We before I: Josh Thompson’s road to the top is one less traveled
Editors note: An earlier version of this article stated that Tahjai Teague started against Defiance on Nov. 5. Teague did not start that game and has since been corrected.
The all-familiar voice of Ball State Men’s Basketball public address announcer Tom Simpson echoes inside Worthen Arena Nov. 5 before the Cardinals’ home opener against Defiance.
“Let’s meet the Papa John’s starting lineup for your Ball State Cardinals.”
Simpson rolls through the usual names of senior forward Kyle Mallers, redshirt junior forward Brachen Hazen, redshirt senior guard K.J. Walton and junior guard Ishmael El-Amin. The names, places, positions and even heights are routine to fans, including El-Amin, who had only one career start prior to the season.
The fifth man, however, has never stepped on to that starting floor. Four years ago, that fifth man never saw more than four minutes on the game floor. Five years ago, that fifth man didn’t even know if he had a chance to play with this team.
“Starting at guard,” booms Simpson’s voice over the 3,000 inside Worthen Arena, “A 6-foot senior from Indianapolis, Indiana, No. 2 Josh Thompson.”
Thompson’s role on the team as a freshman wasn’t one where he saw a lot of playing time. Redshirting his first year, Thompson spent two seasons as a member of the scout team during practices, getting a collective six minutes of playing time in his first season in a Cardinal uniform.
During his time on the scout team, Thompson said, he was doing the smaller things the team wasn’t working on during practice. If they we’re working on offensive skills, he was working on his defensive skills.
“Everybody else wasn’t focusing on defense, so I tried to be somebody that was focusing on defense and trying to talk,” Thompson said. “That’s what I try to tell the guys here: to try to do the little things that everyone else isn’t doing. When your time comes, you’ll be good.”
Among Thompson’s efforts in practice, he’s also had to deal with multiple injuries in high school and college that have left him benched. Ball State head coach James Whitford commends the redshirt’s fight and his desire to continue to play and get better.
“He's really fought hard to earn a roll,” Whitford said. “He's both a good player on the court, and he provides great intangibles of being an everyday guy. He’s someone we can count on to have a great practice and to give his best every night on game night. He’s a complete winner.”
Thompson’s work ethic has ceased to slow down since his freshman year. He comes in around 11 a.m. five times a week to work with assistant coach Matt Crenshaw before heading to team practice, dedicating 30 hours weekly to growing himself and his game.
That attitude of working hard day in and day out has proven Thompson as a leader among his team on and off the court. To Whitford, there is no question he has stepped up as a leader, leading by example and being vocal when needed.
That aspect of having a voice on and off the court is something new to Thompson. As someone who has been fairly quiet on the team, he continues to grow and inspire others through his own voice.
“I was probably one of the quietest guys because I didn't want to step on anybody's toes,” Thompson said. “I was the person who did all the little things and dirty work — guard the best player, set charges and do everything on defense. Now, I'm the older guy on the team. It’s all about being a leader and making sure the little guys are safe.”
In the early season, Thompson has based his leadership ethics on the idea that it’s OK to step on the other guys’ toes. Whether it’s a freshman or a senior, if you’re slipping up, you’re free range to get called out by anyone.
“ I feel like leadership was kind of lacking last year because we didn't want to step on each other's toes,” Thompson said. “This year, I tell everybody that if I messed up, you can get on me. If y’all messing up, I’m going to get on guys too. We all want to hold each other accountable.”
The mentality of “we before I” is something Thompson said sets this team apart. It has a collective mindset of working as a unit and doing what’s best for the team’s overall success. It traces back to the concept of doing the little things, which is what has gotten Thompson to where he is today.
“We never point fingers at each other. It’s all about staying together,” Thompson said. “We'd like start moping, and then coach would get on us because like the whole summer, it is all about staying together. That's one thing we've been trying to be big on this thing together. It's all about we and not just I.”
As Thompson continues the path into his final year with the Cardinals, his name continues to share the same breath as his father’s, Chandler Thompson, a former Cardinal. However, Josh isn’t concerned about the name he’s making for himself compared to his father’s. He’s doing what he can for his team and what can be done now.
“If I hear my name going good, I'll just stay with it,” Josh Thompson said. “Stay positive, stay humble and just keep trying to do everything I know I can do to get this team winning. I know I can make a name for myself if we win [the MAC Championship] this year.”