Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
ASTON — When watching Kyle Thompson run through the layup line and sink a corner three during warmups, there’s a great sense of calm with where his basketball career has taken him. He smiles from ear to ear while joking with teammates and the game that turned him into a star during a stellar high school career is simply that; it’s a game once again for the first time in a long time.
Thompson isn’t posting eye-popping stat lines like he did inside Kelly Fieldhouse on the campus of St. Joe’s Prep, but he makes his presence felt in a variety of ways. He’s still practicing with the sheer intensity that made him an invaluable part of former head coach Ashley Howard’s program at La Salle University, but the current athletic facility doesn’t possess the historical intrigue of Tom Gola Arena. He is now a graduate transfer warming up for a game as a member of Neumann University under head man Jim Rullo inside the Mirenda Center for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development.
The joy of basketball has been revitalized and after several seasons where playing time was sparse and the game felt more like a profession than a privilege, this is exactly where Thompson wants to be.
“I felt like at the age I’m at I deserve to have a prominent role with any team,” Thompson said. “I felt like I put in the work and the time over the years to be able to play more, even if it wasn’t for Coash Ash but somewhere. I was at a point in my life where I just wanted to play basketball, have fun and win.”
Neumann is almost an hour from La Salle, located in Aston, in Delaware County, with an enrollment of approximately 2,100 students. The 6-foot graduate transfer is the sixth man on a Knights team hoping to win a second consecutive Atlantic East Conference Championship and make another trip to the Division III NCAA Tournament. The Mullica Hill (N.J.) native, who was born in West Philadelphia, is averaging 8.7 points through 15 games, and has made 16 three-pointers so far this season for the Knights. who are 14-4 this season. He has scored in double figures in eight games, including a career-high 21 points against Marywood.
Neumann's Kyle Thompson goes up for a shot in a game earlier this season. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
For Thompson, the transition into the Neumann University program has been about so much more than basketball and that speaks to his personal maturation as both a player and person.
“Coming in here, the one thing I wanted to do was prove myself as a basketball player. That was to prove my presence by scoring the basketball or certain things that were tracked statistically,” Thompson said. “After getting here and playing a few games, that mindset completely shifted to let’s win a championship. It means a lot because I haven’t won anything in college yet and didn’t actually win anything in high school that was substantial.”
Thompson’s journey to Neumann may be curious to some but playing for Rullo, who won a pair of Inter-Ac League titles at Malvern Prep before taking over the Knights program and winning more than 150 games and three conference championships in the process, is not as far-fetched as one might think when looking at the connection between two men whose friendship began at Drexel University.
Rullo and Michael Thompson, Kyle’s father, played together at Drexel from 1991-92. Michael led the Dragons in scoring in each of the two years they played together and finished his career with 1,505 points, 12th most in program history. Rullo has not only been a successful coach, but he was a starter alongside Malik Rose on the Drexel Dragons team that lost to John Chaney’s Temple Owls led by Aaron McKie, Rick Brunson, and Eddie Jones in the opening round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament.
When Thompson was considering a move from La Salle, Rullo ran into Michael Thompson during the Run 4 the Roses, an AAU event that their daughters were playing at in Louisville last summer and coincidentally they happened to be staying in the same hotel. The two longtime friends got to talking about Kyle’s future and the plan was set in motion.
“Based on our friendship, my whole approach was presenting what we could offer and making it make sense for Michael, Kyle and the family,” Rullo said. “They digested it and fortunately he decided to come and he’s definitely a big piece. I’m looking forward to more production from him, and I think he’s got it. He’s excited that he’s playing on a winning program and he’s a significant piece to why we’re winning.”
Rullo notes that Thompson “brings a scoring mentality and a level of talent based upon being at La Salle and coached by William “Speedy” Morris in high school.”
It was at St. Joe’s Prep where Thompson rose into a legitimate college prospect alongside Ed Croswell (Providence) and Darius Kinnel, who is playing at Jefferson University. He was a three-time All-Catholic selection, including First Team as a junior on a list that included league MVP Collin Gillespie, Quade Green, Izaiah Brockington, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree.
Kyle Thompson attempts a shot at the Palestra during the PCL semifinals in 2017-18. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
As a senior, he led the Hawks to an upset victory over Neumann-Goretti in the Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinals as he scored 10 of his 16 points in the final quarter then nearly took down eventual champion Roman Catholic in the semifinals at the Palestra with Thompson leading the way with 25 points. St. Joe’s Prep advanced to the PIAA Class 6A Tournament, where the Hawkins won a first-round game before falling to Eric Dixon (Villanova) and Abington.
Kinnel knew Thompson would be successful at the next level and one specific memory still stirs when thinking about the player his former teammate could be.
“I remember our game against Neumann-Goretti that season where his arm popped out of its socket and he popped it back in then went on to finish the game,” Kinnel said, referring to a four-point loss to the Saints that saw Thompson score 10 points and exude a toughness that became synonymous with his playing style.
Thompson averaged.14.7 ppg that season and finished with 1,074 career points, just ahead of Kinnel who closed with 1,046. Thompson, Kinnel and Croswell have had similar experiences during their collegiate careers as both have started at one program and transferred to another. After playing at St. Joe’s Prep, Thompson earned a full scholarship to West Chester University while Kinnel went to play for John Gallagher at Hartford and Croswell began his career at La Salle with Howard.
After only appearing in 12 games as a freshman, Kinnel chose to transfer to Jefferson, where he has been a member of the rotation ever since under both Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Herb Magee and now Jimmy Reilly. Croswell played two years for Howard with the Explorers then made the jump to Providence, where he has turned into one of the best bigs in the Big East.
The three former teammates still text and talk on a regular basis, and Kinnel recalled how his dear friend came to him and Croswell when he needed advice on how to navigate the NCAA transfer portal should he make a move from La Salle.
“First and foremost, I told him to be open to anything,” Kinnel said. “Take every phone call and really listen to what each person has to say. Then, I told him to go wherever it feels right, and go with whoever was recruiting him the hardest and who really wants him to be there. Just go with whatever feels right.”
When West Chester didn’t pan out, Thompson spoke with Howard, who had known him for a young age as the former standout at both St. Joe’s Prep and Bonner-Prendergast also played at Drexel and had a relationship with his father, Michael. After only appearing in seven games due to injury, Thompson put his name into the portal and had conversations with Howard, who had just completed his first season as the Explorers' head coach.
“At the time, I was looking to bring in some guys who could help me just have some stability and have a really good guy who came from a good culture and helped in the locker room,” Howard said. “The one thing is he could really score the ball. At practice as you’re preparing for your opponent, Kyle always gave us a realistic look of a guy who could make shots.”
Thompson sat out his first year on W. Olney Avenue then saw action in six total games over the course of the ensuing two seasons as the Explorers went 20-35. As a preferred walk-on, Thompson’s job was to push the roster led by players like Clifton Moore, Jhamir Brickus, Jack Clark, Josh Nickelberry, and David Beatty to their limit so that on game day they were ready for whatever the opposition presented to them. He relished that responsibility, and it changed his perspective and trajectory as a player.
“My role at La Salle at times was to get other guys better and that was something I had to accept because I came from a program where I was playing a whole lot,” Thompson said. “Going to La Salle and having to earn my keep by doing certain things I’m not used to doing made me learn a lot about myself and helped me grow and mature as a basketball player. One of the most important things I learned from that situation was how to put others before myself and do things for the team, not for my own advancement.”
Prior to Howard’s firing in March 2021, the two had several conversations about where Thompson – who had earned a scholarship as a junior - wanted to go next as he was in-line to complete his bachelor's degree and could get an opportunity to play as a grad transfer. Howard had always been impressed with Thompson and didn’t attempt to change his mind.
“We saw over time a significant growth in him as he was competing against our guys so when it came time for him to make a move, it made sense for him to go somewhere where he could play because I knew he could be impactful,” said Howard, now working as a consultant with Villanova along with former Wildcats standout Randy Foye on maximizing its Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) initiative, Friends of Nova.
Upon putting his name in the portal, Longwood University showed interest along with Gwynedd Mercy, Cabrini, University of Bridgeport, and Stonehill College. Even in conversations with Kinnel, Thompson never felt angst through the process, as Kinnel notes, because “I knew he wasn’t going to have any trouble wherever he went.” That’s when Rullo stepped in and made his pitch following that conversation with Michael.
“With the transfer portal, additional year due to COVID-19, his lack of playing time at La Salle and the coaching change, it was an opportunity to kick the tires and go to grad school here at Neumann while also trying to come into a successful program and be a contributor,” Rullo said. “It wasn’t a hard sell, but we brought him in and showed him the campus while delving into our program and what we’ve been able to accomplish to see if it was a fit.”
Seeing the jovial nature Thompson was known for at his stops along the way come back to full display is what the road to Neumann University has been all about. The erupting laughter, the choreographed handshakes with teammates, and the expression of solace are why those closest to Thompson “know it means a lot to him to be out there. For him to do what he loves, it feels good,” as Kinnel stressed.
Playing alongside N.J. native Ryan Starr (Northern Highlands Regional), TJ Lewis (Friends’ Central), Tony James (Harrisburg) and big man Jalen Vaughns, who is currently tied for fourth nationally in D-III scoring (24.1 ppg), the Knights have the opportunity to not only repeat as conference champions but also make some serious noise in March.
Thompson will be an integral part of that success and, after everything he has been through in these last few years, all he wants to do is be able to play the game he has renewed love for.
“This is all I’ve been asking for in my college career to be part of a team that loves and cares about each other, works hard and gets after it,” Thompson said. “We have tons of talent and being surrounded by talent, especially with guys who are learning about me and I’m learning about them, is seamless because we’re gelling. It’s a good situation and I’m very happy here.”