Klay Thompson is back where his improbable rise began. Santa Margarita Catholic High School has changed a lot in the nine years since he graduated, but every trip back here for him is like going back in time.
For Thompson, this place feels both the same and totally different.
Walking into the locker room, he casually says with his trademark deadpan delivery, “This is where I used to stuff kids in lockers.” He’s joking...I think.
The offseason is almost over—the 27-year-old will head back to the Bay Area in two days—and he has the Drake “I’m On One” look: skin tan and hair long. He has eschewed his signature goatee and crisp fade in favor of a little ’fro and beard. He’s rocking a sleeveless black hoodie, grey Warriors sweatpants, and, of course, gold-and-black Anta KT2s—his go-to kicks until the KT3s drop.
Lights, sound, camera, and crew file into the SMCHS locker room. Thompson is here for a promo shoot with the bracelet brand Rastaclat, his newest sponsor. This morning, he is exactly as you would expect: laid back. He’s renowned for his chill. As Warriors coach Steve Kerr put it, “if I could do it all again, I would be Klay...the most low-maintenance guy on Earth.”
Cameras start flashing, but first the 6’7” guard wants to set the mood right. “Can we get some music?” he asks.
He pulls out his iPhone and hands it to his agent, who plugs it into a speaker. For the next four hours, Klay will serve as de facto DJ, spinning hip-hop and reggae. With music bumping, Thompson is ready. He dances and vibes to Travis Scott’s “Sweet Sweet.”
All eyes and iPhones are on Klay, but he seems comfortable as the center of attention.
Once a slept-on high school prospect, Klay has had some impressive moments in the NBA—exploding for 37 in a single quarter, hanging 60 in 29 minutes (the NBA’s 2017 Performance of the Year), saving Golden State’s historic season in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals—but his evolution off the court may be just as impressive.
“There were not too many words you were going to get out of Klay Thompson,” says Craig DeBusk, an assistant coach on Thompson’s high school team. “Very shy, reserved, introverted by nature.”
“I was never a Draymond Green type,” says Thompson.
During down time on this shoot, the stoic swingman retreats into his phone. He’ll never be an extrovert like his gregarious teammate. But as he has blossomed into one of the best two guards in the NBA, a three-time All-Star, and an international celebrity thanks to the Warriors’ success, he’s become more sociable, more charismatic, and more self-aware.
Thompson’s growth was on display this offseason. After signing an extension reportedly worth $80 million with the Chinese shoemaker Anta, he went on a five-day, five-city tour of China, mesmerizing and thrilling crowds as large as 6,000. Some of the tour’s most entertaining moments ended up on social media, inspiring a hashtag.
#ChinaKlay danced to EDM in the club, smoked cigars on rooftops, lost an arm wrestling match to a fan who tickled him, choked on food that was too hot, attempted an ill-fated 360 dunk (blame the international flight), and jumped up and down while spraying people with champagne.
"Sometimes people get more intrigued by free agency than they do by the actual season. That takes away from the actual game of basketball, which can be kind of annoying at times."
“I didn’t even know I was showing a side of myself,” Thompson says. “I was just having so much fun in China. I had no idea it would make it all the way back to the States.”
Well, it did. Thompson—once known as the league’s silent assassin—was unleashed, and fans couldn't get enough of it. #ChinaKlay won the summer.
Back at Santa Margarita, the gym features a large blue banner honoring Thompson. It lists some of his accomplishments: California state champion, Olympic gold medalist, two-time NBA champion, two-time All-NBA Third Team.
“I never envisioned this as a kid, I really didn’t,” says Thompson, who made the All-Pac 10 First Team twice in his three years at Washington State. “That’s why you see me having so much fun in China, because I’m making people smile and happy just by being there and being gracious to them, shaking their hand, and they’ll forever remember that.”
As a freshman at SMCHS, Thompson was a 5’11” string bean who could barely touch the rim. Back then, his biggest dream was making the varsity team. He made it midway through his sophomore year. Now cameras follow his every move as he grabs a ball, dribbles, and shows off the picture-perfect jumper that teammate Andre Iguodala said he’d teach his son to mimic.
Thompson is back where it all started to model for Rastaclat, a bracelet company that’s already made waves in action sports and fashion and now is expanding into hoops. Thompson has his own signature bracelet dropping soon, and the brand has official bracelets for all 30 NBA teams.
Thompson liked the style and the people behind the company, including the 34-year-old founder Daniel Kasidi, a former sponsored skateboarder. The partnership feels organic: both the athlete and company have their roots in Southern California, and Rastaclat’s motto is “spreading positive vibrations one wrist at a time.”
“I’ve never seen him put down teammates or do anything that was self-serving,” Kasidi says.
Thompson’s humble, team-first spirit is a reflection of the Warriors’ culture, which has manifested in one of the most impressive three-year runs in sports history. But the NBA’s unpredictable nature has everyone wondering how long this run of dominance can last. Thompson is already being inundated with questions about his contract, which expires in 2019.
“Sometimes people get more intrigued by free agency than they do by the actual season,” he says. “That takes away from the actual game of basketball, which can be kind of annoying at times, but it is what it is.”
The talk is indeed everywhere, but the Warriors have shown a commitment to keeping the core together.
Kevin Durant’s willingness to accept a $25 million contract—way less than he could have gotten—allowed Golden State to bring back Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, and to add another lethal shooter in Nick Young.
“It means that our front office, they talk the talk—they talk about wanting to build a championship team and stay around for a long time—and they’re paying our guys and they’re about it,” says Thompson. “They want to see this thing last for a long time. It’s really cool that they believe in us like that and they paid our vets who deserve it, because they’re integral to our team.”
By paying to keep their core together, the Warriors may face major luxury-tax and repeater-tax implications down the road, but the team’s ownership has expressed a commitment to bearing the high cost of maintaining this group.
Thompson’s value would be sky high if he were to hit the open market, but he might be willing to give the Warriors a discount. His offensive game is explosive yet efficient—he’s easily the most effective catch-and-shoot guy in the league—and he is simultaneously a top-tier wing defender. Analytics nerds love him. So do old-school, intangibles guys. As one NBA scout tells Complex, Thompson is “like a three-and-D guy on steroids.”
And when he gets hot...watch out.
“I try to get in that zone, but there’s a reason it only happens once in awhile,” Thompson says. “It’s hard...it just takes great focus. People don’t realize how much focus you need to be a great player in the NBA, or in any profession.”
Rewatch this year’s NBA Finals and you’ll see that focus on display. Thompson repeatedly stepped up in the biggest moments. Game 3 will be long remembered for Kevin Durant’s dagger 3-pointer, but people forget the game was far from over after that shot. With Golden State up 114-113, Cleveland came back down the court with a two-for-one opportunity. The Cavs called an iso for Kyrie Irving, who crossed over and changed pace and did Uncle Drew things with the basketball. What was going through your head, Thompson is asked.
“Don’t let Kyrie get to his right hand, and don’t let him get to the rim,” he answers. “I would have been very impressed if he hit that. Not two years in a row. He hit that same shot against Steph (in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals).”
That stop was signature Klay—stepping up in a huge moment to make the less-than-flashy winning play. He has learned how to live in the spotlight, but still seems to care little for personal acclaim.
Thompson still pops up at Santa Margarita during the summer to shoot around with his high school buddies. His favorite thing is spending time at the beach with his bulldog, Rocco. He makes frequent trips to the Bahamas, where his father’s family still lives. Mychal, the first overall pick in the 1978 draft and a two-time NBA champ, is a sports hero back home. When talk turns to the damage hurricane season has inflicted on the Caribbean, Thompson gets emotional.
“The Bahamas and the rest of the islands have been on my mind a lot,” he says. “It’s terrible, catastrophic ... there’s people suffering down there like we couldn’t imagine. Losing everything just like in Houston—lost their house, lost their car, life is just on hold.”
Thompson is putting the finishing touches on his new charity, The Thompson Foundation, which will primarily serve the Bahamas and the Bay Area. His charitable work is a big reason Rastaclat was drawn to him; Klay was a finalist for the 2014-15 NBA Cares Community Service Award.
He dreams of doing even more once his playing days are over.
“It’s my dream to one day be an athletic director of a high school slash high school coach,” Thompson says. “When I’m done playing, everything I’ve learned, I just want to give back to the kids who are coming up.”
As this hometown photoshoot winds down, Thompson’s battery is understandably drained. He’s been cycling through outfits and putting up jumpers and posing for photos and dancing all day, with the occasional break for chicken tacos or sips of a sugar-free Red Bull.
He signs a few jerseys, records a motivational video for the school’s team, and glances up at that big blue banner on the wall. On the left side is a photo of him in high school. The string bean. On the right is a photo of him hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Nine years, numerous endorsement deals, three All-Star appearances, two championships, and a gold medal separate the boy and the man. He is both the same and totally different.