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Jumping Through Hoops

by Erica Bauwens
Mount Laurel’s Jason Thompson is using his status as an up-and-coming NBA star to give back to the community he calls home.

Sometime back in October, when he should have been in California shooting jump shots in a Sacramento Kings uniform, Jason Thompson was thousands of miles away, hanging with family and friends in Mount Laurel, enduring the NBA lockout.

The interruption would ultimately last 149 days, giving the 25-year-old South Jersey native an abundance of unexpected free time. And while other players in the league were contemplating traveling overseas in search of work, Thompson instead decided to create the “L.I.V.E. Like JT” campaign—a charitable arm of his newly formed Jason Thompson Foundation, focusing on empowering today’s underprivileged youth.

The acronym L.I.V.E. stands for “learn, imagine, voice and educate,” and Thompson sought out to do just that. Over the summer, he spoke with children from The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, organized fundraisers locally and in Sacramento, and sponsored an event with the Camden Riversharks. Inspired by his new philanthropic efforts, Thompson also unveiled the Heart to Heart Foundation this past November, which serves as a memorial for his late cousin, Tiffany Carroll, who passed away unexpectedly at age 25 from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

HCM is one of the leading causes of death among active young athletes, and so Thompson has been working alongside the American Heart Association to provide schools with proper medical screenings and defibrillators, with the goal of adding heart screenings to the required athletic curriculum of all school sports.

“I always want to see kids get the right treatment,” Thompson says during a break from practice just days after the NBA lockout was lifted. “Tiffany was a great female athlete that I always stood by, and I wanted to give back [in her memory].”

Crystal Carroll, Tiffany’s twin sister and the vice president of the foundation, says Thompson is fully committed to making a difference. “We are dedicated to helping change lives. Jason really is a hometown hero. Even when he is in Sacramento, he is trying to think up ways to help his [hometown] and grow the organization.”

Of course, home is where Thompson came into his own. Born in Willingboro and raised in Mount Laurel, he grew up playing basketball alongside a tight knit group of friends. Years later, as a standout player at Lenape High School, he would cap off his senior year with those very same friends by going undefeated and capturing the 2004 New Jersey Group IV Championship.

Coach Chuck Guittar, then the JV coach, recalls that magical season, now commemorated with a tribute wall at the school, with great fondness. “To have a group with that talent, it can be hard to get the kids to gel, but for them it was easy. Jason was very vocal, and he was like a sponge. Everything you told him, he would absorb and give it a go.”

“We all were really close, and we knew each other so well,” says Thompson. “We didn’t know how big we really were, and suddenly we were these rock stars.”

Upon graduating, Thompson accepted a scholarship from Rider University, a school that lays pretty low on the radar as far as NBA prospective talent. He started as a center for the university’s team, helping lead them to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament finale as a senior. It was around that time that life started changing very quickly.

“I started going to NBA camps where all of the top guys from the top colleges go, and I was holding my own,” he says. His performance impressed scouts, and he was drafted 12th overall in the 2008 NBA draft to the Kings. “I was projected from anywhere to 12th to 30th,” Thompson says, recalling the anxiety he felt sitting in his Mount Laurel home on draft day. “I had limited people and a small camera crew, because I knew that it could either go good or bad. When the 12th pick came, I was there. After that, I went outside and all my neighbors were out there cheering for me. I could have been anywhere in the world for that day, but I picked South Jersey.”

By choosing to remain in this area despite his recent success, it is evident South Jersey remains close to Thompson’s heart. When he’s back in Mount Laurel, it’s not uncommon to see him strolling through the halls of Lenape, his 6’11”, 250-pound frame drawing stares with every step. “He hasn’t changed much, he’s just gotten bigger,” jokes Guittar. “In high school, he was this tall, skinny little kid, and now he’s huge. Besides that, he’s still the same. He still has the same smile and laugh; it’s just much bigger now.”

Whenever the schedule brings him back east, as will be the case on Jan. 10 when the Kings face the Sixers in Philadelphia, Thompson’s family and friends fill the stands to show their support, which he credits with helping to ease the hometown jitters.

And while his path to the NBA may have made him a local celebrity, his play on the court and new charitable endeavors are helping to firmly establish his presence across the country, as well. But rather than get caught up in his new lifestyle and the thrill of being a professional athlete, Thompson hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“California is nice and there are great people out here, but South Jersey is where the heart is,” he says. “All of my family and friends still live there, and that tells you something about the area.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (January, 2012).
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