Although the high school basketball talent in Washington, D.C. ranks among the best in the country, the college game has never flourished there. The brightest prospects kept leaving town. Elgin Baylor went to Seattle University, Dave Bing to Syracuse and Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley to Notre Dame. Local teams, meanwhile, went on relief.
Now moon-faced, Washington Monument-sized John Thompson of Georgetown seems to have plugged the leak in the talent pool. Last week his homegrown Hoyas upset No. 12-ranked St. John's 74-73 in overtime and ran their record to 15-3. "Times are different," says the 6'10" black coach. "For many years local schools did not want black athletes. When they finally decided they did, it was too late. The tradition among the players was to get out. Fortunately we've been able to change that a little."
Thompson himself was one of those who left D.C. behind when he went to Providence College 16 years ago. He was a star there and then spent two seasons with the Boston Celtics, playing behind Bill Russell. After that came six years back in the capital, coaching at St. Anthony's High School. In 1972 he was elevated to the job at Georgetown and in four years there has done what his predecessors never could: corral enough local talent to build a topflight program. The Hoyas start four Washington players and have four more on the bench. Two of them, Center Merlin Wilson and Guard Jonathan Smith, Thompson actually recruited for St. Anthony's; they followed him to Georgetown. Wilson is the school's alltime leading rebounder and Smith should become its No. 1 scorer.
Thompson's prize catch is 6'7" freshman Al Dutch, the team's second leading scorer with a 14.6 average. "Everybody wanted him," says Thompson. "If we can continue to convince players of his caliber to stay home, we'll be one of the top teams every year."
February 16, 1976
Not all of Thompson's finds had Dutch's credentials. Sophomore Guard Mike Riley, who held St. John's Frank Alagia scoreless, was taken off a Navy-submarine service ship, the U.S.S. Holland. "I remembered him as a high school player and we tracked him down in Charleston, S.C.," says Thompson. "He was due to be discharged so it worked out. He had a hard time believing I was serious. But he was just what we wanted: a good playmaker, a good ball handler and very good on defense."
When Thompson took over, the Hoyas had just come off a 3-23 season. They finished 12-14 his first year and 13-13 the next. Last season they were 18-10, appeared in the NCAA playoffs and won their coach a five-year extension of his contract. The victory over St. John's was Georgetown's 21st straight at tiny McDonough Gym—its 26th in the last 31 overall—and raised hopes for the school's first appearance ever in the weekly Top 20 poll. "Rutgers is the only team I've seen in the East that is better," says Redmen Coach Lou Carnesecca. Against St. John's, Dutch and Guard Derrick Jackson did most of the scoring, with 21 and 23 points respectively.
Thompson's father-son relationship with his players becomes apparent at games. He chooses to sit in the middle of the bench instead of at one end with his assistants. "We can communicate better that way," he says. A taskmaster (he has held practice right after a game that displeased him), he is also deeply interested in the well-being of his players. Thompson demands that they attend all their classes and record their progress in a book he keeps in his office. "My father couldn't read or write," he says, "but he wanted me to take academics seriously. Too many kids think they can get rich playing ball. I tell them that even if they do make it to the pros, they could turn out to be another John Thompson sitting on the bench."
His message seems to be getting through. In a rare expression of respect the players call him "Mr." instead of "Coach." And Dutch says, "When people ask me what's at Georgetown, I tell them 'John Thompson.' He's a good coach and a good man."
Unlike many of the more flamboyant members of the coaching profession, Thompson does not smoke, drink, dress nattily or act jive. He's a family man, a philosopher, a teacher and, he claims, not much of a recruiter. "Athletics has a way of running away with itself," he says. "But I don't see myself as a crusader." And in an almost apologetic effort to desugar his good-guy image, he insists that he is, in fact, very emotional. "I scream. I holler. I'll curse," he says. "There are people who don't like me."
One of them hung a racist sign outside the gym last year during a six-game losing streak, caused in part by Thompson's decision to bench a key player who had cut some classes. Another unfriendly advised a white player Thompson was trying to recruit: "Don't go to Georgetown. Thompson only wants to play blacks." In fact, Thompson wants to play anybody who can help him win.
This year his players certainly have done plenty of that. "It was the same at St. Anthony's," says Wilson. "We were building from the bottom up—creating, not duplicating. If everything works out well here, more and more players will want to stay in Washington and go to school here, too. They can build up a program at home instead of giving some other school a big name."
Other coaches in the District would no doubt consider that a capital idea.