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Like Father , Like Son

And does he say what he wants to? Or is he walking a fine line, as has been suggested by Ronny?

"Ronny's in Arkansas," John says, laughing. "He doesn't know what's going on. [My father will] sit down after practice, and he'll say exactly what he thinks I should do and not do. And some of it I listen to, and some of it I don't. And that's the balance. Yeah, he can be around. And I want to listen to every bit of advice he has. It may frustrate him when he throws out 10 things and I listen to one of them. But he's not walking a line. That's not in his nature. Whether he's a father or a coach, that's not in his nature. And I'm fine with that."

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)

He says this with ease and confidence, but the truth is, he's restless -- with the interview. He's standing up, he's sitting down, he's changing the subject. He promises, more than once, that he'll come up with what he calls "the cute anecdotes." Thus far, this is the only one he's provided:

"I'll tell you a story about my daughter," he says. "Morgan might have been 3, almost 4. I was home. I was watching tapes. And she was in the room playing. And I don't know how long we'd been there, and she looked at me and she says, 'Daddy, why do you get mad every time' -- and I won't say the kid's name -- 'so-and-so throws the ball?' And you just realize that she's sitting there, she's playing, drawing, whatever, but she's watching. And you realize she's old enough where you can explain it to her: 'Well, because he keeps throwing the ball to the other team.' "

The anecdote comes after a question about how much he believes growing up as his father's son gave him a head start, knowledge-wise, when it came to the field of coaching. The answer, obviously, is a lot.

"In many ways," he says, "that's the exaggerated example. But by living in my house, by her being my daughter, Morgan is going to see situations that other people will not until they are out of school and somebody's graduate assistant."

Morgan is 6 now. John and his wife, Monica -- whom he met at Princeton -- have three children: Morgan; John (known as John-John), who is 3; and Matthew, who is a year old. Ronny says that John is a good father, an attentive father, that he's better at those kinds of things than Ronny -- who has a son, and another child on the way -- is, or their dad was. It's an interesting analysis. Except that John has already deemed Ronny and his insights and opinions and anecdotes to be "historically inaccurate," because, according to John, when Ronny grants an interview the day after Arkansas loses -- and the interview he gave for this article came on a day after a loss -- he doesn't pay attention to the questions.

At least, though, he does answer them.

"Don't be offended," John says, at one point, "but I'm sitting here, and half of me is talking to you, and half of me is thinking about Syracuse's 2-3 zone and whether we can score a point. To get what you want -- the happy, happy, let's-go-to-lunch-and-tell-some-stories-with-John -- come back in May."

He says it very, very nicely. Then he repeats something the reporter suggested earlier:

"As you said, you probably would not even be sitting here if I were Pops."

Ah, but Pops has changed now. He's all into self-analysis and son-analysis and the exploration of how his life choices may or may not have influenced his children and what they have become. Especially John.

"Seems like he's told you a lot more than he's told me," John says. "I've got an idea -- let's change it. Write the article on him. You and my dad can go over there."

Alrighty then.

ON WEEKDAY AFTERNOONS, Big John, 63 now, can be found in a SportsTalk 980 radio booth at Tysons Corner Center, doing his talk show with former Redskin Doc Walker and sports broadcaster Al Koken. He has graciously allowed a visitor to sit in the booth with him one January afternoon, a day after his son's team pulled off a come-from-behind victory over Rutgers.

"Is that my child talking?" the father says, pride emanating from his voice, when an early segment of the show opens with a snippet from John's postgame news conference the night before.

"The underestimated John Thompson III, who we like to tease," chimes in Koken.

"His wife heard you saying that stuff about him," chastises Big John, using his deep, domineering, coaching voice. This is the voice one associates with the man whose towering size -- he stands 6-foot-10 -- and commanding presence long ago prompted the Georgetown pep band to play Darth Vader theme music in his honor. The voice one associates with the man who would call a timeout if he saw a player trying to do something fancy -- say, dribble behind his back -- and then cut him down to size on the sideline, for all to see. The voice of a man who intimidates.

But now he's just kidding. And the discussion turns to Georgetown's season, about which all three men are in agreement: Thus far, under John, the Hoyas are overachieving, easily surpassing last year's Big East win total. This is not about a father giving his child more credit than is due; Walker acknowledges that he tuned out of the previous night's game assuming they'd lose, only to discover later that they had managed to pull it out. "They've surprised me," he says, which provides Big John with an opening for one of his chief complaints, that folks are treating his son like he's some kind of rookie, when he's 38 years old, he's been doing this awhile, and he won three league titles at Princeton.

"I'm not amused by that," the father says, sternly.

Then there's a station break, and suddenly he's all mush, talking about his grandkids and how he loves having them around now that John has moved down from Princeton. He pulls out his cell phone and explains how he saves his grandchildren's voice-mail messages. "I save every one," he says, "and when I get depressed, I play them. And that means something to me."

He has waited a long time for this stage in his life. He'll tell you that, right away. All the sacrifices he made to do what he did -- all the sacrifices he put his family through -- and now he just gets to be himself. To be himself, and to watch -- and enjoy -- his oldest son in an entirely new environment.

And give advice, of course.

John and his staff "fuss over me and do little things, but they're smart enough to know this old fool would try to run the whole thing if they'd let him," he says. "So they know when to tell me they're going into a meeting. John is strong enough for that, and I'm proud as hell of that. He's done some things that I would not have done, but I think they were the right things . . . I'm sure that a lot of people may . . . think everything he does has to get a rubber stamp from me. Let me tell you, his father wouldn't respect him if he did that, nor would his grandfather. That's not the way he was raised."

All Big John wants, he says, is to be asked. To have his opinion heard and respected. Sure, sometimes he feels like the "abandoned wife," as he puts it, not getting to hang out with his kid as much as he'd like. But they talk every day, often more than once. And his sons always ask his advice.

"Don't disrespect me," Big John says, "because I did build that program. And I'm damn sure aware of that. That's not something that didn't cost him, cost my family, cost me valuable things . . . So of course I want it to be sustained, to do well. I think it's important for both [of us] not to be threatened by one another. Because I'm not going to go away, and he's not either."

He scoffs at all that is being made of the pressures of following in his so-called shadow. Loves that his son makes light of it.

"There's always something that a person will be confronted with," Big John says. "What's the difference between that and me having to deal with my color the whole time I was at Georgetown? I don't feel sorry for him. He can handle it. I was told that the Hilltop was not ready for a black when I came there. Now what is he being told? That you've got to live up to your father? Which would you rather be? There's always something you have to deal with in life unless you live in a shell somewhere."

For the father, the challenge involved far more than just winning basketball games.

"It took a lot of energy for a lot of different reasons," Big John says. "I tell people I'd love to come back through life and have the luxury of just being a coach. I never had the luxury of just being able to focus on basketball. I'd love a shot at that, rather than being a black man, a social worker, a revolutionary, a racist, or whatever else they wanted to throw on me."

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