Thompsons' family time comes on the court
CORVALLIS — The first family of Oregon State basketball?
Certainly, Gary Payton and Gary Payton II come to mind.
Then there are coach Wayne Tinkle and his all-Pac-12 son, Tres.
But the winning ticket may go to the Thompsons — Stevie Sr., Stevie Jr. and Ethan.
Stevie Thompson Sr. — a legendary college player at Syracuse who played 19 NBA games with Orlando and Sacramento — has been an assistant coach at Oregon State for five years.
His oldest son, Stevie Jr., is a 6-4 senior and a three-year starting guard for OSU. Younger son Ethan is a 6-5 sophomore in his second season as a starting guard for the Beavers.
They look so much alike they could be the Thompson Twins, but they're not.
They are the only children of Stevie Sr. and his wife, Amy.
"It's been such a pleasure coaching both of them," says Thompson Sr., 50. "They're great players and great kids, so they've made it easy."
The kids feel the same way about their pops.
"Playing for my dad has been great," says Stevie Jr., who ranks second on the Beavers in scoring this season (16.3 points per game) and assists (3.5) and third in rebounds (4.6). "He knows my strengths and weaknesses better than anybody. To have somebody like that watching you closely — it's been very positive for my growth as a player."
"It's really nothing new," says Ethan, who averages 13.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists. "He has been coaching me my whole life. It's just that, in this setting, it's official. He does a good job of balancing being a coach on the court with off the court, where he is helping me out from a dad's perspective."
Thompson Sr. had been a coach at Cal State-Los Angeles for 12 years — the last nine as head coach — before coming to Oregon State with Wayne Tinkle in 2014. He had worked with his sons on their games since they were knee-high to a grasshopper and helped coach their AAU teams before they became terrors on the court for Bishop Montgomery High in Los Angeles.
Stevie Jr. is two years older than Ethan. The two have always been close. They share an apartment a block or two from campus.
"We get along very well," Stevie Jr. says. "We've had our moments growing up — a lot more when we were younger. Sometimes now, I get after him in heated moments."
"When we were younger, we played a lot of one-on-one in the driveway," Ethan says. "It was always very physical. A lot of times, we'd have to stop the game. It got to a point where we'd be fouling each other. Now, those matches are pretty evened out."
Stevie Jr. was a key cog on Knights teams that won one state championship and another CIF Open title. An honor student — he carried a 4.3 GPA with advanced-placement courses — he was seriously considering Stanford and Southern Cal before Oregon State hired a guy who served as an inside recruiter.
"The coaching staff was the main reason," Stevie Jr. says. "I wanted to be a part of trying to turn a program around — that was a big influence, too. But I always dreamed about playing for my dad at the collegiate level. I couldn't pass that opportunity up."
Even so, his father took nothing for granted.
"As soon as I got out here, I had to go into recruiting mode," Stevie Sr. says. "Stevie was the top guard out of California in that class, and he's my son, so I had to go for it.
"But I wanted him to make his choice. i didn't want him to come because I was here. I was recruiting him as a coach, but as a dad, I said, 'You have to do what's best for you. I've been blessed to have a job in basketball. Don't make your decision based on me.'"
Stevie Jr. also had developed a friendship with Tres Tinkle, whom he had gotten to know on the AAU circuit while in high school. They became the foundation of Coach Tinkle's first complete recruiting class and were roommates their freshman year at Oregon State.
"Tres and I get along really well," Stevie Jr. says. "He's a great guy."
As a freshman, Stevie was sixth man on the team that became the first OSU contingent in 26 years to make the NCAA Tournament. His shooting and scoring abilities through his career probably have been underappreciated. He is the school's record-holder for 3-point shots made (219 going into Thursday's game at UCLA) and ranks sixth on the career scoring list with 1,659 points (going into Saturday), trailing only Payton, Steve Johnson, Mel Counts, Roberto Nelson and A.C. Green. Thompson Jr. should surpass the career totals of Nelson (1,746) and Green (1,694) before he is through.
"It feels good to be mentioned with the names on that list," Thompson Jr. says. "Those are all great players. It shows that I've been here for a while and played a big role for the team."
"Stevie has had a good career," Wayne Tinkle says. "He has done some incredible things for us. He has shown resiliency through some tough times. He has been given a lot of freedom, and that has helped his game develop."
Stevie believes his OSU career has been only "all right."
"Coming in, I had bigger aspirations," he says. "My first year was special — a highlight, something big that I wanted to do for this program and this community. We're trying to duplicate that this year and make it a really good career."
The Beavers suffered through a nightmarish 5-27 season when Thompson Jr. was a sophomore, with five of their top eight players injured. Thompson Jr. missed six early games with a stress fracture to his foot.
"After he came back, he never missed a practice or a game, but it bothered him the whole year," Thompson Sr. says. "There was big competition in the league that year at the guard position, but having to fight those guys, Stevie never backed down. I take my hat off to him."
Ethan came along in 2017-18 as an even more highly sought-after recruit than his brother. He was recruited by the likes of USC, UCLA, Arizona, Stanford and California and visited Syracuse, his father's alma mater.
"After Dad got the job at Oregon State, I always thought it would be an amazing opportunity that would be tough to pass up, but I was looking at other schools, too," Ethan says. "I wanted to keep it open for my best interest.
"When I came up for my official visit to Corvallis, I liked everything. It was a family atmosphere. I liked the coaching staff as a whole, the community, the fans and academic advisers as well. Why would I not go here?"
Especially with father and older brother on the scene.
"That was something Ethan and I always talked about growing up, being able to play together at the collegiate level, with how much fun and success we'd had at the high school level," Stevie Jr. says. "We complement each other's games well. Being able to play with him and for my dad for two years has been a blessing."
There was an added inducement to Ethan coming to Oregon State. No matter where he decided to play, his mother was moving to Corvallis to be with her husband. Amy had remained behind in Los Angeles to stay with Ethan during his last two years in high school.
"For Ethan, it was, 'My whole family's here,'" Stevie Sr. says. "That made even more sense. Plus, he and his brother have a special bond.
"Maybe the thing that gets lost in all of this is the boys' relationship with Coach Tinkle. If you don't have a relationship with the head coach, none of this makes sense. It was, 'Can you play for Coach Tinkle? Is this who you want to be playing for?' That checked all the boxes. They felt he was the right man."
The Thompsons both say they have enjoyed playing for Tinkle.
"It's been crazy good for me," Stevie Jr. says. "He's very passionate about his job. He gets into his players, which I like. I want somebody who is going to bring the best out of me. He's not afraid to challenge me. That's a positive thing."
"He's a great coach," Ethan says. "He's not going to sugarcoat anything. He's going to let us know when we're doing things wrong, but he does a good job of letting us know when we're doing good, too. He's actually a very funny guy. When he does critique us, it's not always him talking down to us. He does a good job of pumping us up."
Ethan has started every game he has played at Oregon State, this season swinging over to play more point guard than a year ago opposite his brother in the backcourt.
"He fit right in with group, and he has been a very important part of it," Coach Tinkle says. "Ethan has a high ceiling, too. He'll continue to improve as he works on his body and understands our offensive schemes and the dynamics of our defense."
Ethan says playing with his brother at OSU has been "amazing."
"It's great to have a family member here who has gone through the same things I'm going through," he says. "He is helping me grow as a player and as a person. He holds me to a high standard."
Tinkle says the Thompsons have "two totally distinct personalities," on and off the court.
"It's been fun watching those two," the OSU coach says. "Ethan wears his emotions on his sleeve. You can tell when he's upset, when he's fired up. He is willing to get after (teammates) when he feels like they need it. With Stephen, you can hardly ever tell whether he's excited or mad. They both have great sense of humors. They love to rib each other and their teammates.
"They're different players, too. Stevie is more of a shooter, but he is deceptively effective off the dribble. Ethan is more of a downhill play-making guy who is more physical and aggressive in attacking offensively."
Tinkle smiles when asked if Thompson Sr. treats his boys the same while coaching.
"Coach Thompson has a hard time getting after Stevie," Tinkle says. "We notice it. He doesn't have a hard time getting after Ethan."
"I want to say Dad is tougher on me, but (Stevie and Ethan) are two different people," Ethan says. "We handle critiques differently. Dad knows what each of us like to hear and how we like to hear it."
Stevie Sr. says he tries to treat both of his boys the same as their teammates.
"Once I get out on the court, I'm coaching this team," he says. "I don't even look at it like I'm coaching my sons. I'm competing and trying to win. If they need to be told something, if I need to get after them or to encourage them, I try to be the same with them as I am with the other guys."
Tinkle has been in much the same situation as Thompson Sr.
"There are times when we have the daddy goggles on more than the coaching goggles," he says. "We're coaches first when we're on the court. Off the court, we're fathers first."
Stevie Jr. graduated last spring with a 3.6 GPA in digital media communications. He is working on a two-year masters program in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on speech communication and sociology. He hopes to play in the NBA next season, but first would like a return trip to the NCAA Tournament to go out on.
"That would mean everything for me," he says. "That has always been the goal. Being able to finish off my last year with postseason play and success would be big for all of us seniors. We know the things we've been through and how hard we've been working."
Ethan would like to send his brother out the right way, but he is thankful for the time with his brother, regardless.
"We knew we'd only get two years max with each other in college," he says. "This is the last time I will be able to for-sure play with him. Once you get to the next level, it's not in our hands like that. We'll cherish these moments and try to make the most of them."