Chris Mullin on Klay Thompson's 4th title: 'He's been through so much'

Chris Mullin on Klay Thompson's 4th title: 'He's been through so much'

Last night, the Golden State Warriors won their fourth NBA championship in eight years, defeating the Boston Celtics 103-90 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. 

Overwhelmed with emotions, Steph Curry couldn’t hold back the tears, Draymond Green couldn’t stop smiling and Klay Thompson didn’t want to leave the stage. This group has been through tremendous ups and downs over the last eight years. Just two years ago, the Warriors actually had the worst record in the league. To bounce back from that and win an NBA title when much of the world had counted them out is definitely a great feat in itself. 

"A lot of chatter. A lot of doubters," Klay Thompson said after the Game 6 win. "But you know what, you just put that in your fuel tank and you just keep going. And it does definitely hit different."

Klay Thompson has been through so much over the last three years – missing back-to-back seasons after suffering a torn ACL followed by a torn Achilles – which sheds light on why this championship win was much more emotional than the previous ones. Just about every player grew visibly emotional when a reporter asked about Thompson’s incredible road back to once again become an NBA champion. Some got misty eyed, some had to take deep breaths to collect themselves, some gave a few hard blinks to keep the tears from flowing; others were so happy for Klay, they just let their emotions flow. 

"The anguish that Klay has felt over the last three years – people can guess as to what it is like, but we saw it up close," head coach Steve Kerr said on Thursday after the win. "Between a second year-long injury and losing what he loves to do most in life, playing the game, it's been a rough go for him. So his return was special for us on and off the floor because of what he's meant to the organization, what he's done for this team, and then, of course, his play." caught up with Warriors legend and Hall-of-Famer Chris Mullin to discuss the Golden State's fourth championship and Klay Thompson in particular. 

Etan Thomas: I want to go back to when Klay got injured in back-to-back years. A lot of people doubted if he’d be able to return at all – if his career was over. But to see him now, winning another championship and how crucial he was to this team, how amazing of a story is that? 

Chris Mullin: “I was actually at Game 6 when he hurt his ACL. That was devastating itself at that time because they had a good chance to win that championship – even with KD being out. I can’t remember a Finals where two of the main players on a team both go out with big-time injuries like an Achilles and an ACL, so that was devastating from a team standpoint.

“But for Klay to work so hard to battle back from that injury, then almost a full year goes by and he was ready for training camp the following year, and that’s when he was playing pick up in LA. That’s when I was covering the NBA Draft for NBC – the local affiliate with the Warriors – when news came in that he tore his Achilles, and I was just devastated for him. The timing of it was crazy. The Warriors were making their draft pick, trying to figure out who fits best with the team, etc. and one of their star players has back-to-back catastrophic injuries.”

Etan Thomas: It didn’t seem like the organization ever gave up on him, although a lot of people in the sports world were beginning to have their doubts.

Chris Mullin: “You’re right. They didn’t give up on him at all, and you have to credit Bob Myers for that. He didn’t overreact and go pick someone in his position to replace him just in case he couldn’t come back, which a lot of teams would’ve done. 

"But what I was more impressed with was how Klay handled that second injury especially. When he came back this season around mid-season or whenever it was, I was at that game. We interviewed him on the floor pre-game, and the first thing I noticed was that he was in tremendous condition and shape. We all know when you come off an injury, you have your physical therapy and all the grueling work you have to do to get over your injury, but you are limited in what you can do to actually be in shape – especially NBA-game shape – so you have to be creative. It’s not like you can run sprints like [usual]. But he was lean and in great shape and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really a testament to his dedication and commitment and work ethic and perseverance.’”

Etan Thomas: That’s true. We’ve all seen guys come back from injury so out of shape that it takes them a while to get back in game form after they come back.

Chris Mullin: “Exactly, but he was ready to go. He may have even been in better shape than before he got injured. But another thing I saw: the mental and emotional effect of that level of catastrophic injury, especially [two injuries] back-to-back is huge, and I think that’s why you’re seeing such a… not that he hasn’t always been grateful, but he’s even more so now. He’s so thankful just to be healthy, just to be out there. He’s not the least bit worried about, like, an off night or a loss. Of course he wants to win and play well, but honestly, as you mentioned, a lot of people thought he was done, especially after the second injury. Most people would’ve been done. Klay’s about where he was prior to those injuries, which is absolutely amazing. He only played about 30 regular-season games this year and right through the playoffs and the Finals, he’s as good offensively as he’s ever been, and next year he will probably be even better. He’s been through so much and you can just see the joy he has to be out there, if that makes sense.” 

Etan Thomas: It definitely does. The first game of the Finals where they lost at home, it was definitely a big shocker for everyone. But if you remember toward the end of the game when it looked out of reach, Steve Kerr kept Klay in the game. He was having a really tough shooting night, but they kept going to him, almost in an attempt to help him find his rhythm. What did you think watching that? Because a lot of people, myself included, questioned if that was the best move to leave him in there at that time.

Chris Mullin: “I think most people like you – and understandably so – were all thinking the same thing: get him out of there because God forbid he gets injured again during ‘garbage time.’ But Steve Kerr, probably more than most coaches, is really in tune with the players. Klay is a very mental-rhythm, flow type of player. They both are; I mean, Steph was 0-for-9 from the three in Game 5, which was probably the worst thing in the world for the Celtics going into a closing game, as we saw he was back to cooking last night. But that’s the way they are, and they like reps. Going back to Klay, yeah it could’ve been a risky move; there have been a few nights where Steph was in late and I’m like, ‘Come on, Coach, he needs to get out of there.’ So I get it, but no one knows these guys better than Steve and he is one of those coaches who are in constant communication with his guys and listens to his players, and that’s one of the things that makes him such a good coach.”

Etan Thomas: When a shooter is off like Klay was in that first game, what advice would you give them? Would you tell him to get reps, like Klay did? Some coaches say if your shot is off, do something else like drive; others say you just keep shooting. What is Chris Mullin’s advice? 

Chris Mullin: “I am fortunate enough to be able to watch Klay all the time, and I see the work he puts in. Of course, the old fundamental thing to do if you’re not shooting the ball well is you get a layup or get a free throw to get yourself back in rhythm. And he plays on both sides of the floor and is a good defender and rebounder, so he’s definitely not one dimensional. Sometimes, guys’ offense will dictate their defense and you definitely don’t want to do that. But he puts the time in. His mindset is that the next shot is going in because of how much time he’s put in. I mean, if young players saw how many shots he shoots everyday regularly – and how many shots he shoots after an off game – they would understand. You can’t will yourself out of a shooting slump, you have to put the time in and Klay is the perfect example of that.”

Etan Thomas: My son, Malcolm, likes to play as the all-time Warriors on NBA 2K and he puts Steph at the 1, Klay at the 2, you at the 3, KD at the 4 and Wilt at the 5, then he comes in with Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway later. But you don’t miss on the game. He asked me, “Could he shoot this well in real life?” And I told him, “Probably even better!”

Chris Mullin: “(Laughing) You’re too kind. Those were the good ole days.”

Etan Thomas: No, it’s true! But we were talking about how good y’all were with Run TMC, and you know kids look up everything nowadays. He asked me how it was possible that you were all in the top-11 in the league in scoring in the same season when you were teammates, but you only played together for two years? So I gotta ask you that, from Malcolm.

Chris Mullin: “That’s a great question from Malcolm. It’s funny, when me, Mitch and Tim were at the Hall of Fame, someone asked me that and that was the first time someone had asked me that. And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not right. That’s actually terrible.’ But you can tell your son that the economics were different back then and when teams didn’t want to pay, they moved players. They would have a set dollar amount they wanted to keep to and… it was a terrible mistake, that’s what it was.”

"Ironically, Malcolm can see the way we were playing then is exactly the way the teams who are winning are playing now. We were just a little bit ahead of our time. We couldn’t get over the hump the two years we were there together, but that was our style. We didn’t light it up from three like Steph and Klay and these guys do, but yeah, we started this style. Those were great years, but yes, it’s a basketball tragedy that we only played two years together."

Etan Thomas: A lot of people don’t like that style that you all ushered in, the Warriors style. I wrote an article where I interviewed Nick Van Exel, Rod Strickland and Steve Francis about Steph Curry’s greatness and the article did really well and was very well received, but I did see quite a bit of comments saying they ruined basketball or knocking that style of play. I mean, that’s the reason Charles Barkley hates the Warriors so much because he is so against that style.

Chris Mullin: "Yeah, it’s the evolution of the game. You can’t look at Klay Thompson or Steph Curry and not be happy for them. Even if you are Charles Barkley. It’s funny, there will be people who genuinely hate the style, but they are such likable guys, it’s hard to hate them. Some players [are] easy to hate, let’s be honest. But Klay’s comeback story is so amazing and so inspirational, his story should be used for motivation and inspiration for basketball eternity."

Etan Thomas: I agree. In fact, he should write an inspirational book about battling back from injuries that could be a top-seller, like how Lance Armstrong did (before all the other stuff came out). The same way that book inspired so many people, Klay should definitely do that too.

Chris Mullin: "I agree. And the fact that they won [makes even better]. Not only did he defy all the odds personally because of how he battled back from two basketball cataclysmic injuries and become an NBA champion, but they also defeated the notion that a lot of people – including but not limited to Charles Barkley – had that a team who shot that many threes couldn’t win a championship. And for decades, that was true until Steph and Klay came along. So not only did they disprove that, but they have won multiple championships with this style. It’s been so fun to watch, I couldn’t be happier for the guys."

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