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Like Father , Like Son

Can restoring Georgetown to the glory days of John Thompson Jr. be as easy as one, two, III?

By Jennifer Frey
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page W09

The father sits, alone and in darkness. His perch is in the back of a luxury box; the overhead lights in the suite are off, the better to obscure his presence. Looking up from the floor at MCI Center, it is not easy to find him. Which is the point. This, he knows, is how it needs to be now. This is his fate.

From the tunnel directly below the father, the son emerges, his suit finely tailored, his air confident, his gait rapid, as if he is impatient for the game to begin. Across the court, in prime seats on the arena's lower level, sit his wife, his children, his mother, his sister. His cheering section. He acknowledges Morgan, his 6-year-old daughter, with their special signal: "I love you" in sign language. She signs the same back to her daddy.

John Thompson Jr.
John Thompson Jr.
John Thompson III took over the reins of the Hoyas this past spring. His father coached at Georgetown for 27 years. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

It is a cold Sunday afternoon in mid-January, and the fans have tracked snow and mud into the arena. There is a buzz to the place, a pregame excitement that speaks of hope. This is about the son, who was not so much chosen last spring to be the new coach of the Georgetown Hoyas as he was anointed. Lest anyone doubt that, listen to the public address announcer as he does his introduction. Listen to the crowd.

"John Thompson!" the announcer blares, and the name, of course, is intimately familiar. Then he adds the all-important postscript: "the THIRD!!!!"

The students break into a chant: "J.T. III! J.T. III! J.T. III!" with three fingers thrust into the air. A sea of them are out there -- so many more than were here last season -- and most wear a common gray-and-blue Georgetown basketball T-shirt. On the back, the message reads:

"Some Have Forgotten. We Will Remind Them."

And then, large and unmistakable, the numeral "III."

Some have forgotten. Forgotten what? Forgotten the father? Not likely. John Thompson Jr. is Georgetown basketball. Even the sophomore who created the T-shirt -- a kid who wasn't even born when Big John led the Hoyas to their only national championship -- knows the history. The father arrived from a Catholic high school in Northeast Washington in 1972 and rapidly transformed the moribund Georgetown program into a national powerhouse. Over 27 years, his teams would go to the NCAA Tournament 20 times, to the Final Four four times, and would capture the championship once, with Patrick Ewing at center, in 1984. Thompson would become a legend, a lightning rod, a mentor, a monolithic figure on the Georgetown campus and, for that matter, in college basketball as a whole. Complications during the dissolution of his marriage may have led him to resign abruptly in 1999, but John Thompson Jr. and Georgetown basketball could never be divorced.

Slowly lost, though, in recent years, has been the burnish on the program itself. The father ceded his legacy to his longtime assistant Craig Esherick, who took the team back to the NCAA postseason in 2001. But by last March, Hoya basketball had fallen nearly to the bottom of the powerful Big East conference. The 2003-2004 season ended with nine straight losses, a disappointing 13-15 record and no postseason berth -- not even in the National Invitational Tournament, college basketball's consolation prize -- for the first time since 1974. Fans and alumni were restless and outspoken about their displeasure. It was time for a change.

So Georgetown decided to make one that was perceived as bold and, in some quarters, risky. After a national search, the university announced in May the hiring of the son. The son's résumé included five successful years as a head coach in the Ivy League -- at his alma mater, Princeton, where he also served as an assistant under the legendary Pete Carril -- but no experience in the high-stakes, fierce-recruiting world of Big East basketball, which routinely produces national champions.

Other than, of course, the experience he absorbed through his pores throughout his childhood.

This is the son, after all, who grew up watching game tapes on his father's knee, standing on the sidelines while his father ran practices, listening to the late-night strategy sessions. The son who learned early the harassment that comes with being the child of the coach -- the taunting, the racial invective, the criticism. The son who went away to Princeton to find his own way, make his own choices, mold his own future.

"He didn't want me to be a coach," John says of his father. "To this day, I'm not really sure whether he wants me to be a coach."

And yet here he is, the son following directly in the father's footsteps, even though his own mother asked if he was crazy the minute she heard he was seriously considering the job. Didn't he realize? she thought. Didn't he know how much more pressure there would be, how many more questions he would have to answer about his father this, his father that?

"But this is Georgetown, Ma," the son answered. And Gwen Thompson knew, in her heart, that it had to be.

And so they may say that the son now has come to toil in the shadow of the father. Yet it is the father whose life is most changed by it; it is the father who must now step into twilight, at least when the public is around. Big John is not seen shaking his son's hand good luck before the tip-off, or sitting -- like the rest of the family -- down near the court, where he could call out advice or, more in his keeping, criticism. He is not there to give his son a congratulatory hug after victories -- not, that is, until they are both in a security-protected hallway down by the locker rooms.

"I know what I symbolize to that program," Big John says. "I'm not naive. And I earned that. That's not something I'm going to deny. But I know it must go on. And he's got to take the responsibility now. And, more importantly, I think he's capable of doing it. It's his time. So I just try to get out of the way."

Except, of course, when he has something to say.

SO IT'S SUNDAY NIGHT, and across America people have finished watching two NFL playoff games and have tuned in to "Desperate Housewives," but John Thompson III can be found in his office at McDonough Arena on the Georgetown campus, suffering the agony of a personal interview.

Okay, perhaps "agony" is an overstatement. Still, there's a message in the odd timing of this access -- I'm a busy man, this is the Big East season, there are a lot of better things for me to do with my time, like watch a tape of Syracuse -- and, besides, he dislikes any intrusion into his well-guarded privacy. Sure, he's personable. Extremely personable. He's quite a nice guy. Certainly, he doesn't make a habit of scaring reporters into forgetting their questions (that would be Dad in his prime). John teases them instead.

"There are no good questions on the pad," he says, pointing to a reporter's notebook. The pad contains a list of basic facts that need to be acquired. The good questions, he jokes, are "over there." Over there, complete with dramatic arm gesture to the side, is John's description of any question that would require self-analysis that would grow out of conversation rather than a simple Q&A. Good questions, maybe, but not ones he cares to answer.

"As a person," he says, "I don't take time to analyze myself. I don't have time to sit here and say, hmmmm . . ."

Yes, he's a workaholic. That similarity to his father is easily discerned. But do you know any Division I basketball coaches who are not? What people want to know is how much of him, really, comes from his father? And how much from his mother, whom everyone in the family says he's most like, in terms of his personality, his temperament?

Alas, he's not in the business of figuring that out. Please. "Pops is Pops and Moms is Moms," he says. You know what he does have to say? What he has been saying since he was in high school: "I've been John Thompson's son all my life, and I'm comfortable with it."

And though that statement may sound like prepackaged rhetoric, it seems to be unabashedly true. There are six full pages in the Georgetown men's basketball media guide dedicated solely to the "Thompson Legacy," including one page that does a side-by-side comparison of John and his father (height, record, conference titles, it goes on). For some, this would constitute, well, pressure. "Sadly for Freud, for Oedipus, for that bunch," sighs retired Princeton sociology professor Marvin Bressler, "John is perfectly content with that relationship. I would prefer to describe it to you in tones of high anguish. He regards it, as any sensible person would, as a plus. He gets along well with his father. His father is a source of advice. He understands it has opened some doors for him."

Bressler chuckles. He's known John since the young Thompson was a freshman at Princeton, where Bressler served as an unofficial adviser to Princeton players. He has had countless conversations with John, whom he describes as possessing "a real ironic sense. Deep in his soul, he knows the world is mad." (But forget about gleaning any specific examples of this personality trait from Bressler; he is well aware of John's desire for privacy.) "I wish I could help you here," Bressler adds. "But there's no way you can turn this into some sort of Freudian/Oedipal issue where he has to succeed the father. Those who are looking for that will be sorely disappointed by John."

Okey-doke.

"I don't know whether people believe me when I say this," John says, when asked if his father's legacy played any part at all in his decision-making process when it came to accepting or not accepting the Georgetown job, "but that had nothing to do with it. It was not a pull, and it was not a negative . . . The whole notion I'm going to go and walk in Pops's shadow -- that thought process -- that was never a part of my process."

His little brother, Ronny, himself an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas, worried about it. His mom worried about it. John says he did not worry about it.

"A lot of people think that it could be uncomfortable or difficult," John says. "Look at the whole nature of the questions: 'Does he stay away? Does he give you your space?' He can tell me what he thinks, and I can still have my space. It's not an either-or. He's around, and he can say what he wants to."


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