Hard Road To Hoop Dreams

By Kenneth Ikenberry
Saturday, March 31, 2007

The story of the Thompsons and Georgetown University basketball-- a story that is finishing a particularly happy chapter just now -- goes back even further than the 35 years that have passed since John Thompson Jr. became the basketball coach at Georgetown. It began more than a half-century ago, when a skinny, tall (very tall) kid was playing for Archbishop John Carroll, a Catholic high school in Northeast Washington. It is a story not just about Georgetown and basketball and success but about Washington, and the people who have lived and worked here for generations, as opposed to those who come here to make their names.

John Thompson Jr. played his high school ball at Carroll just a few years after Brown v. Board of Education, when most of the schools in this part of the country were only nominally integrated, if that. In Fairfax County, many black high school students were being bused long distances to avoid integrating the schools. Where I lived, the buses rolled in after 5 p.m., by which time my high school friends and I had already put in an hour on the local outdoor basketball court. We took note of the petty unfairness of it. Just across the river, John Thompson might have had stronger opinions.

But the Catholic schools were doing better in these things, and on John Thompson's team there were three African American starters and two white ones. And it was a great team, one that people here still talk about. It included Edward "Monk" Malloy, who was to serve 18 years as president of Notre Dame University, and George Leftwich, a member of a proud old family known in this area for far more than its athletes (among them the current Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback, Byron Leftwich, who had to get tickets for a hundred relatives and friends the last time he came to town to play against the Redskins). Carroll won 55 consecutive games, including the 1959 city championship game against Cardozo, with Thompson playing in an intimidating double-post setup alongside Tom Hoover.

Years later Monk Malloy recalled the time his father was driving team members to an appearance on a college campus. "In Delaware, we stopped at a place and they refused to serve us -- only the white players," he said. "I never forgot that. I was so offended -- these were my friends."

John Thompson probably didn't forget it, either.

The story continues with Thompson's college career at Providence, then a couple of years with the Boston Celtics and eventually the coaching job with Georgetown, whose basketball program was in a sad state then. He built Georgetown into a national power. At the same time, he made it clear that he wanted to lay a strong academic foundation for his players, most of whom were black and most of whom, he knew, would spend little or no time in the NBA, no matter how good the Georgetown teams they played for.

By this time, the skinny kid was a massive figure not known for either reticence or tact. He became the first black coach to win the NCAA championship, which was bound to bring the wrong sort of attention from the wrong sort of people, some of whom said he had a chip on his shoulder, which they laid to race. That latter part is debatable (John Thompson strongly denies it was so, though he does not deny the social-activist side of his efforts), but in any event, most of these critics probably weren't around here in 1959, an experience that might have provided a certain perspective.

The coach's son, John Thompson III, started the next chapter of the story as a star at Gonzaga College High School. He got his college education at Princeton, where he then coached. And now, in just his third year at Georgetown, he is leading a team into college basketball's Final Four.

The younger Thompson seems confident, restrained and calm. He is quietly effective as a coach where his father was, well, less-quietly effective. If there was ever really something called "Hoya Paranoia" (a term applied to some of John Thompson Jr.'s teams), it's not evident at this Final Four. Indeed, this is a team that looks to be at peace with itself -- capable, calm and disciplined, the pride of its home town.

That may say something about how far things have come in our area since those John Carroll days. It hasn't all been light and happiness, but things are a lot better than they were when John Thompson was playing high school hoops, and John Thompson basketball has had more than a little to do with it.

Kenneth Ikenberry is a former Post writer and editor. His e-mail address iskennethikenberry@aol.com.

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