A Coach, Not a Crusader

John Thompson Jr. tackled some of the more controversial issues of his day so his son wouldn't have to when he became Georgetown's basketball coach.
John Thompson Jr. tackled some of the more controversial issues of his day so his son wouldn't have to when he became Georgetown's basketball coach. (1995 Photo By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, March 30, 2007

John Thompson III has not won a national title yet, and already people are saying he is a better coach than his father was. And nobody's happier to hear that than his father, the patriarch of Georgetown basketball. It's not that Big John cares one iota about such a comparison. But he knows his son has the chance to concentrate on coaching basketball, a luxury he never had.

When John III leads the Hoyas into the Georgia Dome today and talks to reporters about Georgetown's trip to the Final Four, he won't be a lightning rod for controversy or social issues. Nobody will write, as a columnist once wrote about his father, that John III is the "Idi Amin" of college basketball. Whatever criticism John III receives, it can't possibly amount to the bags of hate mail his father got in the 1980s. The son won't be asked how it feels to be the first black coach to bring a team to the Final Four because Pops already did that. Don't get me wrong: The son will face perhaps a thousand questions about himself, his family and his players between now and whenever the Hoyas leave Atlanta, but it won't amount to an inquisition, to one long accusation.

Yes, Big John and John III are different. Very different.

But so are we. So are the times, the culture, our level of tolerance and understanding.

John III, like any Division I coach, undoubtedly has his plate full. But he can concentrate on being a coach more fully because his father fought so many fights and made so many sacrifices through the years. John III doesn't have to fight Proposition 48 because his father walked off the Capital Centre court to call attention to that misuse of standardized testing. Pops didn't have the luxury of spending as much time coaching as he would have liked because he was meeting with drug dealer Rayful Edmonds to tell him to stay away from his players. While Pops was fighting anger over seeing a sign that said "Ewing Kan't Read This" during a road game, John III was preparing to go to Gonzaga High School, then Princeton.

John III didn't have to fight the worst of the fights because Pops did that. Earl Woods fought similar fights so Tiger wouldn't have to fight nearly as many. So, for that matter, did Raymond Wilbon. My father, the greatest verbal sparer and storyteller I've ever known, would love to have gone to private schools and studied journalism, but there were too many bigger, nastier wars to fight. So he fought them, meaning I don't have to.

There are nights I can remember, back when I covered Georgetown, when I know Big John wanted to spend the night creating a game plan but instead spent it plotting how to keep serious injustices away from his children.

It seemed to me all those fathers woke up angry just about every day because the world was unfriendly to them. Okay, maybe angry is too strong a word . . . but it fit too much of the time.

Because of pioneers such as Thompson and John Chaney and George Raveling, Clarence "Big House" Gaines and Will Robinson, today's young successful African American coaches get to spend a little more time doing what they aspire to do -- which is to say, coach.

The culture and the times didn't change on their own; it required a push. So did we. But it all evolved, thankfully. White coaches, all the time now, have predominantly black teams and nobody much cares anymore. Tattoos? So what? Cornrows? Big deal. So much of what we thought Georgetown represented 25 years ago, when Pops led the Hoyas to their first Final Four, doesn't even qualify as an afterthought now. I remember reporters asking Big John in accusatory tones back then about the cotton T-shirt Patrick Ewing wore under his jersey, as if wearing it somehow made Ewing sinister. I didn't even realize Roy Hibbert wears a similar gray T-shirt (at least some of the time) until I saw his photo on the front of the Sports section yesterday.

It's funny now, the stuff folks presumed about Georgetown then. There were people who looked at Thompson and his team and presumed Georgetown was a historically black university. They presumed Georgetown was some sort of trade school and weren't really willing to accept the fact that players such as Ron Blaylock and Ralph Dalton and Michael Jackson and Horace Broadnax could leave Georgetown and very quickly distinguish themselves on Wall Street, in the television industry and law school. Whether or not Big John publicly addressed the misperceptions, they certainly had to burn him up. As a black man covering the team, the misperceptions burned me up because, using the same illogic, what must people have presumed about me?

And it sometimes burned me that Thompson wouldn't talk about it to reporters he didn't trust and wouldn't let people in to see how wrong they were about most stuff, though I later came to understand nobody wants to have to try and prove to others what they aren't. But it sure had to take up untold hours and amounts of energy just getting through the day.

It took a while, but most people have let some of that junk go.

If John III is the kindler and gentler man he appears to be, it's because that's his personality and because the world for the most part will allow him to be that. Big John might have been ornery and belligerent and intimidating (to some) no matter when and where and how he grew up, though we'll never know. Many of the people who root for Georgetown now weren't even born when Hoya Paranoia was a phenomenon as much as a catchphrase. Many are too young to remember. And the ones who are old enough might wonder what all the fuss was about.

One can only hope John III can recruit and teach and coach with minimal cultural aggravation and without the weight of the world coming down on him. And if he can exist with that relative luxury, and simply have to negotiate the normal difficulties of his chosen profession, John III probably will be a better coach than his father, who helped make it so.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company