His tie loose, his shirt flopped sloppily over his belt and his forehead still beading sweat, John Thompson, the Georgetown University basketball coach, stood outside a locker room a few minutes after his team had routed Maryland last month.
The victory for the nationally ranked Hoyas had been easy, and controversial. Midway through the first half, Thompson had vehemently protested when a referee awarded Maryland a free throw after a Georgetown player had drunked the ball and momentarily hung on the rim, a technical foul.
Maryland's Lefty Driesell, a foot-stomper himself, politely suggested to Thompson that he stop arguing and take his seat back on the Georgetown bench. Thompson, according to several eyewitnesses, tore into Driesell. "You blankety-blank SOB," he raged at The Lefthander. But Thompson did not say blankety-blank.
John Thompson is 6-foot-10 and weighs more than 300 pounds. When he gets angry, he gets very angry. Driesell quickly sat down, and when the game ended, the two men did not shake hands.
Now, after the final basket, Thompson was headed for a post-game press conference. Still clutching the towel he uses to stay dry on the bench, Thompson spotted a friend in the hallway.
"You see," he winked, "I told you I could be a bastard."
A week earlier, John Thompson had been stretched out in an easy chair in his cluttered office at McDonough Arena, the ancient gymnasium that serves as home court for Georgetown basketball.
He was talking about images, specifically his own.
"It's bull," he said of the widely held notion that he is a high-topped goody-two-sneakers, the Black Shadow of Washington. "I am not St. John. I do not go to confession seven days a week. I am not a father figure to my players. They all have parents, mothers and fathers, and I think you insult those people when you call me a father-image to their sons.
"It is not my intention to be a crusader for this cause or that cause. I don't want to be a social worker. Let's take this education thing. They all say, 'Thompson is wonderful because he stresses education, education, education.' Well, they hired me to coach basketball. If I say I want my kids to get an education, it's perceived as an extraordinary thing, that I'm a martyr or something. Why should that be?
"Sure, you have to have images. Usually there is a good guy or a bad guy. I'm not interested in being the bad guy. Who is? But I don't know if I'm the good guy, either. I make mistakes. I get angry. Sometimes I work the kids too hard. I'm like any other coach -- I'd love to have them concentrate on basketball. I have people on my staff who help me control those feelings. I need that check.
"I'm not trying to be anything other than what I am, and I'm really not certain what that is."
More than anything, John Thompson is a basketball coach, the most successful in Georgetown's history. He is now in his eighth season on the Hilltop, and only his first team -- his favorite team -- lost more games than they won.
The Hoyas have had five straight winning seasons and are well on their way to a sixth this year with a team that fields two legitimate All-America candidates -- guard John (Ba Ba) Duren and forward Craig (Big Sky) Shelton. Georgetown has advanced to the NCAA tournament three times, to the NIT twice and should earn a post-season spot again this year, as well as a top-20 ranking.
At the age of 37, Thompson is on the selection committee for the U.S. Olympic Basketball team. He served as an assistant coach to North Carolina's Dean Smith on America's 1976 gold medal-winning Olympic team.
Smith is one of his closest friends. So are Bobby Knight, the Indiana coach, and Al McGuire, the former Marquette coach, who says of Thompson, "I've never met a finer man."
Two years ago, Georgetown's president, the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, named Thompson the university's presidential consultant on urban affairs. "I guess I'm a semi-lobbyist," Thompson says.
"The school wants to have a more active role in the community, and I try to help. I go to dinners, to discussion groups. If the school needs to talk to a councilman, I'll try and help out, set it up. It's strictly free-lance."
It is a role Thompson is qualified to fill. He is a product of the District, a city that was strictly segregated when he was a child. He grew up in the housing projects of Anacostia, the son of hard-working parents. His father worked in a tile factory, his mother was a domestic in Northwest.
Thompson remembers wearing secondhand clothes, but he and his three sisters, he recalls now, "grew up in a family full of love. I never felt like I was deprived."
Thompson was six feet tall when he was 12, and the big boys were picking him for their basketball games on the playground. Between that competition and the leagues at the Boys' Club, Thompson's game and his height advanced to a level that cought the eye of several city coaches. The Catholic schools had been desegregated by the time he was ready for high school, and he was offered a scholarship to Archbishop Carroll, where he also met his wife, Gwen.
Thompson led Carroll to 55 straight victories, still a local record, then enrolled at Providence (R.I.) College, because his mother felt the Dominican priests would take care of her son.
Mostly, though, Thompson took care of Providence. With him in the pivot, the Friars advanced to the NCAA tournament once and to the NIT twice. When he graduated, the Boston Celtics took him on the third round of the draft.
Thompson played back-up to Bill Russell for two years, and when the NBA expanded, he was selected in the draft by the Chicago Bulls.
But he had no desire to become a basketball nomad, running from city to city in pursuit of the bouncing ball. Not even six-figure offers from two new teams in the rival American Basketball Association could bring him out of retirement.
So Thompson, at age 25, went back to the District, working at Federal City College, running what he describes as "an urban 4-H program." He also finished a master's degree in guidance and counseling, and did his practical work in the D.C. jail. "They taught me words in there you can't put in your newspaper," he says.
At the same time, Thompson coached at St. Anthony's High School in Brookland in Northeast. In six years as a part-time coach, he built the program to a position of dominance in area basketball and sent a dozen players to college on full scholarships.
When Georgetown first went looking for a coach to replace Jack Magee after a disastrous 3-23 season in 1971-72, some alumni were pushing De Matha's Morgan Wootten. Others wanted Jack Ramsay, now coach of the Portland Trailblazers.Instead, they got Thompson, a man with no college coaching experience.
Even now there are some alumni not altogether pleased that Georgetown's coach is black and that he frequently fields an all-black starting five.
"But I would say that is a very small minority," says Ed Machir, president of Hoyas Unlimited, an alumni fund-raising group. "People know what John has done for the school and for the program. He's the best thing that's ever happened to Georgetown basketball."
Around Washington some coaches say Thompson can get down in the dirt and street-fight with the best of America's wheeler-dealer coaches particularly when recruiting athletes.
The latest example, some say, involved David Blue, a seldom-used freshman guard at Georgetown. Blue played at Prospect Hall, a small Catholic school in Frederick, Md., last year and led the Washington area in scoring with 29 points and 15 rebounds a game. He had signed a letter of intent last spring to play at Catholic University, only to enroll at Georgetown, on scholarship.
Jack Kavancz, Catholic's coach, says he prefers not to get into a public shouting match with Thompson and will not comment about Blue. His friends around town, however, say Kavancz was outraged when Blue enrolled at Georgetown. "It's just an unethical thing," said another coach. "When a school signs a kid, everybody should get off him. Jack feels Thompson didn't do that, that he went behind his back."
Thompson also declines comment about Blue: "We did nothing wrong or unethical. Jack hasn't made a big issue out of it, and I don't want to either. It's not good for anybody, especially the kid."
Pat McDonough, Blue's coach at Prospect Hall, says Thompson "did absolutely nothing wrong with David Blue. There is absolutely nothing to the whole story.
"A kid decided to go someplace, but he wasn't that crazy about it. He visited Catholic, he had qualms and he changed his mind. Is it wrong for a 17-year-old kid to change his mind? I just wish people would let it die.It's sick to make something out of it."
McDonough is a Catholic University graduate who once served as Thompson's assistant coach at St. Anthony's. They are good friends, but McDonough says, "That has nothing to do with what happened. I thought Catholic would be a better playing situation for David. I steered him that way in the first place. But David just didn't feel comfortable there, that's all. I question the motives of someone who wants to distort this. John Thompson didn't to do one thing wrong."
"Right now, I'm not too high on John Thompson," said Maryland coach Lefty Dreisell. "Up until our last game [and Thompson's outburst], I had a lot of respect for him. But I didn't appreciate that."
Bob Tallent, the George Washington coach, says: "If John can project the image he does, more power to him. I'm not going to say anything bad about him because I've got to play him. Sure you hear stories, but I don't know if I believe them.
"I do know one thing -- he has changed the whole situation around over there. He gets kids in now they couldn't get in seven, eight years ago. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
Adds another coach, "Georgetown has said, 'We'll make a commitment to the program.' In order to do that, they have to take kids who normally won't get in. They make sure they give them every opportunity to graduate. They give the kids tutors, they make sure they get with sympathetic professors, guys who will work with the kids. I think the kids are getting an education. They do go to class. They have so many checks in their program -- they know if the kids are doing the work, if they're skipping classes. I think that's a great strength of their program. I also know I couldn't get a lot of his kids in the front door of my admissions office."
Another local coach says he is disturbed with Thompson's influence in the summer Urban Coalition League, where many of the area's best players hone their skills in a highly competitive atmosphere. "All of John's buddies run the thing," the coach said, "and he uses it to his best advantage. He lets certain people coach the teams, and only certain kids can play in the league.
"My other problem with John is at the high school level. He still knows who the best young players in the city are, and he tries to steer them to his friends at Dunbar or St. Anthony's . . . .There's an awful lot of high school coaches in this town who are plenty upset with Thompson."
Thompson has heard all of this before. "I've learned to accept it," he says. "If that's what people want to believe, fine, let them believe it. I know how we run the program. I know what kind of kids we've got, and I know I'm satisfied with the way we operate.
"I also know it's a damned tough business we're in. Hell yes, we go after kids. We're not naive little babies, poor old Jesuit Georgetown trying to fight the wolves. When we have a to recruit, we know what we're doing. I don't know what other people do. I know we're not paying kids to come here. We're not violating any rules to get them in here and we're not breaking any rules in keeping them here. We work damned hard at recruiting, and we fight to recruit. This isn't kid stuff, but nobody's going to take advantage of me."
Many people try. Thompson is constantly asked to speak, to attend clinics, benefit dinners, community meetings, graduations, communions, to lend his name to charities and fund-raising causes. And when he says no, which happens more all the time, people are offended, particularly black people.
"I do things I think I should have to do," he says. "It's gotten to the point where I've almost had to go underground, to do things inconspicuously because I don't want people to keep saying, 'There goes goody-two-shoes Thompson.'
"God knows I am aware of the black man's struggle. But I also feel like I have a right to be an individual, to be me. Martin Luther King didn't go through his struggle so that I would become oppressed by blacks. He did what he did so that I could become a human being.
"One guy called up one day and blasted me. He says, "You don't give a damn about the community, otherwise you'd come to this dinner.' Well, I resent that. I am responsible to John Thompson, to John Thompson's mother, to my wife and children, to my staff and to my players. That is my responsibility, and that is what I care about."
He is a devout Catholic, a man who cares deeply for his family, his wife and their two sons, John, 13, Ronald, 10, and daughter, Tiffany, 4. Gwen Thompson says she has grown accustomed to her husband's long days at the office. "Actually it's more of a problem when he's home," she says. "He has all this nervous energy. If he's not doing something, he's just itchy. So the kids give him their schedules, I give him my schedule, and if he can make it, fine. If not, that's fine too."
The family has lived for 11 years in an unpretentious house in a modest, middleclass neighborhood near Catholic University. "Gwen goes to the games," says a friend, "and she takes care of the house and kids. You hardly ever see her around."
Thompson also is devoted to his mother, who has lived with the family the last two years. She has arthritis, and Thompson spends a good part of every morning helping her get up, bathe and dress. "She's my mother," he says. "She is the reason I'm here. What I do is nothing special. How many years did she take care of me?"
Thompson has other interests not usually associated with basketball coaches. He acquired a taste for Chinese art on his team's trip to Taiwan three years ago, and the shelves of his office are full of Oriental artifacts. On the walls are also several paintings by one of his players, Billy Lynn, a sensitive artist who also happened to stand 6-foot-10 and had a feather-soft jump shot.
One of Thompson's proudest days was in 1976, the Afternoon Lynn and the rest of his teammates from Thompson's first recruiting class marched across the stage at McDonough to accept their degrees. John Thompson has no qualms saying he is an emotional man. That day tears welled up in his eyes.
That first team was Thompson's favorite, just because "so much was expected from them. Here we were, the new coach and his hot-shot players from St. Anthony's, going to life Georgetown to the top."
He also was terribly proud of his 1974-75 team. Georgetown was in the midst of a six-game losing streak and playing at home when a bed-sheet banner was hoisted through a window at McDonough for all to see. "Thompson The Nigger Flop Must Go," the sheet read. The incensed Hoyas went on to win that game, then ran off 10 victories in their last 13 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
The incident profoundly affected Thompson, and he still admits, "It bothers me to think there are people like that in this day and age. But there's no sense dwelling on it. It happened, and maybe it was for the good. I know I don't think about it anymore. I think that represented a very tiny segment, and I've never experienced anything like that ever since."
Thompson is also clear that he will not be a token black. He cherished his experience as the assistant on the Olympic team but would not repeat it, he says. "Too many black coaches in the past became symbols of the U.S. assistant," he says. "I would like to be the head coach, but I've been an assistant once, and the only man I'd ever do it for again is Dean Smith. I don't want to be another symbol."
Thompson is fiercely loyal to his staff, and they repay him by staying with him. Bon Grier, one of his assistants, coached Thompson at the Boys' Club as a teenager. Bill Stein, chief recruiter, was Thompson's teammate at Providence. Mary Fenlon, the team's academic adviser and Thompson's educational conscience, has been with the coach ever since both worked at St. Anthony's.
Another of Thompson's assets is an instinctive ability to mix comfortably with the dude on the corner, the professor on the hilltip, the athlete on the basketball court. And on that court, Thompson is at his best.
His practices are grueling, three-hour minimum sessions that, he says, "are the highlight of my day." His players call him "Coach" or "Mr. Thompson" to his face, "Pipeehead" behind his back. Pipes and coffee are his principal vices.
He can be a screamer, a scolder or a soppy softy. "Respect" is the word his players use time and again when asked how they feel about their coach.
"He's a very nice man," says senior Lonnie Duren, the brother of John, and a seldom-used reserve. "I also think I finally understand him. He always lets you know exactly where you stand, what your role on the team is going to be.
"I know I'm not going to play much, but I can accept that. He calls me the motivator because my role is to get things going in practice. I contribute to this team by working hard in practice and helping my teammates get better. He told me that, and I accept that.
"Sure we practice hard. Sometimes we practice early in the morning. Sometimes he gets angry at us and keeps us long. But I know why. Some of the younger guys might not like it, but you've got to look at everything, what he's trying to accomplish."
Thompson is willing to raise serious questions about his profession. He has become an outspoken advocate of a coach's union, "because there will never be any sanity to this business as long as the job is predicated on winning and losing."
He has had offers from other schools to coach. The pros are also a possibility, and his friends tell him he would have a bright future in District politics.
"I've never thought about politics seriously," Thompson says. "But then again, I also never thought of being a college basketball coach, either. So who knows what's going to happen?
"Right now, I have no intentions of leaving Georgetown. It's a place that's ben very supportive. I feel comfortable here, criticize Georgetown.
"We've gotten the program into the mainstream of college basketball, and that was one of our original goals. Sure there's a lot more to accomplish, and we're trying to get there. One thing I do know for sure. When I took this job eight years ago, I thought I knew everything. It took eight years to learn that I know nothing.
"I don't go to clubs, to movies, to dinner parties. My entertainment comes form what I do here. My sister once told me I have no fun. But I do. To me this is it. Sometimes I don't. And sometimes I'm just a bastard. I'm just being me."