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Blood Is Thicker Than Alma Mater

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Ball State player surveyed the baseball cap worn by John Thompson Jr. last night. "You were looking to see if it said Georgetown or Ball State, weren't you?" Big John said, playfully chiding the young man.

The cap had only an embroidered 'T' -- for Thompson.

Neutrality in a surname. Nice.

"Name-branding," he explained. "I've been doing it for a few years."

Same goes for John III and Ronny, the two Division I basketball coaches Big John Thompson fathered, mentored and who faced off against one another at Verizon Center. Proud but a little pained, their pops had to feel like a member of the Barber family when Tiki's Giants and Ronde's Buccaneers collide on a Sunday.

John III's Hoyas were supposed to win by 20. But no one in the Thompson family wanted to see Ronny's Cardinals get beat down in his first year; that just wouldn't be brotherly.

"You win either way," Big John was told before Georgetown won, 69-54.

"I lose either way, too," he said, letting out a bear of a laugh.

This is a tale of two little boys who one day were being escorted by their father to the top of War Memorial Arena in Rochester, N.Y., after Georgetown knocked off Syracuse in 1974 and the next were wearing immaculately tailored black blazers and resplendent ties, working the same sidelines they grew up watching Pops work.

"It was my first away game in Rochester," remembered Rich Chvotkin, who called his 1,000th Georgetown game last night. "I can still see Coach bringing both of them all the way up there to the top, all tired out by the time he got there. 'I'm not doin' this again,' he said."

The boys were both there the night their father lost an emotional thriller to Dean Smith in the 1982 national title game, the night Michael Jordan hit the shot and Fred Brown turned the ball over to James Worthy in the final seconds. Big John likened the hug he got that night from Dean Smith, his very good friend, to the hug Ronny would get from John III last night.

"I never had a brother, so that's the closest thing I can think of," he said. "If you look at Dean and the expression on his face when he came to hug me, it wasn't an expression of joy. He was happy, but he knew he'd beaten a good friend and I think it took a little bit of that feeling of euphoria away."

If Georgetown-Ball State was indeed about family ties, it was also about two programs at the moment traveling in disparate directions.

The Hoyas were too big and polished for Ball State. In a college hoops world full of reckless chuckers from beyond the arc, the Hoyas are the rare, skilled interior passing team. It was nothing for Jeff Green to trade in a five-foot jumper for Jessie Sapp's two-foot layup. Twenty of the Hoyas' 25 field goals were assisted.

They kept re-posting 7-foot Roy Hibbert until he got inches from the rim. Early on, Georgetown back-doored Ball State like Princeton, John III's alma mater, once back-doored UCLA out of the NCAA tournament.

Ronny's team did not go down easily, coming within 22-18 with seven minutes left in the first half and furiously trying to stay within 20 in the second half. They threw full- and half-court traps at the Hoyas and waited for Georgetown's big men to put the ball on the floor to swipe it away. On the occasions they forced a turnover, their guards went into hyper-drive, flying down the lane without a care for their bodies.

The personalities of the teams were distilled as much as the men who guide them. John III's crew: patient, mostly precise, unshakable with flailing arms and chests in their faces. Ronny's group: relentless, full of kinetic energy and unbowed against the 21st-ranked team in the nation.

"Ronny was always the impulsive one, acting on his emotions," Big John said. "He's more like me on the sideline, going on what he feels sometimes more than what he thinks. John is the thinker, always weighing things before he makes a decision what to do."

That theme carried over to the postgame news conference, where Ronny went for the laughs before answering thoughtfully and John III, wiping his brow with a white towel like his father used to, was more measured and calculating. He took no great pleasure in beating Ronny, actually inquiring whether he could persuade Ball State's athletic director to cancel next year's game. "I'm glad it's over," he said.

"You all like to write about Pops and Coach Carril," he added, referring to Big John and former Princeton coach Pete Carril, the two men often credited with influencing John III most as a coach. "But Ronny is my biggest resource in this business. I don't know if he would say that about me, but he's mine."

In the middle of the first half, Ronny floated up and down the Verizon Center sideline. In his jet-black ensemble, red-sheen tie and white silk handkerchief peeking from his lapel, he looked less like a D-I coach and more like a Neiman Marcus catalog model. He often gives his brother grief about his wardrobe over the telephone, but John III also came well-dressed last night, sporting a smart, gray-blue striped tie. If Ronny was Vanity Fair last night, John III was definitely Brooks Brothers.

Early yesterday morning, John III stopped by Big John's house. Ronny's children were staying there and Uncle John wanted to make sure he got to see his niece and nephew before they left town after the game.

"He gave Ronny's son Dylan a great, big hug and told him, 'I love you,' " Big John said.

"Then I said, 'Yeah, he's saying that now. But he's going to try and beat the hell out of your father tonight.' "

No one got knocked out of their bracket or upset or ridiculously blown out. Ball State-Georgetown was competitive, even though John III's team was larger and better. And with all the cameras moving in for the love-thy-brother shot at the final buzzer, it felt like less of a ballgame than an awkward family reunion.

Big John said he was torn about who he wanted to win, "but I'm more proud than anything." The two little boys who climbed those steps with him 30-odd years ago were all grown up now, carrying on Pops' legacy, doing what their old man did for a living.

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