John Thompson and the Georgetown Hoyas

By Leonard Shapiro

Holt/John McRae. 310 pp. $19.95

ANY SUSPICION raised by its fatuous title that this is another puffy sports biography is immediately erased by the revelation of the current relationshiup between John Thompson and the players who helped make him a $1 million-a-year coach and Georgetown University a basketball power.

Craig (Big Sky) Shelton, workhorse of Thompson's first national caliber Georgetown team in 1980, "wonders why his former coach never returned his phone calls when Shelton wanted to come back to school to finish the degres he never got. Several other players and former friends wonder why Thompson never lifted a finger to help them find better jobs."

Such questions lead Leonard Shapiro, former sports editor of The Washington Post and now a reporter for the newspaper, to ask of Thompson: "Is he St. John, or a devil of a coach?" Shapiro, painfully fair-minded, at the end lamely concludes that Thompson's story is one of "contradictions." But his meticulous search for the real John Thompson leans strongly to the devil theory.

Shapiro's task as a biographer is daunting. Not only did Thompson, in keeping with Hoya Paranoia, refuse to be interviewed by Shapiro for the book. But also it is no easy task to get straight talk on the record about the 6-foot-10, 300-pounder with an intimidating baritone voice, expert at "bogarding" (defined here as inner-cityese for "walking and talking with arrogant authority and being prepared to back it up, on or off the basketball court").

That forces Shapiro to rely heavily on unattributed quotes. One major college coach is quoted as substantiating the widespread assumption that America's premier black coach has used his race in recruiting black athletes for Georgetown. The coach then explains why he inists on anonymity:

"Nobody will tell you that on the record. People are afraid of John Thompson -- they're intimidated by him. He's a very powerful guy and nobody wants to take him on. He's protected because most people live in fear of him. He's a very vindictive guy. Think about it. What chance would I have of recruiting a black athlete if I went public on John Thompson? He's a hero in the black community. I'd never get a black athlete."

That element of vindictiveness in Thompson has seemed to grow and to tarnish the heroic ascent to power and success by a poor boy with a learning disability.

The late Joe Dean Davidson, coach at Washington's Dunbar High School, told Shapiro his close relationship with Thompson was shattered after a player named Kenny Matthews did not follow the path of Shelton and past Dunbar stars to Georgetown and instead attended North Carolina State. "To him, that was treason," said Davidson, "and as time passes, he's been known to retaliate." Davidson blamed Thompson's negative reference for Davidson's losing the Drake University coaching job.

Thompson's vindictive anger over losing a recruit apparently solves a little mystery that had puzzled me. Washington's undefeated John Carroll High School "wonder team" of 1960 gathered for a 1987 reunion dinner on the occasion of the elevation of one of its members, Monk Malloy, as president of the University of Notre Dame. But the team's star, John Thompson, was not present.

The reason, Shapiro reveals, was the presence at the dinner of Thompson's old Carroll coach, Bob Dwyer. Thompson still had not forgiven Dwyer for steering a white basketball player to little Roanoke College, where he would play, instead of to Georgetown, where he would sit.

Dwyer told Shapiro of writing Thompson that "I don't have much time left and I'd like to face up to the facts with him. . ." The old coach "desperately wants to make peace with Thompson, before he dies," Shapiro relates, "but Thompson won't even return his telephone calls."

Shapiro balances such behavior with Thompson's tender care of his invalid mother before her death and descriptions of his kindness to friends. At the end, he makes a balanced judgment: No, Thompson is not a racist (Shapiro uses the some-of-his-best-friends-are-white argument). Yes, "at times he can be" an intimidating, foul-mouthed bully. Yes, he "most definitely" can coach. Yes, he must take the blame as U.S. national coach for losing the 1988 Olympics to the Soviet Union.

Shapiro's most dubious final verdict may be on the practice of marginal students playing basketball for academically selective Georgetown. It "is a sellout," he concludes, but insists Thompson is "far better" than most coaches on this score.

On the contrary, he may be worse. Shapiro does not discuss the extent to which Georgetown basketballers pick up course credits at the much less demanding University of the District of Columbia. Thompson's supposed 95-percent record of graduating students becomes suspect with the revelation here by Craig Shelton: "He told me back then to tell people that I had graduated, so I went along." THE WORST mark against Thompson's integrity is the scandal of Michael Graham, the combative power forward whose single year at Georgetown was probably essential to Thompson's only national championship. The degree of corruption is unusual even for college basketball.

"Clearly, Michael Graham had no business at Georgetown," the author writes. But Shapiro does not dwell on the scandal, which was largely ignored by newspaper coverage. Graham's academic record at Washington's inner-city Spingarn High school was so poor that he could not have entered the University of Maryland, where he had made an oral commitment. Instead, he dropped out of high school, was enrolled in Georgetown under the Upward Bound program and was gone before his sophomore year began, but not before a national championship was delivered to the university.

Ex-Hoya player Derrick Jackson, now a minister, describes his college coach as "a great man and a great friend," but other players dissent. Again, Shelton is devastating: "He always told us not to let the white man exploit you, but some of us think it wasn't the white man who exploited us, it was John Thompson." Shapiro writes that Thompson's first Georgetown players (who also played for him at St. Anthony's High School) "want nothing to do with the {Georgetown} program, mostly because they believe Thompson lost interest in them once they stopped playing and left school."

John Thompson is a man whose will and intelligence would have sent him to the top in politics, diplomacy or business. His power plays detailed here would not be untoward in those fields. But college basketball is supposed to be fun. Its sense of exhilaration has made me and others lifelong roundball fanatics.

It's doesn't seem much fun for Thompson. His journey from poverty and obscurity to fame and wealth as described by Shapiro is joyless. His own personality is reflected in the image of Georgetown basketball, punctuating victory with swinging fists and foul language. Leonard Shapiro skillfully paints this portrait of the angry coach, even if he never fully explains why the anger has deepened on the road to success.

Robert D. Novak is a syndicated columnist.