'Roland Rocket' Gary Thompson donates $80,000 to park project in town that still adores him

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
Gary Thompson shows his shooting form from the 3-point line of the renovated basketball court in Roland.

There is no lack of love and admiration between the community of Roland and its native son Gary Thompson: a sign welcoming motorists into town recounts the achievements of “The Roland Rocket,” a giant replica of his signature is emblazoned on the middle school gym floor, a film about him was shown at the community’s 150th anniversary celebration in July, and Thompson and his wife Jan were honored as marshals during the sesquicentennial parade.

In the latest instance, the Thompsons were recently invited to cut the ribbon on the renovated basketball and tennis courts in Roland’s park, a project that received an $80,000 donation from them. 

“We thank you so much for helping make this wonderful project happen. This is icing on the cake for all the people of Roland,” Mayor Andy Webb said to the Thompsons.

Gary and Jan Thompson pose on the renovated basketball court with the improved tennis courts in the background. The couple donated $80,000 to the project and helped celebrate a ribbon cutting ceremony on Aug. 27.

The project was built by Sport Court, which uses a grid of shock-absorbing tiles on the courts. The patented surfaces reduce the risk of short- and long-term injuries, according to the company’s website.

“My hope is that some girl or boy in Roland will end up playing on this court and will become a starter for the Roland-Story Norsemen,” Gary Thompson said. “I got the opportunity to play on the tennis court when I was growing up, and we wore it out whether it was winter or summer.”

Thompson was referring to a combination tennis court and basketball court, which was located behind the school. Those early practices helped mold him into one of the greatest basketball players ever at Iowa State.

He was the first Cyclone with more than 1,000 career points and the first to score 40 in a single game. He was an AAU all-American in 1958, 1959 and 1962; the Big Seven Player of the Year in 1957 and also named an all-American by the Associated Press that year; and was first-team All-Big Seven in 1956 and 1957. His No. 20 jersey was retired by Iowa State.

In 1957, Thompson was chosen in the fifth round of the NBA Draft by the Minneapolis Lakers, the 35th pick overall. After his playing career, he was a nationally known commentator on TV coverage of college basketball for more than 30 years.

A sign about Gary Thompson, “The Roland Rocket,” is installed in Britson Park and greets motorists driving into the community from the west. A Roland Rocket sign has been in this location for many years and was updated for the town’s sesquicentennial in 2020, which was celebrated this summer.

Gary Thompson says community is 'Roland Nice'

Thompson said Roland is a great example of Iowa Nice. He told the story of his trip to town with Jan after the new sign was installed at Britson Park.

“We were struggling with trying to take some photos and we were trying to get some selfies,” he said. “Jerry Balmer lives across the street, and all the sudden here he comes walking across.”

Balmer offered his assistance with the photos.

“It was the first time I’d met him. So I sent him a note and I told him, ‘This is what Roland Nice is all about,’” Thompson said. “People make the town of Roland what it is. They did back when I was a kid and they still do today. We’re dandy.”

Roland has renovated its tennis courts and basketball court in the city park. Roland native Gary Thompson donated $80,000 to the project, and a ribbon cutting ceremony was held Aug. 27.

Thompson talked about the gym floor he played on when he was in school. The gym was a WPA project during the Great Depression, and it was renovated five years ago to its former glory, along with Thompson’s signature along the boundary.

“It was the best floor, probably in all of Iowa,” he said. “It was all maple. It was better than Iowa State’s by far at that time.”

Thompson was the first player at Iowa State to play dual sports — basketball and baseball.

“When I was a kid, every town in Story County had a baseball team,” he said. “Everyone played on Sunday afternoon. My mother would say that if you went to church Sunday morning, you could play baseball in the afternoon.”

His father played baseball until he was 40 years old and managed the Roland team for several years.

“We had in our garage all the baseball bats and catcher’s equipment,” Thompson said. “My dad would tack up those bats when they got cracked and tape them up. And balls, we would tape up and reuse. It was a different era.”

In the old days, Thompson said, kids would get a nickel if they brought a foul ball back.

“I’d go chasing them into a cornfield, sliding in there after them,” he said. “And then I’d go home and tell my mom that I’d earned 10 cents, and she’d say, ‘Yes, but you ruined a $2 pair of jeans!’”

At the end of the Aug. 27 event, Planning and Zoning board member Denny Posegate told Thompson, “Thank you for everything you do for us.”

“I’m grateful for what Roland’s done for me,” Thompson responded. “You’ve invited me back for a lot of things. It’s a special place.”