The game Georgetown and Princeton played on Friday night has been etched into the minds of nearly all who saw it, but it will linger forevermore with John Thompson III. His father coaches the Hoyas, the No. 1 seed in the East. Only a year ago John III played with coach Pete Carril's Tigers, the No. 16 seed in the East, Georgetown's first-round opponent and, in the eyes of at least one tout, a billion-to-one shot.
Odds like that are normally reserved for snowballs in hell or peace in our time. "But that's to win the whole tournament," said Carril. "I think we're 450-million-to-one to beat Georgetown."
If the results were so foregone, John III, sitting in section 109 of the Providence Civic Center, wouldn't have felt the way he did—more knotted up than before any game he had ever played. He knew better. "Some people think that Princeton players wear argyle sweaters and read physics on the bench," he said. "But they're serious about their athletics. Pops knows that. Anybody who really follows basketball knows that."
Soon after the tournament pairings had been announced, John III phoned Bob Scrabis, Princeton's senior captain and the Ivy League Player of the Year, and offered him encouragement: Nothing's impossible; don't get rattled; you'll do just fine. He should have called Georgetown's leader, Charles Smith, who was held to four points.
March 27, 1989
Within minutes of the opening tip, Kit Mueller, the Tigers' 6'7" center, threw in a baby hook over 6'10" Alonzo Mourning, who was then called for goal-tending on two layups by Scrabis. The Hoyas were so bamboozled by the Tigers' Clockwork Orange offense that John III's father called off his man-to-man defense and went into a zone. "If Pops had stayed in a straight man. Kit could have scored 40," said John III. "Even with a sagging, helping man, we—I mean Princeton—oh, I don't even know which pronoun to use...."
All around John III, as they realized what they were witnessing, fans rejoiced in praise of Old Nassau. Each time Princeton broke Georgetown's pressure, 12,000 people could be heard to sigh. Then they would join the Hoyas in wonder, beholding the Tigers' intricately choreographed offense: the pass to the wing, the dump into Mueller at the high post, the pass back out to the wing. Oh, how Georgetown wanted to step in, pick off a pass and gallop with it down to the far basket! And just when that urge took over—bang—a Tiger would go backdoor and take a pass for a layup.
Time and again this happened, more often than even Carril imagined possible. Fifteen of Princeton's 21 field goals came on layups. Five others were three-point shots, the result of shrewd ball reversal. If this game had been played a year ago, John III would have been zipping these very passes, cutting up his father's team. John III, who's No. 2 on Princeton's alltime assist list, ended up at Princeton because, as Carril says, "he can't run and he can't jump, but he's a splendid passer."
Forget that Princeton's team is largely white and slow, small and small-time; and that Georgetown's is black and quick, big and big-time. "The belief in the work ethic and dedication of both coaches is the same," says John III. "Pops's players learn and grow off the court. And coach Carril was the best teacher I had at Princeton."
Inevitably Carril will steer any conversation to basketball and life and how they interrelate. Last week someone made the mistake of asking him about Michigan coach Bill Frieder's accepting a job at Arizona State as his Wolverines were about to begin play in the tournament. "Oh, I don't have any thoughts on that," said Carril. "I can tell you this, though. Our trade deficit is down to $9.5 billion, but we're still buying more from the Japanese than they are from us."
He wasn't being flip. You learn how to compete by learning how to work, and no one teaches young people how to work anymore. Once out of the care of his father and his coach. John III joined the Ford Motor Company. "Trying to build a better car," says Carril. "Maybe he'll help us sell some more over there."
That matters, you see. Carril has had his opportunities to leave over the years—for Vanderbilt, for Boston College. "But every time I'd be tempted, I'd get some player I call a light bulb," says Carril. "Made you feel good. I'd see that light bulb every day, and I wouldn't be able to leave."
In a low-candlepower league like the Ivy, a 100-watt kid like Scrabis can make all the difference. "If Bobby had been at Georgetown for four years," says John III, "he'd be starting for Pops this season. And I'm not just saying that because Bobby's my friend."
Princeton led 29-21 at halftime, but in the second half the Hoyas began to get the ball inside to Mourning more regularly, and Princeton was helpless. Georgetown's freshmanchild towered above the smaller opposition. But even after the Hoyas pulled even, Princeton swapped hoops with them.
"We thought we'd feel a momentum switch," said Scrabis. "But then we'd get a three or a backdoor layup. We never felt. Oh, here they come." Added Mueller, "With all those TV timeouts, there wasn't any problem with us getting tired." The Ivy League has no TV timeouts because it has no TV.
After Mourning made a free throw to put Georgetown ahead 50-49 with 23 seconds to go, Princeton got Scrabis a shot with :08 left—a shot at victory. Mourning had to extend his formidable wing every last inch to block it.
And that's how the game might best have ended: with Princeton's best player getting a good shot and Georgetown's best player snuffing it out with a great defensive play. However, one tick remained on the clock once the ball, last touched by Georgetown, had gone out of bounds. Mueller took the inbounds pass with his back to Mourning. He wheeled and squeezed off one last try.
Certainly Mourning got a piece of the ball. If he got a little bit of Mueller, too, no official would attest. "We'll have to take that one up with God," said Carril, "when we get there."
To his players, he said, "As bad as you feel, feeling this bad is better than never getting a chance to feel this bad."
For John III it was perhaps the perfect ending, but an awfully agonizing way to get there. He had teethed on his ticket stub, disfiguring it beyond recognition. His two boxes of M & Ms had melted in his hand, not in his mouth. He had seen his father look on helplessly while Princeton came within a few free throws, a turnover, maybe a deflected shot, of the perfect game.
To say that Princeton deserved to win, John III's dad said, "is a giant understatement." Someone asked John III's former coach if he agreed. "I think I do," said Carril.