As Team Rises, Hoyas Coach Shoulders Personal Burden
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
These are exciting times for the Georgetown men's basketball team and its second-year coach, John Thompson III: The Hoyas are ranked 17th in the nation, are tied with ninth-ranked Pittsburgh for fourth place in the 16-team Big East and seem to be on their way to wrapping up their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001.
MCI Center has evolved from a soulless home court to a raucous one; the Hoyas have averaged 14,267 fans over their past five home games. Thompson is serenaded with chants of "JT3! JT3!" when he is introduced prior to the game, and the stands behind each basket are filled with students wearing gray T-shirts emblazoned with a giant numeral "III" on the back.
"He's done an extraordinary job," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of Thompson, who took over a 13-15 team when he was hired in April 2004. "In my judgment, they're making this jump for couple of reasons: attitude -- they believe they're going to win, and John's instilled that -- and skill development. They're not just developing individual players; they're developing skills and those skills are meshed together. They're playing hard and playing together."
Thompson has managed all of this, reaching professional highs such as directing Georgetown to an upset of top-ranked and undefeated Duke on Jan. 21, while dealing with personal misfortune. His wife, Monica, is being treated for breast cancer.
When Monica Thompson had the disease diagnosed just before the regular season began on Nov. 18, Thompson's father, Hall of Fame coach John Thompson Jr., encouraged him to take a leave of absence from coaching. However, John III and Monica, who have three young children, decided against it.
"I still believe [he should take a leave], which is why I watch him closely," said Thompson Jr., who has been a presence at games, practices and even postgame news conferences. "If he is strong, his family will be okay. It's like when you're on an airplane, and you've got to put the [oxygen] mask on your face before you put the mask on your baby's face. If he goes down, his family's got a major problem. So I watch him as closely as I can. The irony is he thinks he's taking care of me, too."
It is an "enormous burden" that his son carries, Thompson Jr. said, though he added that he has not once heard him complain. Thompson Jr. has been impressed with the resilience and strength of Monica, who met Thompson III while they were both students at Princeton.
"The relationship between him and his wife has been extraordinary," said former Princeton coach Pete Carril, one of Thompson III's mentors. "He's a family man, he gets help from dad and mom. Everybody's praying for her to get better; in the meantime, he's got to do his job."
And that means finding a way to balance his two priorities: his wife and his team. Thompson III was asked last week if he has the ability to compartmentalize, and he responded: "I have to, at this point. There's so much going on in my life right now." He is the one who takes Monica to the doctor or the hospital in the morning; he is the one who runs practice in the afternoon. Georgetown's success has added to his media commitments, and the external demands and pressures will continue to grow as the postseason draws nearer.
"They're heading into the eye of the storm. The pressure builds up more, the intensity increases as you get closer to tournament time. It's nothing but the nature of the business," his father said. "It doesn't ease up. You still have to recruit, all of that. There's no aspect of that that he's had to let up on. He's handled it well. That's the irony; if you handle it as well as he's doing, people forget what he's going through."
But that's what Thompson III would probably prefer. He is a very private man, and he has not publicly addressed his wife's condition since early in the season, outside of answering a couple of questions during an HBO interview last month.
"His nature is he keeps a lot in. He's not a complainer in that way; he hasn't done it," Thompson Jr. said. "He has not had any less pressure because of what's going on in his personal life. That job, by nature, is loaded with pressure. He hasn't been given any slack, and he hasn't asked for it."
He has received quiet support from all corners of his life: from his family; his former coach, Carril; and the current Hoyas. Thompson III is well-liked by his players; fifth-year senior Darrel Owens refers to Thompson as "a dad away from home."
"When we first heard the news, it was kind of jaw-dropping," Owens said. "The only thing we can do is to continue to pray for coach and know that what he's going through is hard. As his players, we've got to do everything in our powers to not put as much pressure on him that he has already on himself. Whether that be on the court or off the court, we've got to stay strong and do all the positive things that we need to do."