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Like Father , Like Son

And now, in a way, he does have that shot. The joy of this moment, Big John says, comes from the opportunity to learn about his son anew. He watches him at practice, watches him at games, watches him with his family, his children. Watches the way he manages his time, the choices he makes. And he looks for clues in those choices, indications of what John learned growing up, of the things he took from the father, and the things that the father's life may have taught him to do differently.

"He's a better father, at sifting that out," Big John says of his son, "and I hope by seeing me that helped him, seeing what I probably didn't do at times."

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)

Big John didn't see his son coach at Princeton. He felt it would be better if he stayed away. He saw him play college ball only once -- because of their conflicting schedules and because he thought he'd be a distraction. And when John was playing ball at Gonzaga College High School, his father was too busy to go. Asked how much her ex-husband saw their children when they were growing up, Gwen is a bit caustic:

"Well, he was there for graduations," she says. "He was there for baptisms." And all the little things in between? He missed those, she says, but she also knows her children never felt neglected. This was normal to them; they didn't feel an absence. The sons still insist that to this day. It's Big John who is now reassessing the past. He realizes there was a lot he missed, a lot he didn't see. A lot he wants to know now. A lot he wants his children to know, too.

"It's very difficult, the life of a coach," he says. "And I think the great part about my boys wanting to coach is that just as when I went out to work, I understood my dad a lot more, when they come to coach, they could have a clearer understanding of why I did things and how I did things -- not that they necessarily needed it, but that I needed them to have [it]."

The way he did things was full-force, round-the-clock. He became, he says, the persona he needed to be to succeed, no matter what that might cost himself and the people around him. "Most of the successful people I know are narrow," he says. "They just focus all their energy. But that doesn't mean it's healthy, or right, or how anybody should live their life. But that's the way I was anyway."

He's different now. Sure, he says, he's still competitive. But that isn't what makes him tick. He's back to the grandchildren again. How much he loves them. How proud he is of the way John is with them. He tells a story about the little one, Matty, and how he took him for a haircut one day. The barber turned the clippers on, and the buzzing noise startled the little boy, who yelled out for his daddy. Telling this tale makes Big John emotional, his voice thick. He's trying to explain what it was about that moment, about that reaction, that made his heart swell. The boy didn't yell for his "Pappy," which is what he calls Big John, even though his grandfather was right there. He didn't yell out for his mommy, like most little boys do. He wanted his father.

"That's how you know that it doesn't matter if John is on the road or not, that kid knows that his daddy loves him," Big John says. "With my father, he wasn't there a lot, but I knew that I loved him and he loved me. And I think that's what Matty showed when he yelled out, 'Dad!' He feels safe with his father. That meant something to me. Those things like that, when you're not coaching, you have a chance to reflect on, to think about it."

He clears his throat.

"If I'd been coaching, I'd have been ready to say: 'Shut up! Ignore that noise! Get the haircut! I've got a game to go to!'"

Then he laughs at himself.

A few minutes later, after acknowledging that he'd never do a grocery run while prepping for a Syracuse game or drive his kids to school on a big game week -- things he knows his son does -- he decides to give himself a little credit.

"I don't feel guilty about it, now," he says. "I admire him for doing it, but I don't feel guilty. There's a difference. Because he turned out, and Ronny turned out, and Tiffany turned out, pretty damn well!"

He's roaring with laughter. The radio show has been over for more than an hour now, but he's just kept talking and talking. About his father, the first John Robert Thompson, an uneducated laborer who raised his four children -- Big John and his three sisters -- through the extreme hardships of segregation. About his own life, the way he was raised. About his life with his children. About John. Mostly, about John. He stands up to go, and he's thanked for giving so generously of his time.

"Well," he says, quietly now, "I think my son is a special person. As a father, I definitely do. He's a good boy. He's a good boy, and he's a good father. And that's important. That's very important."

THE FATHER WASN'T THERE when the son was born. He tells it as a joke now. It was March 11, 1966. He was playing for the NBA's Boston Celtics, living in Boston. He was on a road trip when Gwen went into labor two weeks early. It was her own birthday, actually. Without her husband at home, she got in the car and drove herself to the hospital. The first job Big John had when he returned home was to retrieve the family car from where she had left it.

"I've been cursing him from that day on for inconveniencing me," Big John says, with a chuckle.

The first-born son, John was named for the father and the grandfather, a man who died when John was young but whose life story would be told and retold in the Thompson household throughout his childhood.

"I was raised to know about him and the pride he had in family," John says of his grandfather. John is perhaps the only college coach in America to display in his office a photograph of himself in diapers -- in it, he is flanked by the two older John Thompsons.

John was born during his father's last season with the Celtics, a two-year career in which Big John served as the backup to center Bill Russell on two championship teams led by legendary coach Red Auerbach. After that, the family moved back to Washington -- the father's childhood home -- where Big John took a job coaching at St. Anthony's High School. He frequently brought John -- and, later, Ronny, who is four years younger -- to work with him.

"My first memories of basketball are probably of St. Anthony's gym," John says. "I was there probably from the time I was born until he came [to Georgetown]."

At the gym, John and Ronny tried to emulate the players they saw on the court; at home, they sat one apiece on Pops's knees watching game tape. Basketball was omnipresent in their lives; they learned it the way they learned to walk: It was a natural, essential life lesson.

"When he went to work," Ronny says, "my brother and I would grab the tapes and put them in the machine and call out, 'That kid can't play!' or 'That kid can play!' We didn't know what we were doing, but we were learning the business."

Things changed when Big John took the job at Georgetown in 1972, and the family eventually moved to a house on Colorado Avenue NW. Trips to practice with Dad decreased. Big John worked longer hours, harder hours. The kids -- John, Ronny and younger sister Tiffany, who teaches at a local private school and regularly attends Georgetown games -- started having their own busy lives. Gwen ran the household, a constant presence who, Ronny says, somehow managed to make their oft-absent father feel like a constant presence as well.

"We always thought he was there because of the picture my mom painted," he says.

Gwen, who almost never gives interviews but agreed to talk about her son for this story, is the keeper of her kids' childhoods. John, she says, was all about sports and school. She remembers him playing football for the local Boys' Club, and how, as a big kid, each year he had trouble getting in under the weight limits. Headstrong, determined, he always managed to make weight.

"There he was," Gwen says, "this poor little kid starving himself. He'd get weighed, find out he was overweight, and then he would run and exercise and get himself down."

And then there was the time when he was 6 or 7, and taking swimming lessons. At the end, he had to pass a swimming test. If he completed a certain number of laps, he could earn a special Red Cross button as well. He passed the test, but his lap total was a few shy of what it took to earn the button.

"He was so upset," Gwen says. "He was about to cry. The coach kept telling him not to worry, but he was begging the coach to retake it. He just kept asking what he could do."

The coach let John take the test again the following week. He came home with the button.

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