TO UNDERSTAND whyGeorgetown coach John Thompson III regards basketball the way he does—as anaccretion of details and small remediations—it's worth revisiting a Februarynight in Providence in 1988. Back then Thompson served as Princeton's seniorco-captain, and the Tigers led Brown by two points with seconds to play. As heprepared to inbound under his own basket, Thompson began to experience what hecalls "the loneliest feeling in basketball." ¬∂ The referee had begunhis five-second count. Teammates couldn't seem to shake themselves open. Notimeouts remained. Finally, Thompson threw a pass down the floor. ¬∂ "Icould see the ball slide like a curveball as it came out of John's hand,"remembers a teammate, Bob Scrabis, who watched helplessly from downcourt.(Scrabis says that Thompson had a bum hand with two taped fingers, but todaythe man who threw the pass won't even hint at an alibi.) A Brown player pickedoff the pass 50 feet away and heaved up a shot to beat the buzzer. From beneaththe basket Thompson watched as the ball traced a path through the net, almostprecisely to the spot where he stood.
This is an article from the March 24, 2008 issue
This is the actin his basketball life that Thompson most wishes he could have back, when oneof the best passing forwards in Princeton history failed at the skill he hadmade his own. It would be one of only 39 turnovers Thompson committed allseason, against 103 assists. But as a result the Tigers suffered their thirdconsecutive one-point loss in Ivy League play and second straight at thebuzzer, relegating them to a third-place finish in the conference. Thompson'sclass of 1988 became the first Princeton team since 1959 not to play in apostseason tournament.
"Who told youabout that?" Thompson says two decades later, sitting in the Georgetownbasketball office. "That's never been written before."
He rises from hischair and makes his way to a window, where he inspects the bracken behindMcDonough Arena. For a moment he's quiet, a captain again, feeling the weightof leadership. Then he turns. "I let the team down, the coach down, theprogram down," he says. "It still hurts. It's one of the things thatdrives me."
As he finisheshis fourth season at Georgetown, fire and fastidiousness in equal measure havehelped Thompson, 42, resurrect the program his father once built into anunlikely basketball power. Big John Thompson's eldest son guided the Hoyas tothe NCAA Final Four last spring and to a repeat first-place finish in the BigEast Conference this season (the latter a feat his father never accomplished).For next season John III has commitments from four of Rivals.com's top 100 highschool recruits, including No. 1 Greg Monroe, a 6'10" forward from Hayden,La., who chose Georgetown over Duke without even visiting Durham. And over thepast two seasons the Hoyas have proved to be masters of both the comeback andthe close game. A year ago they wiped out deficits in three straight NCAAtournament victories, including a defeat of Vanderbilt on forward Jeff Green'sbuzzer-beater, and an even more memorable 11-point recovery against NorthCarolina in regulation before winning in OT. This season the Hoyas made up sixpoints in the final 3 1/2 minutes to beat Connecticut when 7'2" center RoyHibbert sank only the second three-pointer of his career; and they made up fivepoints in the last 2 1/2 minutes to win at West Virginia. In all, they were6--0 in games decided by three points or fewer in the regular season. In atournament game that comes down to the short strokes, Georgetown might be thelast team any title aspirant wants to face.
Thompson'sattention to detail could be seen right from the season's first moments, whenthe freshman fans at Georgetown's Midnight Madness preseason practice made amess of the "We are ... Georgetown" chant that again resonates at homegames. Thompson shook his head. "Fix it, Jon," he said, handing awireless microphone to Jonathan Wallace, his senior point guard, so Wallacemight lead the benighted first years through Cheering 101. Signs reading FIXIT, JON have appeared at Hoyas games ever since. "He lets you know everyday that this is a game of inches, not feet," says guard Jessie Sapp."You have to take it an inch at a time."
This isn't merelyhow Thompson's players learn in practice. It's how they've come to think ingames. Consider that comeback win against West Virginia in late January. TheHoyas edged into the lead on Sapp's three-pointer in the final seconds, butduring Georgetown's last defensive stand, Patrick Ewing Jr. failed to warnteammate Jeremiah Rivers of a screen, which opened a path to the basket for theMountaineers ball handler. Fix it, Pat. Ewing desperately scampered over toblock what would have been a game-winning layup. Later he told the press thatall he could think of was atoning for his mistake.
"We don't getrattled," says Thompson, who attributes much of his endgame serenity to theteachings of his old coach at Princeton, Pete Carril. "I've been taughtthat that's what the game is, the situation before you. Our job is to teach.Their job is to figure it out, together. If we're going through that process,there's no time to get worried.
"That's how Ioperate. Good, bad, I don't know. But we must slowly, methodically prepare forthe next opponent, the next possession. You understand what your goal is—to wina national championship. Then you forget about it. Let's get better today. Youcan get lost if you wander."
IT'S A WASTE oftime to ask Thompson why he's so dialed into the moment. "You are who youare," he says. "There's too much work to be done to go throughself-analysis. You guys [in the press] can figure me out. I don't need tofigure myself out."
But he'll talkexpansively of his influences. "Pops, Coach, my mom, Marv," he says."I hope you see a little of all of them when you see me."
A brief cast ofcharacters: Pops is Georgetown's Hall of Fame patriarch, who was as devoted tothe grand gesture as his son is to the tiny increment. Coach is Carril, anotherHall of Famer and the fussbudget for whom John III played and later apprenticedat Princeton and of whom he says, "There aren't too many days I don't hearhis voice in my head." Mom is Gwen Thompson, whom friends and family agreeyoung John most takes after. (Gwen and John Jr. were divorced in 1999.) AndMarv is Marvin Bressler, a world-weary sociology professor, now retired, andlongtime faculty adviser to the Princeton basketball team. Which is to say,John III is two parts Thompson and two parts Tiger.
That probablyaccounts for why he's so different from his famous father. Pops never wouldhave asked an end-of-the-bencher as they walked off at halftime what he thinksthe team might do differently, or let a reportorial nostril anywhere near thescented candle that today burns in the office of the Georgetown coach."John weighs things," says his father. "When he says, 'Uh-huh,' itmeans he's heard you, not that he agrees with you. When I say, 'Uh-huh,' I gotmy mind made up."
"He got alongwith everybody," remembers Carril, which couldn't have been said of him orPops. "He gets along with officials too." (Some people think that thishelps account for his teams' success in close games.)
As a hoopspedagogue, John III is most like Carril. The father's teams were primarilyabout defense played offensively; the son's are—and Carril's were—more aboutoffense played defensively. When he arrived at Georgetown, John III knockeddown a couple of walls in the basketball office to create a common space wherecoaches could swap ideas, as the staff did at Princeton.
Consider too oneof the favorite maxims of the old Princeton coach, a riposte Carril deliveredwhenever someone suggested that students working toward an Ivy League degreecouldn't also play basketball at an elite level: "Nothing is more importantthan what you're doing when you're doing it." It gets John III's approachprecisely.
It would be amistake to regard his twin influences as somehow debilitating. "Everysecond-level Freudian is trying to stick him with a double Oedipus for beingthe son of one Hall of Fame coach and playing for another," says Bressler."I don't think that's troubled him for more than 30 seconds. He looked atboth of them as resources. He accepted what he wanted and discarded therest.
"John wantsto win basketball games but not to 'vanquish the foe.' He wants to confirm thathis analytical observations are correct. His intelligence is not a strategicintelligence. He believes in tactics, both within a game and over the course ofa season. You win Friday. You win Saturday. If there are enough Fridays andSaturdays, lo and behold, you win the championship."
If thishabitation of each moment leads to an obliviousness of the big picture, JohnIII pleads guilty. He even says as much, remarking in early February,"We'll pick our heads up at the end of the Big East season and see where weare." Keep your head down, and any difficulty can be managed, even thediagnosis of breast cancer that John III's wife, Monica, then 38, received inNovember 2005, convulsing their lives for a year.
JOHN THOMPSON JR.was off on a road trip as a reserve center with the Boston Celtics on the dayin 1966 that his first child was born. It was his wife's birthday, March 11,and Gwen drove herself to the hospital.
The Thompsonsraised their children the same way the first John Robert Thompson raised JohnJr. "I was trained what to want," Big John says of his own upbringing."My father couldn't spell John Thompson, and we lived in public housing inalmost every part of the District [of Columbia], yet I considered myselfprivileged—safe and fed and taught."
John III wasintroduced to the discipline of parochial school and eventually Gonzaga CollegeHigh, a Jesuit school in the heart of the District. Gonzaga made enough of animpression that returning there to recruit a player a few years ago, John IIIcould recite the Lord's Prayer in Latin when he ran into an old classicsteacher. Teammate Byron (Snoop) Harper remembers his friend as athleticallylimited and smart enough to compensate: "John was a landlubber but veryefficient below the rim."
With Thompsoncalling defensive signals in a morphing zone and directing the offense as a 6'31/2" forward, the Eagles went 24--6 his junior season, beating DeMathaCatholic and its star Danny Ferry one night as Pops' friend Dean Smith lookedon. "That game epitomized why John is such a good coach," remembersDick Myers, who was then Gonzaga's coach. "We were up six to eight pointsin the fourth with no shot clock and thought we'd work some clock in a spreadoffense. But during a timeout John said, 'We're doing so well, let's stay withwhat we're doing.' And we did. I got a very nice letter from Dean Smithafterward, and he said he was especially impressed that we kept running ourstuff with the lead and didn't change tactics."
The one timeCarril scouted him, Thompson regularly broke the press with a single pass."He saw the floor," Carril recalls. Just the same, during Thompson'scampus visit Carril spent most of an hour's conversation laying out hisshortcomings. "He says if I don't do this and this and this, I'd playjayvee," John III recalls. "Part of me was wondering if he reallywanted me to come. He reminded me a lot of my dad. One's a little white guy andone's a big black guy, but the pride, the caring, the commitment to theirinstitutions—they're very similar."
Was it really hischoice to go to Princeton?
"That's agood question," John III says. "I think so. I know my mom wanted me togo, but my dad, he's more, 'We'll let you make your own decisions till you makea wrong one.'"
"He talks asif he made the decision," says his father. "But I can tell you this: IfI didn't want him to go, he wouldn't have gone."
For his first twoseasons John III underwent Carril's hazing in practice. "If you were anygood, your father would have taken you" was among the milder gibes."Shut up," Pops told his son when he complained to him. "I'mdealing with other people's kids."
"I hatedCoach Carril, and I love him to death right now," John III says."Everyone who's played for him goes through the same thing. You make thosecalls home. And then you grow up."
UPON GRADUATIONThompson entered a dealer-training program with Ford. No one in the family evenpretended it was his decision. "He needed to go into the world of work andsee what it's about," Big John says. A few years later he edged his wayback toward basketball, joining a sports-marketing firm near Philadelphia. Butthe high fives around a boardroom table after closing a deal rang hollow nextto the real thing, and he jumped when Carril called in 1995 to say he had anopening for a volunteer assistant.
Seven years outof school, John III no longer had to fend off his father, beyond a barb that aPolitics degree from Princeton seemed like an awfully pricey thing to be wastedon a profession like coaching. For that first season he kept his day job,driving from his office in Cherry Hill, N.J., to practices during a seasoncapped by the Tigers' upset of UCLA in Carril's final NCAA tournament. Twoyears later, with Thompson a full assistant under Carril's successor, BillCarmody, the Tigers went 27--2, finishing the regular season ranked No. 8.
But in 2000things came a cropper. In short order Chris Young, the team's 6'10" All-Ivycenter but also a dominating righthanded pitcher, signed a $1.5 millioncontract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which in the Ivies made him ineligible toplay any sport. A few weeks before fall practice, Carmody lit out to become thecoach at Northwestern. Spooked, Spencer Gloger, who had been recruited by UCLAbefore signing with the Tigers, suddenly decided to transfer and play for theBruins. Princeton athletic director Gary Walters named Thompson to replaceCarmody—but three more would-be regulars wound up unavailable, one because ofinjury, another for academic reasons and a third after he quit the team.
Thompson gatheredthe survivors in a conference room and insisted that all the pieces to win anIvy title sat around the table. "He never let on for a minute that playingfor anything less was acceptable," remembers Nate Walton, the 6'7"senior who would be pressed into playing center. In their opener at Duke theTigers suffered a 37-point, nationally televised humiliation, the school'sworst loss in more than 90 years. In practice the team ran numbing hours ofdrills on offense, and another player ended up quitting. "Success has aprice, and that year we all paid it," recalls Ed Persia, a freshman on thatteam.
Yet along the wayPrinceton stole a December tournament at Ball State, beat Xavier and its starforward David West, and won six of its first seven league games. Later in theseason, on the bus home after back-to-back 17-point losses at Columbia andCornell, Thompson let a silent hour pass, then got up in the aisle to addresshis men. Recalls Walton, "Instead of beating us into the ground, it was,'O.K., how do we get better?' And, 'We're still in first place in theleague.'"
The Tigers stayedthere, thanks to an alchemy of freshman energy and senior urgency. Of their 16wins, seven came by single-digit margins. "A lot of it was just getting usto believe that we had a chance," says Kyle Wente, whose off-balance25-footer won a game at Harvard. "When you went over to the bench, whetheryou were up a point or down a point, he was such a calming presence. Just,'Guys, we've been here before. This is what we do.' You see that throughout hiscareer, and it goes back to his demeanor and how it instillsconfidence."
After beatingPenn to clinch the Ivy title, Thompson met the press alongside Walton, who hadjust put into the books a stat line that is emblematic of the Thompsonapproach—a quadruple single of nine points, eight rebounds, seven assists andsix steals. "Guess the cupboard wasn't as bare as people thought," saidthe coach.
His first teamhad won a berth in the NCAAs by launching more three-pointers than twos, byattempting the fewest free throws of any Division I team and by failing tothrow down a single dunk—offense played defensively, indeed. "He's the bestgame coach I've ever seen," says Walters, a former coach himself and pastchair of the NCAA basketball committee. "He's passionate about his playersbut completely objective in how he manages the game. He's a great example ofemotional intelligence."
By the end of hisfour-season run at Princeton, Thompson's teams would win with betterrebounding, quicker shots and more isolation plays than the program's hidebounddevotees were used to. Some fans weren't quite sure what to make of thesestylistic apostasies, grumbling that Princeton no longer delivered as many ofthe signature backdoor baskets that they could frame and hang in the greatrooms of their orange-and-black minds. But John III had begun to recruitathletes he believed would flourish with more autonomy and at a stepped-uppace, foreshadowing what he would create at Georgetown. A mind is a fine thingto deploy, but athletic ability is a terrible thing to waste.
Meanwhile,Thompson had his eye on something loftier. "One day I said to him, 'You'retoo competitive to want to stay at this level, aren't you?'" recalls SonnyVaccaro, the shoe-company impresario and longtime Thompson family friend."He said, 'Yes, Mr. Vaccaro. I want to go for the brass ring.' Obviously hecouldn't do it at an Ivy League school. Once he got into coaching, thecompetitive Thompson blood took over."
In 2004 anopportunity arose at Georgetown, from which his father had abruptly retired inmidseason five years earlier. The Hoyas had just lost their final nine games tofinish 13--15, their worst record in more than three decades, and Pops'successor, Craig Esherick, was on his way out.
There would bethe small matter of being a Thompson at Georgetown. But he has proved to be anadept curator of tradition. "I want those two trees there to shade me,"John III told an interviewer in New Jersey earlier this season, referring toCoach and Pops. "I'll hide in the shadows."
Thompson's oldboss at Princeton, Walters, likes to share with his coaches a copy of WaltWhitman's Song of Myself. When he does, he highlights this stanza:
I am the teacherof athletes, He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the widthof my own, He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy theteacher.
"People whoare mentors understand those lines," Walters says. "You don't wantreplicates. You want originals. We're the sum total of the major influences inour life, but John is also his own man.
"By the way,one of the next lines is, 'My words itch at your ears till you understandthem.'"
PRINCETON ANDGeorgetown are braided through Thompson's life, and it was at the expense ofone and for the other that he had already scored his greatest recruiting coup.When John III was a Princeton freshman, his resident adviser asked him to hosta high school senior from New Jersey—a young woman who was leaning towardGeorgetown, believing Princeton to be too close to home. He showed her aroundcampus, and she enrolled. "There wasn't even much of a conversation,"Monica Moore Thompson recalls of the first time they met. "It boiled downto, 'Go to Princeton.'" By his senior year they were an item.
In May 1997 theywere married in the chapel on campus. During her husband's days as a coach atPrinceton, Monica worked in the university's development office, but with theirmove to D.C. she stopped working briefly while he guided the Hoyas to the NIThis first season.
Monica'sdiagnosis with breast cancer came during a routine physical on the eve of the2005--06 season. The next few weeks were a blur of emotions, obligations anduncertainty for the whole family. But she was there for the season opener atNavy on Nov. 18, having driven to Annapolis with the three Thompson children:daughter Morgan, now 10, and sons, John Wallace, 6, and Matthew, 4. Thefollowing week she prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the team—just as she'd doneevery year since John had become a head coach—even though she was booked forsurgery the next day. (The players didn't learn of her diagnosis until severaldays later.) "John and I had talked about him taking a leave," Monicasays. "His dad mentioned it too. In the end we decided against it."
Her chemotherapyran concurrently with the basketball season, from December to March. The nightbefore a home loss to Vanderbilt, John III slept at the hospital in a reclinerat her bedside. Says Monica, "Looking back, he says that was the leastprepared he'd ever been for any game as a player or coach."
Her husband nevermissed a session of chemo all season, even as the Hoyas knocked off No. 1 Dukein January and reached the Sweet 16. "He would go to the doctor's office,to practice, back to the doctor's," says Ronny, John III's younger brother."But John has an incredible ability to handle a lot of things and keep itall together. He's like our mom. He's very gathered."
Monica, whosemother died of lung cancer, says she's now "cancer-free." She consultsfor her alma mater and is the executive director of the John Thompson IIIFoundation, whose beneficiaries include the Capital Breast Care Center."Looking back, I don't know how we got through it," she says."Well, I do know—we were given a support system of family, friends andneighbors."
The run to theFinal Four last spring served as a Thompson family catharsis. For John III andMonica, says Ronny, "it was really the first time there was nothing majorthey were dealing with." The emotions rattling inside Big John, whose ownfather had died before Georgetown reached its three NCAA title games in fouryears during the early 1980s, left him speechless during the overtime winagainst North Carolina, even though Westwood One was paying him to do the gameas a radio analyst.
AS OFTEN as not,Big John, 66, may be found on winter afternoons in McDonough Arena. His sonleaves a chair out for him. The father is usually in sweats, sometimes shroudedby a hoodie; and he's usually silent, a condition he so rarely submitted toduring his coaching career. If he has any piece to say, he has unburdenedhimself of much of it earlier in the afternoon as cohost of his sports radiotalk show.
"Younotice," he says, in reference to his son, "he coaches without awhistle?" Big John had used three whistles—different tones to signaldifferent messages.
Simply by hangingaround he can do himself a great pleasure, which he calls "meddling."This does not entail pelting his boy with X's and O's. A few weeks ago John IIItold Pops that he was headed off to watch a recruit. "You need to get homeand get some rest," came the reply. "And there's reports of black iceout there."
John III went tothe game anyway. "He's wrapped up in basketball, and I enjoy fussing,"Big John says. "That's why I meddle. Now, he just has to keep from seeingme as seeing him as my little boy."
From his seat inMcDonough, the elder Thompson sometimes reaches for the clipboard and pen thatJohn III has hung on the wall beside the chair, so he might make a note toshare. Sometimes he nods off to sleep. If he were to look up to his right, hecould see where, during a game in his third season, in 1975, someone unfurled abedsheet emblazoned with THOMPSON, THE N----- FLOP, MUST GO.
Growing up, JohnIII saw his father bring home from the office a bag of hate mail every fewmonths. "Wackos," as John III calls them, phoned and sometimes showedup at the family home. A sportswriter in Utah called his father "the IdiAmin of college basketball," while opposing fans greeted one of his dad'splayers, Patrick Ewing, with banana peels and signs alleging that he couldn'tread. "For every positive John Thompson story there was a negativeone," his son recalls. Given all that, what son, if he were to hold thesame position at the same school as his father did, wouldn't burrow himselfinto each moment?
John III is notapolitical—his senior thesis was on Black Separatists and Nationalists in the1980s—and one day he may be ready to pick a battle or two, but where exactly isthe advantage now? Especially when there's a pass out there, waiting to beproperly thrown.
Of course, allthe father's trailblazing made the son's blinkered focus possible. You can getlost if you wander—and Papa was a rolling stone, wading into issue after issuein a way his own father never could, for the first John Thompson had beenyanked from school as a child to work the fields of southern Maryland. John Jr.pinned green ribbons on his players' uniforms in 1981 to raise awareness of theAtlanta child murders; he walked off the court in '89 to signal the injusticehe saw in the NCAA's Proposition 42; and a year later he met with RayfulEdmonds III, the most notorious drug dealer in D.C., to tell him to stay awayfrom his players. "I don't feel I was ever in a position where I could justbe a basketball coach," he says. "If I were in a meeting or in public,I felt an obligation to speak up. People criticize Michael Jordan for not doingmore in the public sphere. But Bill Russell and Jim Brown did what they did soMichael Jordan wouldn't have to."
For onegeneration, three different tones of whistle; for the next, no need for awhistle at all. Or if you prefer an alternative metaphor, listen to BillShapland, Georgetown basketball's longtime sports information official."Like a lighthouse," he says of the father. "He focused on a wholerealm of things. Now I work for a man who's a laser beam."
A YEAR AFTER JohnIII arrived at Georgetown, the school hired a new athletic director. The coachcould be forgiven for taking it personally. Bernard Muir had played for theBrown team that beat Princeton with that halfcourt shot in 1988.
When he arrivedin D.C., Muir innocently asked Thompson if he had played in that game.
"I don'trecall," Thompson replied, deadpan.
Not until twoyears later, when together they went to Brown for Thompson to collect the BlackCoaches Association's Fritz Pollard Male Coach of the Year Award, did theGeorgetown coach share with his boss his central role that night.
"John,"Muir told him, "you're only as good as your last game."
Of course that'sthe way administrators see it, and fans and media and alumni. But there's anitch at the ears of a coach who knows better. Who knows that you're only asgood as your next possession.
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