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Like Father , Like Son

"I told this to our guys the other day," John says. "There's only X amount of games you get to play. Some of you may get more than others, some of you may have opportunities to play pro, but it's still a finite number, and it's special. You've got to cherish every practice, because one day you're going to be me, sitting here, saying, 'Wow, I wish I could go play.' Other than pickup down at the park, other than with the coaching staff at lunchtime. You know, just the opportunity to compete . . . In my head, then, I was, like, let's just go get on with life . . . but if I had to do it again, I may try to play."

AFTER SEVERAL WEEKS OF ASKING JOHN -- begging would be the more accurate term -- a reporter has been allowed to attend a Georgetown practice, watching from the balcony where Big John has been one of the rare visitors. It's a Friday night in the thick of the Big East season. The team is coming off a painful overtime loss at Syracuse, where sophomore Brandon Bowman sank what he thought was a game-winning three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left in regulation -- only his toes were over the three-point line. Syracuse went on to win by five in overtime. A disappointment? Not by most standards. The Hoyas' performance that night had been shocking and glorious: Syracuse, after all, was ranked seventh in the nation and was playing on its home court. The idea that Georgetown would hand Syracuse an upset was absurd.

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)

Not to John, of course. He thought the Hoyas should have won. He always thinks they should win. As his wife, Monica, puts it: "No one's expectations could be higher for him than the ones he puts on himself. That's why the outside pressures don't matter."

So here the team is, back at McDonough for practice, preparing to face Notre Dame at home in two days. John is in sweats and isn't wearing a whistle. It is something that astounds his father, that the son commands his players' attention in practice without a whistle. When he's able to watch, Big John takes careful note of this, of how his son rules his room without the screaming -- and the whistle-blowing -- that were second nature to him.

"Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa," John says, suddenly, seeing two players in a row miss layups. The guys freeze. The coach's voice did not go up, not even an octave, but the message is apparently well-learned, the players responding like Pavlovian dogs.

"That's enough," he says, still using an even tone. "That's enough. You can give a [expletive] about what you're doing, or we can just do some conditioning. Make your layups."

A few minutes later, he turns his attention to freshman Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is an awkward pole of a player; he stands 7 feet 2 inches tall and has yet to get used to his own dimensions. The potential is there. He's just young, his skill catching up with a body grown out of control. The team is still doing layup drills; he has missed another one.

"You're cheating your teammates," John says. Then he sends Hibbert to another area in the gym to work with assistant coach Robert Burke. Hibbert stands there, alone under the basket, taking shot after shot. And that's pretty much it. John doesn't scream at him. He doesn't berate. He doesn't criticize harshly. He doesn't employ some of the classic coaching ploys used to beat discipline and work ethic into rookies -- methods he surely saw from his dad, and from Carril. Does he ever? Hard to know. Ninety minutes into practice, the coach slips upstairs to the balcony to kick out the reporter. "You have to leave now," he says. "They're getting sloppy, and I'm going to have to start yelling, and I don't want to embarrass anybody individually."

Two days later, Hibbert will race down the court, get the ball underneath and make a buzzer-beating shot to give Georgetown a victory over Notre Dame. He will come to the postgame news conference a mix of awkwardness and pride, taking his cues from his coach, who jokes he's never seen the guy run as fast as he did in those final moments. A few days later, he'll be named the Big East Rookie of the Week.

But back to that basket for a moment. When the ball went in, the clock read zero, the fans exploded onto the court, and the referees rushed to the table to look at the replay, to be certain that the shot counted, that Hibbert had gotten it off in time. For several moments, the gym grew tense, John rubbed his bald head reflexively as he waited for the verdict. When it came -- the shot's good! -- the crowd knew the second the coach did, because he thrust his fist into the air in vehement triumph. And there it was, right there, that thing he craves so fiercely.

"The high of highs," Monica says.

John came home that night, and his children rushed him in celebration, with squeals of "Yay, Daddy!" And then?

"And then," Monica says, "he watched tapes of St. John's."

It is a different life the family lives here, far different from at Princeton. The schedule is more brutal -- Ivy League teams travel mostly on weekends -- and so, too, is the travel. The hours are longer for John. He sees less of his family. Monica says she accepts this. She understands the challenge her husband has taken on, supports it.

But Gwen watches, and worries. She has made it her calling to remind her sons to carve out time for their children. John dismisses the suggestion that finding a balance between his work and his home life is some desperate challenge. "When I'm working, I'm not neglecting my children, and when I'm with my children, I'm not neglecting my job," he says, matter-of-factly. Still, Moms clearly can get to him. When she called his cell phone Christmas week and he was in his car on the way to work, his immediate comment, she says, was: "I'm on my way to the office, but I spent the morning with the kids. I spent the morning with the kids."

Does she wish her sons had chosen different professions?

"I want them to do what makes them happy," she says. "Whether it's a good thing, you can't make that decision until you reflect and look back. What did you accomplish? What did you lose? What did you gain?"

The night of the Notre Dame win, John took a break from watching tape so he, Monica and Morgan could play a fun, competitive game of Old Maid. Emphasis on competitive.

Who won?

"John," Monica says. Does he ever let Morgan win, since, after all, she is just a little kid?

"Of course not!" Monica answers, astonished. Let her win? That's not the Thompson way. Or her way, for that matter.

"That's why John and I are partners," says Monica, who worked in fundraising and development at Princeton, and plans to do similar work with charities in Washington. "We both have this vision that a lot of life is about winning or losing. You carry yourself in a successful way. Sure, you can have failures, but you dust yourself off, and you learn something and move on.

"He's grounded," she says of her husband. "That's just who he is. Call it a good upbringing or what have you, but he's a really solid, grounded person."

And that is why, she says, she doesn't worry, ever, that all the hype and attention and discussion about being the son of the father will have an effect on her husband. She has known him 17 years, and she knows he's telling the absolute truth when he says that he long ago grew to understand, and grow comfortable with, who he is.

"I think part of it is, you share a name, you have no choice," she says.

When John and Monica were naming their firstborn son, it was not, Monica insists, a given that he would be yet another John. Other names got at least a test-drive. In the end, though, John it was. But not John IV. Their son is named for both of his grandfathers; his middle name is Wallace, after Monica's dad. That difference, though, will be lost on others once he is grown. Or sooner. Especially in Washington.

"John-John has no concept of his name at all," Monica says of her son. "But I already see it."

Recently, she was shopping and -- as is common with the Thompson kids, who are indeed adorable -- an adult began to fawn over the little boy.

"What's your name?" the grown-up asked him.

"My name is John Thompson!" he announced.

The adult started chuckling. "Oh," he said, "maybe you'll be the next coach of the Hoyas, too! Wouldn't that be funny?"

Monica quickly gathered the kids together and moved on. She is confident that, like his father, John-John will grow up to be comfortable with -- and proud of -- the legacy that comes with the name John Thompson.

But 3, she says, is a little early to start.

Jennifer Frey is a reporter for The Post's Style section. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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