In the Name of the Fathers

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, March 31, 2007


Fathers are like fishhooks. They are impossible to dislodge from your skin. John Thompson III, Patrick Ewing Jr., Jeremiah Rivers and the rest of Georgetown's footstep boys can't get away from their own names; they are stuck with them.

"We're the 'son of' team," Thompson III says.

A therapist would have a field day with the Hoyas' family dynamic in the NCAA Final Four. What is this, some kind of corrective experience, or repetitive compulsion? Why did Thompson III go into this line of work, anyway? What are so many legacies doing playing for the Hoyas? Is this a cluster study? Are they here to avenge something? Prove something? Amend something?

The Hoyas answer these sorts of questions with a patient opacity. Asked to investigate their own psyches as they await their NCAA semifinal meeting with Ohio State, they offer unrevealing replies; they have no great insights into those imperious shadow rulers they call their fathers. Rather, there is the sense, among these guys with the juniors and the numerals after their names, that long before they got here they had already totaled up the exchange rate of following in their fathers' prominent footsteps -- the price of public vs. private failure, exposure vs. anonymity -- and simply accepted the deal. They chose not to become bank clerks, but ballplayers.

"We're comfortable with who we are," Thompson III says. "We'll let everyone else analyze, compare and contrast, go through the process. . . . To us, it is difficult because of the success that our parents have had, to pull it apart and differentiate."

The flatness of the response is excusable: How is Thompson III supposed to adequately sort out, in a news conference sound byte, the tangled matter of his DNA? Why he is the way he is, how he reflects his father, would take years "to pull apart" and hardly is a topic he wishes to discuss with strangers and spectators.

But rest assured, Thompson III indeed has thought about it, because one of the things that happens when you go into the same line of work as your old man -- whether you are a lawyer, a racecar driver or a coach -- is that you rigorously self-define. You realize quick that you won't ever be the old man, and you refuse to let other people confuse that issue for you. A sure sense of identity is a hallmark of these Hoyas. "We know who we are," is Thompson's most constant refrain.

Robbie Knievel puts it another way. A few years ago, I talked to Knievel, son of the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, at the Iowa State Fair as he was getting ready to jump a record number of school buses. Robbie regularly liked to go one better than his old man, just to show that he could. He did it for himself, even though he doubted if anyone cared, and he knew he wasn't going to get rich. What Robbie had realized was this: "Who gives a [expletive] if you can sing louder than Elvis?" he said.

Being an occupational follower is something I know about: My father is a Hall of Fame sportswriter who still turns out best-selling novels. He is a brilliantly satirical kind of father, whose idea of parental advice is, "Don't rob old people." One of the things I learned early on as a footstepper is that imitating him is impossible, and you just look silly if you try.

Footsteppers don't spend their formative years striving to live up to their fathers. Rather, they spend them identifying their fathers' mistakes, and trying not to repeat them. What's important to footsteppers is not similarity with a parent, but difference. You get the feeling, listening to Thompson III wax on about his tutelage under Pete Carril of Princeton, that there was a time when his father couldn't tell him much of anything. There is a natural cycle of worship-rejection-acceptance with a formidable father, just as with any child and parent. "Father would find in me today a much more receptive listener," the philosopher William James said.

These Georgetown footsteppers, contrary to popular assumptions about them, have not set out to replicate anyone or anything, and couldn't if they wanted to.

"Not really," says Ewing Jr. "We just do our own thing."

It's a waste of time to ask them about their pampered legacies, their unusual parents, and privileged upbringing. The truth is, footsteppers don't do a lot of self-pitying rumination on the subject of their parentage, because whether it opens a million doors or closes them is irrelevant. Either way, they still have to walk through the door. Which is why, when asked if he had talked to his father about the Final Four, Ewing Jr. replied curtly: "Not so much. We've been more concerned with getting it done, not about the fact that he's been here before."

Parental influence is a swampy subject; no one can be completely cognizant of its effects while they are standing in the middle of their own life. For instance, it's clear that Thompson III has his own view of his father, which is different from that of the rest of the world. There is the public account of him, and then there is the private one.

"You know, John Thompson is my dad," he says. "That's who he is to me."

But there is one inheritance passed on from father to son that is perfectly clear and incontrovertible. It's the most simple and obvious exchange of all, one that takes place just as often between cops, firefighters and farmers as it does between Hall of Famers: It's love of craft. With that, anyone can carve out their own name. It becomes your own property. It's yours, to make of it what you will.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company