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Brett Thompson reflects on long journey that leads him to Youngstown State

The guard made three junior college stops before playing at Tennessee Tech last season

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Brett Thompson averaged 12.3 points per game last season with Tennessee Tech.
Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

California. Wyoming. Florida. Missouri. Tennessee. Now, Ohio. Three junior colleges. Seconds away from March Madness. Brett Thompson leads a devoted and persevering life that he hopes others can learn from. He continues to hold his head high when life feels unforgiving and daunting.

After three different high schools, three different junior colleges and a one-year stint at Tennessee Tech, Thompson’s next stop will be at Youngstown State, where he looks to lead the program to their first ever March Madness. The Penguins won the Horizon League regular season crown but fell to Northern Kentucky in the conference tournament semifinals.

Thompson’s journey began in Oakland, Calif. At a young age, he was surrounded by drugs and gang violence.

Fast forward a few years, and Thompson led James Logan High School in Union City, Calif. to both Mission Valley Athletic League and Northern California Division I Region titles. Thompson’s raw athleticism and ability were clearly demonstrated, but Thompson’s high school experience was marred by obstacles along the way.

He started at Mountain House High School near Tracy, Calif.

“I was on the verge of getting kicked out of Mountain House,” he said.

After a number of challenging situations, Thompson ended up leaving during his sophomore year. He attended Castro Valley High School for a few months, then began his junior year at James Logan.

“I changed my life around when I attended Logan,” Thompson said. “I realized what basketball could do for me and my family.”

Thompson wasn’t eligible to play basketball his junior year due to transferring, which he used as motivation to make the most of his senior year on the hardwood.

He knew could play at the highest level. Three high schools in four years, but Thompson’s journey was just underway.

Thompson graduated high school with a 1.9 GPA, so he wasn’t eligible to play at the Division-1 level. Thompson set his sights on a premier Junior College, City College of San Francisco, but Sheridan Junior College made a push to go all in on Thompson. Sheridan succeeded and Thompson headed to Wyoming in 2019.

“It was away from home, and I was really into it,” Thompson said. “I didn’t even think I’d end up in Wyoming. Everything is so surreal.”

Thompson was a force at Sheridan, where he averaged 18 points per game.

Alongside Thompson, was JoVon McClanahan, who is now Hawaii’s-5-foot-10-inch star point guard. Just as Thompson was finding his groove at the JuCo level, the season ended in the blink of an eye due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Sheridan shut down all athletics except for rodeo.

Thompson took it upon himself to find a new basketball home, so he posted his highlights on Twitter. He was his own agent.

“I got a lot of phone calls,” he said. “It was a lot different than my high school recruitment.”

Thompson made his decision: the state of Florida and Pensacola State Junior College was up next.

“I’d never been to Florida before, but it seemed cool, and I decided to commit to Pensacola,” Thompson said.

Although he averaged 11.1 points in 20 games, his experience at Pensacola State was difficult. Thompson ended up leaving Pensacola before the school year was complete because he wasn’t mentally where he needed to be. His vision and hope for Florida didn’t go as planned, so Thompson headed back to Oakland.

“I thought my DI dreams were over,” Thompson said. “I felt terrible.”

For a brief amount of time, Thompson’s thoughts became reality, as he committed to Colorado State Pueblo. But while he was home, he played with professionals in the Bay Area Pro-Am League. At the most basic level, Thompson was showing his potential.

“I was going crazy,” he said. “I still had it.”

He changed his mind and proceeded to let Colorado State Pueblo know he was decommitting because he felt he was selling himself short. His decision was gutsy, but he capitalized on his success at the Pro-Am.

Thompson’s resilience and unparalleled drive to keep pushing forward has gotten him to places he never imagined. This time, Thompson headed to his third Junior College: Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo.

Thompson continued to highlight his success at the JuCo level. In 31 games played, he averaged 13.2 points and nearly shot 40% from 3-point land, while averaging 4.4 assists. He averaged 22.3 points over the final six games, which helped sell his case that he was a DI-caliber player, but his recruitment was slow.

“I actually held no offers out of Mineral Area, but I was receiving interest from Tennessee Tech head coach John Pelphrey,” he said.

Thompson was eager to commit and find himself on a DI roster, but even while signing official papers, it was noted that he was missing a few classes, and this temporarily restricted him from committing. Thompson, nonetheless, did everything in his power to ensure he was going to end up at Tennessee Tech. He took online classes to make up the missing credits, which allowed him to commit.

Thompson was finally going to the DI level.

“I wasn’t satisfied yet, but I was so happy,” he said. “I was going DI.”

Instantly, Thompson made his presence known. Tennessee Tech’s first game was in Knoxville, Tenn., against No. 11 Tennessee. He didn’t back down on the big stage. In the blink of an eye, Thompson’s basketball platform had changed from an empty junior college to an arena filled with over 21,000 people.

Thompson longed for these moments to prove the skeptics wrong. He finished the game with 15 points against Tennessee.

“It was crazy,” he said. “For me, where I come from, it built me for moments like that.”

Tennessee Tech finished with an 11-7 record in the Ohio Valley Conference. Thompson ended the season with an average of 12.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and made over 40% from three. He was the program’s second leading scorer last season.

In the OVC title game against Southeast Missouri, he buried a 3-pointer to give the Golden Eagles a one-point lead with 10 seconds remaining in regulation.

At that moment, jubilation erupted from the bench, but SEMO ended up sending the game to overtime and ultimately won by seven. Thompson was the last Tech player to leave the court.

“I stood out there and watched the whole ceremony,” he said. “I took it all in.”

The offseason struck, and Thompson found his way to the transfer portal. He elected to transfer to Jerrod Calhoun’s Youngstown State Penguins, but not after a busy recruitment. Thompson received phone calls within an hour of being in the transfer portal.

He narrowed his list quickly to Washington State, Duquesne and Youngstown State. Once he visited Youngstown State, he wasted no time and committed.

“I want to be a part of the team that makes Youngstown State’s first ever March Madness,” he said. “I want to be a legend in that town.”

The 6-foot-1-inch guard is gearing up for quite the season at Youngstown State. Thompson never thought he’d end up in Ohio.

“Chin up. Chest out. Bet on yourself,” he said. “If you fail, get back up and do it again. Or do it a different way.”