IU’s Thompson ‘grateful’ to be back on floor ahead of homecoming at Minnesota

When Race Thompson crumpled to the floor with a knee injury during his Indiana University basketball game at Iowa on Jan. 5, his mind raced to the gloomiest of places.

In his sixth season with the Hoosiers, the finish line in sight with the best team he has been part of in Bloomington, Thompson feared an abrupt conclusion to his college career.

“I thought it was pretty much over with,” the 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward said Tuesday. “I thought my career was a wrap.”

Season-ending, career-ending injuries are about as depressing for athletes as any situation they can face.

Thompson has been the Tonto partner to Trayce Jackson-Davis’ star-turn Lone Ranger, the comparatively unheralded buddy to the hero of the show. But he has been an essential component of what IU has accomplished, especially last year’s 21-14 NCAA qualifying team and the fast-starting 2022-23 team.

After point guard Xavier Johnson suffered a foot injury and was KO’d from the starting lineup, the loss of Thompson provided fodder to think this year’s Hoosiers might be over with, too.

They went on a three-game losing streak as Thompson’s ailment resisted healing before rebounding for a three-game winning streak that takes the 13-6 Hoosiers into tonight’s Big Ten game at Minnesota.

After emphatic wins over Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan State, league competition is beginning to fear Indiana all over again. The return of Thompson, just in time for a game in the home neighborhood of the Plymouth, Minnesota, native, increases coach Mike Woodson’s bench flexibility.

This game is a big deal for Thompson. So many of his relatives are expected to attend at Williams Arena, ushers may be checking ancestry.com memberships before allowing them in. Some 50 to 60 personal supporters plan to turn out for the 9 p.m. game against the 7-11 Golden Gophers, Thompson said.

It would have been a shame to show up in street clothes, as was threatened until Thompson saw his first game action since the injury against Michigan State last Sunday. It was a brief showing, but the hinge held together.

“I have a ton of family coming,” Thompson said.

Displaying his No. 25 jersey instead of being cloaked in a warmup jacket for a grand finale where he grew up is uplifting Thompson.

“Definitely going home means a little bit more,” he said.

He also believes the fam — and all Hoosier fans — will be able to see a healthy, capable version of himself, not someone hobbling. That is a Thompson the Hoosiers need to keep winning, someone who may be in the frontcourt shadow of Jackson-Davis but whose experience and skills are critical.

Thompson is averaging 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, though those statistics are deflated because of his limited playing time against Iowa and Michigan State. He does what is necessary and is the killer secret weapon down low for feeds when other teams double-team Jackson-Davis.

Thompson is often the beneficiary of that circumstance when he has nothing but daylight between him and dunks.

While Thompson has become all too tight with trainers and doctors, ice packs, heating pads, ultrasound and whatever else sports athletic specialists apply to knees that are harmed but don’t need surgery, he said he is mostly back to being his old self.

“I can do everything I could do,” Thompson said.

Whatever limitations he has are mostly in his head, regaining confidence and of course how much Woodson utilizes him. Typically, players returning from injury after weeks sidelined are not run full blast for huge minutes.

In the team big picture, now that Indiana has weathered the double-whammy injury situation, the Hoosiers must pile up wins to remain a factor in the league regular-season title chase.

In the Thompson big picture, from the momentary horror of believing he was gone for the year, he has more than once renewed his faith in this opportunity to keep playing.

“Just grateful,” Thompson said of still being able to dress in those candy-striped pants. “Just extremely grateful.”

That is a mindset that leaves a player hungrier.

Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]