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Like Father , Like Son

Both Big John and Gwen were strict -- Big John routinely cussed out his kids the way he did his players; Gwen commanded their respect in a quieter way. "My parents were very cold and callous on certain things," Ronny says. "They never let us whine or complain. They didn't tolerate it."

As Gwen puts it: "Whatever you have to do, boy, just get it done." Once, in eighth grade, John woke up with laryngitis. If he thought that meant he could stay home from school, he was mistaken. Gwen wrote the teacher a note: "He can see, he can hear, he just can't talk." Then she sent him off to school. And he went without a whimper.

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)

"Who was he going to complain to?" she says.

The training served them well when they discovered that being the children of John Thompson Jr. meant being the subjects of frequent verbal attacks. On the basketball court, on the street, wherever. Sometimes, being the coach's kid meant attention, privilege, compliments. Far more often, though, it meant that somebody was talking smack about your daddy while you were trying to drive to the hoop in the middle of your high school basketball game.

"People were always yelling things at me when I was at Gonzaga," John says. "I learned to ignore it."

They never complained. But their mother saw and heard, and ached for them.

"It was something that was part of their life; they couldn't get away from it," Gwen says. "I tried to let them know that everybody does not like your father all the time. Everybody does not like you. And there are going to be people who are saying things."

Hardest to ignore was the racism. There would be hate-filled calls to the house, threats made, terrible things said in the children's presence. In one of the ugliest public instances, someone hung a white sheet in the stands at McDonough Arena during a game. The sheet was marked with a message calling for Big John's ouster, and referring to him with a racist slur.

Memories of that time might explain why John shies away from talking about family. It is a lesson learned hard and deep: The more the world has access to, and information about, the people you love, the more potential there is for someone to hurt them.

"Our address was for public consumption," John says. "People ended up showing up at the house."

Showing up at the house and . . . ?

"And everything you can think of," he says.

It was a tough road that the father had chosen. Big John always told his children they could grow up to be anything, but he also made sure to remind them how difficult it could be. At one point, when John was in college and Ronny still in high school, Big John asked his sons to name five black head coaches.

"We named three, and then we got stuck," Ronny says. "And he said, 'That's my point.'"

Unlike the father, the sons were never going to make it to the pros as players. Oh, John had the vision. He had the shooting skills, the passing skills. He had the smarts and the sense for the game. He just didn't have the feet, the speed, the pure athletic ability needed to reach the top.

He knew it, of course. It's hard to be the son of a coach, to see what he saw in games, at practices, and not get an honest sense of your abilities. Or be given one by your father.

"That was said a lot," John says, wryly, when asked if his father told him he didn't have what it took to go pro. "But it's not a scenario where, 'Oh, my dreams were shattered when Pops said you're not going to be a pro.' I'd been around the game all my life. And Ronny. We were pretty honest with ourselves."

Still, the game was his love. He lived it, breathed it, learned it inside and out. He was a forward who could run the offense like a point guard. No matter how smart he was on the court, though, nothing could overcome his physical liabilities. "He came to Gonzaga at 6-feet-3 1/2 and had a size 15 shoe," retired Gonzaga coach Dick Myers says. "He graduated, 6-feet-3 1/2, still wearing those same size shoes. I've never forgiven him for not growing!"

Could he have been a bench player at some school like North Carolina? Probably. But that wasn't in the plan. And, in the end, neither was Georgetown basketball. Sure, John could have played for his dad. And, deep down, he really wanted to. But the Ivy League also beckoned.

"I didn't want him to come to Georgetown," Big John says now, matter-of-factly. Ronny, yes. Ronny he wanted to keep close. It was a matter of personalities, temperament. Ronny was like his father, tempestuous, impulsive. John, like his mother, was reasoned, thoughtful. The father thought it would be best for him to go off on his own, see what it was like to run his own life.

But he didn't tell his son that.

To John's frustration, both his parents kept their feelings about his college options to themselves. They made it clear, from the beginning, that they were willing to pay for an Ivy League education -- Ivy League schools do not provide athletic scholarships; by contrast, John could have gone to Georgetown for nothing. In the end, it was his decision. He chose not to play for his dad.

"I think he was happy," John says now of his father. "I think Princeton was where he wanted me to go. But at the time, I didn't know that."

He had a difficult time his freshman year and couldn't stand Carril, who in some ways was a lot like his dad. It was one thing growing up around a coach who criticized loudly, publicly. It was another thing playing for one. John didn't talk back, though, and after what he describes as a "maturation process" he became one of Carril's most beloved players, one Carril would invite back to Princeton as an assistant coach several years later. The reason? John, Carril says, was one of those players who had an innate sense of the game; he could see how plays were going to unfold before they happened, and he always knew precisely where everyone else on the court was.

"He saw everything," Carril says, "which to me is the key to being a really good player. . . . It's DNA. You can't teach it."

When it came time to graduate, Big John did weigh in, this time, on what he wanted for his son's future. He did not want him to go straight into coaching. Athletes who think the world owes them something are one of his pet peeves, Big John says. He expected his kids to get jobs outside sports, at least for a time. So when John graduated, he accepted an offer to be in a training program with Ford Motor Co. that allowed him to work in Washington. He didn't chafe at the father's directives. He didn't even know, then, what he really wanted for himself. And he considered the job a chance to get a business education. A great experience, he calls it. But?

"I wasn't really passionate about cars," he says. "And you've got to be passionate about what you do."

He moved to a sports marketing company in Cherry Hill, N.J. If he had a dream at that point, it wasn't about coaching, it was about being an agent. He remembers a day when the team he was on negotiated a multimillion-dollar deal with Pepsi. The negotiators were in a conference room, and when the other party left, everyone started high-fiving across the table, whooping it up.

John remembers thinking to himself: "If this is as good as it gets, I've got to find something else to do."

Basketball tugged at him. He played whenever he could, wherever he could -- recreational leagues, pickup games. He went to high school games, college games. He missed it. The competition. The fire. The way it made him feel. Nothing, he says, gave him what basketball did: the high highs and the low lows that were, to him, an addiction, what he calls "an essential part of who you are." He regrets that he didn't try to play in Europe after college. That he didn't do whatever he could to extend his precious time in the game.

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