'Big John Is Still Big John'

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

Arecent caller to "The John Thompson Show" said he had met the former Georgetown coach and his star player Patrick Ewing in the early 1980s as a young boy. "You two were so tall, you were bigger than life to me," the caller said.

"Well, uh, well I just hope I didn't curse too much in front of you," Thompson said. "I used to do that a lot." A laugh rose from his belly in the Rockville studios of WTEM radio.

Georgetown basketball celebrates its centennial today, but much of the Jesuit institution's hoops history began the day John Thompson Jr. was hired to take over a 3-23 team in 1972.

Thompson did not merely turn around a program in the nation's capital; he became the first African American coach to win an NCAA Division I men's basketball championship. In the District, where he grew up and starred at Archbishop Carroll High School, he grew into an iconic figure. Nationally, his domineering teams became part of the zeitgeist -- a rebellious, empowering symbol for the black community.

In the early 1980s, the Hoyas largely were viewed outside of Washington as 12 angry black men who scowled their way to the Final Four. None seemed bigger and angrier than their 6-foot-10, 270-pound coach, policing that sideline with a white, terry-cloth towel dangling from his shoulder.

"If I saw someone coming at me the wrong way, I went back at 'em," said Thompson, 65. "I was supposed to be grateful because I one was one of the first African Americans coaching. I was supposed to sit there and say, 'Oh, thank you Mr. White Man for giving me a job.' God made me human and equal. Now I'm supposed to be grateful because you're treating me equal and treating me as a human being? No."

Today, the "Idi Amin" of college sports, which a Utah columnist tabbed Thompson 25 years ago in reference to the notorious Ugandan dictator, is an avuncular talk-show host. Guests on the program often hear an affectionate "Hey buddy" from the genteel voice they know as "Coach."

In his spare time, Thompson, who put the "p" in profanity, now asks soulful questions to siphon tears out of the eyes of hardened multimillionaires, such as Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, on TNT's NBA telecasts. Those who bought into the gruff portrait of the past, the godfather of "Hoya Paranoia," wonder what gives. Who's this John Thompson?

"I don't think I've changed at all," he said. "What I have done is adjusted to the environment in which I exist."

The growling-bear persona, he added, was an "occupational personality," employed for the job of resurrecting Georgetown and later protecting his deep, emotional investment.

"But there's no need to get up here in this radio station or go to a board meeting at Nike and act the way I did on the basketball court."

He laughed again. "Idi Amin was killin' people," Thompson said, shaking his head. "And that was one of the nicer things they used to say about me."

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