Husky History No. 14: Cornelius “Corny” Thompson 

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Hello all, and welcome back to Husky History, a column focusing on one accomplished UConn athlete per week. Each article should detail the athlete’s accolades at Connecticut, as well as their ability to take their games to the professional level. 

This week’s Husky History focuses on men’s basketball legend Cornelius “Corny” Thompson. The forward saw numerous successes in Storrs, all while paving the way for the proud basketball program in place today. 

Thompson grew up in nearby Middletown, Connecticut. Reaching a height of 6-foot-5-inch before he hit high school, kids and adults alike used to encourage him to pick up basketball. He started taking it seriously in middle school, and with the help of his coach at the time, Thompson began earning scholarships to go to local basketball camps and develop his skill.  

By the time Thompson hit high school, it was clear that the talent was within him. After a quick stint with the freshman team, “Corny” was called up to the varsity squad. It wasn’t until his sophomore year that Middletown High really picked up steam as a program. The team won 76 games in a row, picking up three state championships along the way. At one point, Middletown was ranked among the top 25 high school teams in the country.  

Thompson was one of the tallest players on the team, but head coach Tom Labella allowed his star to play many positions, playing inside and outside of the paint. As a result, his all-round skills improved, catching the eye of legendary head coaches like Dee Rowe of UConn and Dean Smith of North Carolina. In the late ’70s, Middletown residents were able to watch Thompson lead the Tigers to victory, and also catch a glimpse of college basketball legends in the process. Despite the attention Thompson garnered, Labella kept the top recruit grounded. 

“Coach Labella showed no favoritism,” explained Thompson. “I had to work as hard as anybody else. We were all a part of the team… He was probably the biggest impact on my career.” 

When deciding on a college, Thompson had plenty of choices. His top schools were UNC, UConn, Virginia and Princeton, with the latter being his premier option. A lack of scholarships at Princeton combined with a desire of staying close to home led the hometown kid to Storrs in 1978. Despite the basketball program there being years away from the national spotlight, “Corny” brought his skills in the hopes it would soon. The partnership worked out very well for both sides. 

“I think today, I’ve proven that you don’t have to go to a top school to be chosen or seen to be a good player and I think it was a good move for me and for UConn, from that point on, it really helped them because other players came…” Thompson remarked. 

In Connecticut, Thompson made an early impact, placing first or second among the team’s point leaders in each of his four seasons. In Thompson’s freshman year, the Huskies made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1975-1976. His 18.6 points per game were enough to earn him ECAC and New England Player and Freshman of the Year honors. Sophomore year was significant as well, as UConn played their first season as members of the Big East Conference. The team placed fourth overall, going 3-3 in conference.  

While they didn’t win any team titles during his run, “Corny” walked away with two All-Big East First Team and four All-New England nominations. He still leads the Huskies in minutes played per game with 34.8, and is third all-time in made free throws with 496, behind legends Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker. Thompson would later be recognized in the Huskies of Honor in 2007. Over the years at UConn, Thompson helped further put the program on the map, leading them through their first years in the conference. Despite the personal accolades, he is most proud of his role bolstering Connecticut basketball. 

“People found out that the little UConn, the public school, could win basketball games and UConn has proved that over the years, it’s gotten better and better,” said Thompson. 

Years later, with the Huskies’ 1999 National Championship victory over Duke, Thompson couldn’t have been more excited for the program. 

“All athletes from the team share in the National Championship to know that their school has won it,” explained Thompson. 

After college, Thompson heard his name on draft day, selected No. 50 overall in the third round of the 1982 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. A quiet rookie season followed by a devastating knee injury before the beginning of his sophomore campaign saw his release from the team.  

From there, Thompson took his talents across the Atlantic to Europe, where he found success playing for Pallacanestro Varese in Italy and Club Joventut Badalona in Spain for 10 combined years. Thompson helped Joventut Badalona to the European Cup Final in 1992 and a European Cup Title in 1994, sinking the game-winning 3-point shot in the first such title for a Catalan team. For his historic shot and his historic European career, Thompson was named to Vladimir Stankovic’s list of 101 Greats of European Basketball in 2018. 

After retirement, the Middletown kid came back to the U.S., opening up his own restaurant in downtown Hartford. While that business venture didn’t work out, he tried his hand at coaching before settling into a management job with LAZ Parking as Director of Operations for the Connecticut region. Since 2005, he’s worked in North Texas overseeing LAZ’s expansion into the Dallas market. He has two sons, Joshua and Jeremey, and continues to cheer on the Huskies from the Lone Star State. 

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