premier point guards and one of the best ever to play at Northwestern, but Loyola Park with its two gyms, its friendly baskets and its neighborhood kids will always hold a special place in his heart.
It’s where he first played basketball. It’s where his nickname of Juice was born. It’s where he spent nearly his entire childhood. It’s where he fell in love with the game.
“This is where it all started,” Thompson said.
Thompson was four years old when he was first introduced to Loyola Park. His older brother Navarro, who was four years older, played there, so Thompson wanted to as well.
Thompson played in leagues with kids his age, but he always sought to get in the pick-up games with his brother and his friends. They always rejected him, though, and cast him off to the other gym.
Until, finally one day when Thompson was 11 and they gave him his shot. To him, it might as well have been an NBA tryout.
“I remember that feeling like it was yesterday,” said Thompson, who is averaging career highs of 15 points, 4.4 assists and 1.6 steals for Northwestern this season. “Just being the smallest kid, you see the older guys playing, and you just want to be out there playing with them as much as possible. But because you’re so young and so short, they won’t let you play.
“I just remember the first day I was able to play with them, and I played really well. I made a couple shots. They didn’t want to guard me because I was so small and so young. Since they left me open, I just took some shots, and I happened to make them. From that day, they let me play all the time.”
It wouldn’t be long after that Thompson would go from being one of the last selected to play with the older kids to among the first. He was still young and short, but those around him learned not to measure his ability by his age or size. The Chicago Public League and the Big Ten would learn those same truths in the years to come.
“He got to the point where I didn’t have to worry about him,” Joel said of his youngest son. “He proved to me that the bigger they are, the more he wanted to beat them. The more he’d think he could beat them. I didn’t want to do anything to discourage that.”
Thompson could walk up and down the courts at Loyola Park’s gyms and have a story for each inch of the hardwood. He and his childhood friends, which included Chicago State guard Jon Montgomery and Cleveland State guard Jeremy Montgomery, made the short trek to Loyola Park almost seven days a week. Thompson would go home for a few hours after school to finish his homework, race out the door, jump on his bike and be at the park within five minutes.
One of Thompson’s greatest memories of Loyola Park is the day he became officially known as Juice.
Thompson was 12 and playing a game in the smaller gym. The opposing team was in a 2-3 zone, and Thompson’s team had figured out how to beat it. One of Thompson’s teammates would set himself up near the free-throw line, catch a pass and swung the ball to the right wing where Thompson was.
Thompson was feeling it that day. He sank 3-pointer after 3-pointer. With each make, Thompson began shouting, “Juice.”
“I was like 25 of 27 from 3,” Thompson said. “At that time, everybody was just saying something when they shot. I was just saying it just to goof around. They’re like, ‘Why you saying that?’ I said, ‘My jump shot is 100 percent pure.’ I didn’t expect it to stick at all, but I’m kind of glad it did.”
Thompson is referred to as Juice more than any other name now. Sitting in the bleachers at Loyola Park, it’s what the kids called him, too. Kids of all ages came up to Thompson while he sat in the stands, and he was more than willing to spend time talking and joking with them about school and basketball.
“He comes back here all the time,” Hopkins said. “He spends time with the kids. The kids love him. There’s kids that have Michael’s picture on like their book bags and stuff. He’s like their hero. One parent told me that her son, he’s just a little guy, that Michael is more important than Michael Jordan to him.
“It’s because you can touch him and stuff. It’s great Michael has all the time in the world for them. You couldn’t ask for more from someone who grew up here.”
Jemel Murphy, 13, received a special treat from Thompson on this day. While shooting alone on a side basket, Murphy was approached by Thompson and challenged to a one-on-one game.
Murphy was excited. He looked up to Thompson and had even been to one of his Northwestern games.
“He’s a role model because he can hoop,” Murphy said shyly. “He’s good.”
Thompson saw a lot of himself in Murphy. Like Thompson, Murphy was small for his age, standing a few inches above 5 feet. Murphy also constantly tried to play with Thompson and the older guys during the summer and often was shooed away to the other gym.
With a smile on his face the whole time, the 5-foot-10 Thompson backed down Murphy like Dwight Howard would Nate Robinson and scored a layup. Playing by make-it-take-it rules, Thompson hit a few outside shots and built his lead. But Thompson wasn’t out to strengthen his own confidence this day. He wanted to boost Murphy’s.
Beating Thompson off the dribble and scoring inside and then knocking down a couple jumpers, Murphy eventually came back and defeated Thompson. Thompson was a gracious loser, saying with a large smile, “It happens.”
“That would definitely be me, the shortest guy,” Thompson said of Murphy. “I was always the shortest one on the side wanting to play. He reminds me of me. I’ll sure he’ll get his chance on day. I hope he does well when he gets it.”
Standing not too far away from Thompson and Murphy’s game, Joel couldn’t have been prouder of his son. Loyola Park had given Thompson a lot growing up, and now he was giving something back.
“I’m not surprised he’s the type of person who hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from,” Joel said. “Talking to Jemel, he wants to go to Notre Dame and play. Seeing Mike and some others who have come out of this program keeps kids like that dreaming those types of dreams. If they didn’t see people like Mike coming out here, they would probably be sucked into the streets, other influences.
“I hope he realizes the importance of his presence among these type of children when he does come. I hope he continues as gets older to be that type of person.”