By T. Anthony BellDecember 20, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Dec. 20, 2012) -- First Lt. Cleveland Richard and 1st Lt. Tyrell Thompson hailed from different parts of the country and didn't know each other, but their compatibility was such a foregone conclusion that Jim Platt, who knew both back in 2005 as prep stars, thought they should get acquainted.
"I thought that both of those guys came from great homes, great value systems," he said, "and I think one of the things that make people compatible is that their value systems are aligned with each other."
Platt is a former assistant basketball coach at the U.S. Military Academy who recruited Richard and Thompson to play for the Black Knights. He knew their personalities and was intimately familiar with how they played.
"They both loved to play, and I think they were both good teammates," said the current assistant coach at Saint Louis University. "They were guys who could relate to each other on the court and relate to each other off the court."
At Platt's behest, the two began talking over the telephone while still in high school. The Houston-bred Richard, however, was a bit leery at the start of forming a relationship with someone from a cultural hotbed such as the Empire State.
"Everything was cool," said Richard of their phone conversations. "I didn't think I could become friends with somebody from New York. I'm from Texas, and the first things you think about people from New York are that they are loud and obnoxious."
Richard paused, gently laughed and responded to his stereotypical thinking -- "He called me 'country.'"
He and Thompson became "good friends," said Richard, and wound up following Platt in 2006 to West Point where they roomed and played together for four years. Their time at the nation's oldest military academy coupled with all its challenges further exposed how much alike they really were.
"Neither one of us got too upset," said Richard of their temperament. "We were both hard workers; we were both freshmen; and at West Point you get assigned to companies and, somehow, our companies were always right next to each other. That was just the luck of the draw, I guess. We even chose lockers that were right next to each other. I never thought about it much, but it turned into a great friendship."
Upon graduation in 2010, they, along with friend and four-year West Point teammate 1st Lt. Marcus Nelson, were assigned to attend the Army Logistics University. Richard and Thompson continued to room together after both received permanent party orders to remain at Fort Lee -- Richard with Charlie Company, 16th Ordnance Battalion and Thompson with the 54th Quartermaster Co. (and later the 108th QM Co.), 530th Combat Sustainment Support Bn.
The two continued to play basketball as well. Both suited up for the Fort Lee Travellers, the post team that played many of its games around the nation's capital. Richard fondly and comically remembered Thompson's hoops game.
"First, he was left-handed so it was hard to guard him," he said, "and he could always score -- he may not have played any defense -- but he could always score."
Anthony Nelson, a recreation specialist at the installation Sports Office, had seen Richard, Thompson and Nelson all take the floor at once. He seemed to be impressed.
"They had a lot of chemistry," he said. "You could tell they played together. All three were beasts."
Though they gelled on the court, Richard and Thompson didn't have a competitive rivalry when they opposed each other. Richard reasoned their relationship was detached from the hardwood.
"Our friendship came before basketball -- like we really didn't play ball at all," he said. "We spent so much time in the gym that we knew how to play with each other or against each other. I knew when he was trying to do something to embarrass somebody, so I knew not to do certain things. And he knew what to do against me. It wasn't like I was really going at him or him really going at me. When we were on the same team, we felt like we were unstoppable."
In 2011, Richard was selected to attend the All Army Basketball Trial Camp, earned a place on the team and went on to gain a spot on the U.S. All Armed Forces Team. Thompson couldn't attend due to training obligations. Nelson joined Richard on the all services squad.
This year, perhaps wanting to make up for lost time, Thompson was brimming with energy and enthusiasm at the prospect of going to camp, said Richard.
"I saw him every day, working as hard as he could," he said. "He was doing crazy things his company had him doing or his battalion had him doing (for physical training) and then going to the gym to work out."
Thompson continued his workouts in addition to PT well into the summer and played pickup whenever he could, said Richard. In an Aug. 22 pick-up game at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Thompson was playing with some of his troops from the 108th QM Co. He fainted during the game and was later taken to a hospital, said his Commander Capt. Milena Williams.
Richard received word about Thompson's fate shortly after and set out to visit when he got the news that no friend wants to hear.
"I was on my way and somebody called me and said he 'unexpectedly ... '" He was not able to finish the thought. "I still didn't really believe it. I didn't believe it for awhile until I actually got to the funeral home."
That was three days later.
Thompson was 23 years old. He died of heart disease, said Williams. The Mohegan Lake, N.Y., native is survived by a wife, his parents and three younger brothers.
Needless to say, Richard was reeling -- but not to the extent that it kept him away from playing the game that he and 'Ty" loved. In fact, Richard (and Nelson) set out to honor Thompson when the 2012 trial camp began Nov. 5 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Both he and Nelson again made the team and, in turn, earned spots on the all services roster. Richard himself logged 16.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest. Few would argue that his play was inspired.
"The tournament meant a little bit more because my best friend was supposed to come, and he was looking forward to it, and he ended up passing away," said Richard during the tournament. "Every day, I just made sure I was giving my all for him."
Both Richard and Nelson represented the Army in the SHAPE International Basketball Tournament held Nov. 26 - Dec. 1 in Mons, Belgium. The U.S. armed forces team finished second to Lithuania.
With the hoops season behind him and Thompson's death still a disturbing memory, Richard said he realized Thompson -- the guy who called him 'country' and with whom he seemingly shared no compatibilites -- meant more to him than even he thought.
"He was my best friend," he said, "because he knew everything about me."
Richard said he also found a new perspective about life as a result's of his best friend's death.
"What I've gained from it is that you have to cherish every moment," he said. "I was happy that I was able to do that with him."
Thompson is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.