As always, heads snapped around as John Thompson entered the restaurant. There were stares, whispers, fingers pointing. Thompson didn't seem to notice. He seems to be getting used to people gaping at his 6-foot, 10-inch, 300- pound presence, as he seems to be getting used to being a giant in the world of college basketball. There, though, it's not his size that makes him stand out -- it's his success and outspokenness.
At age 43 Thompson is in a group of perhaps six coaches who could name their price at most basketball schools in the country. In 13 years his teams at Georgetown University have won 7 of every 10 games and have played in the NCAA postseason basketball tournament for six straight years. This year they won the national championship.
Thompson is the first black coach to enjoy major success at the college level. He has recruited dozens of inner-city teen-agers to play basketball at a school they might never have even thought about, and he has watched their every move on and off the court, insisting that they work as hard at getting degrees as they do at playing ball.
He has created a basketball team in his own image: black, street-smart, tough, unrelenting, defensive. Like their coach, the Hoyas are impossible to ignore. They press the entire game, their points come in bunches, they are unrelenting.
Like anyone else, Thompson wants success, even hungers for it. But he is not impressed with the way the praise is delivered to him, at times almost as if he should be grateful for it. When he was asked two years ago how it felt to be the first black coach to reach the NCAA final four, he said: "I resent the hell out of that question." The reason: "The implication is I was the first black capable of coaching a team to the final four. That's just stupid." Thompson believes he has made it despite put on him by white society. That may be why he challenges.
As a little boy, he demanded to know why his relatives accepted sitting in the back of church and taking Communion second because they were black. As an adult he has demanded to know why racist signs directed at his players in other teams' gyms are not ripped down.
He even challenges his own success. "If I succeed, it means blacks can coach," he says in his deep, rumbling basso voice. "If I fail, it means they can't. That's a bunch of bull, but it's comfortable for whites to believe it, so they do. Then they get upset with me because I don't do the expected. I'm not grateful for what they perceive to be my success. They can't understand that or relate to it.
"My father never learned to read, never made anywhere near the kind of money I make, but he was a success. So was my mother. I am perceived as a success by standards created by white people. My team wins a lot of games, I make a lot of money. When I'm 80 and I look back, is that going to make me think of myself as a success? I don't think so.
"But if I change some things, even slightly, if I stand up on this platform I've been given and say, 'No, this is wrong,' then maybe I will feel good about myself. I may not change anything, and I know I'm going to upset some people, but I can live with that. That's the most important thing. Whether I succeed is not what determines whether I am a success."
As his platform has expanded because of his team's victories, his need to control the success has increased. He has shielded his players from the media, held their practices behind doors chained shut and has kept his teams in hideaway motels when on the road, often 100 miles from the game site.
His players have learned to be cautious. Sometimes they seem fearful. Thompson's temper, like everything else about him, is huge. He will scream and curse in practice, one reason he insists practices be closed. When Eric Smith, a member of the 1982 team, was called by a reporter several months Georgetown, the first thing he asked was: "Did you check with him (Thompson) on this?"
Thompson identifies closely with members of his team. His star player, Patrick Ewing, a seven-foot wonder, is in many ways a reflection. Ewing has been called illiterate. Thompson, as a boy, was labeled illiterate by his teachers. Ewing has had racist signs waved in his face. Thompson, as recently as nine years ago, had a sign waved at him in Georgetown's gym during a losing streak: "Thompson, the Nigger flop, must go."
Some of Thompson's most emotional outbursts have taken place after incidents involving Ewing. In 1982 he screamed at reporters when he told them that a death threat had been made against Ewing. In 1983 he pulled his team off the court during a game at Providence College, Thompson's alma mater, when someone unfurled a sign that said: "Ewing Can't Read This."
After someone threw a banana at Ewing during a game at Villanova, Thompson said he would send his team into the stands the next time he saw a racist sign. The president of Georgetown, the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, said, "If that's what it takes to get people's attention, so be it."
Thompson's rage over the incidents at Providence and Villanova forced Dave Gavitt, commissioner of the Big East Conference, in which Georgetown plays, to send a directive to the nine schools demanding better crowd control. Gavitt, who coached Thompson 20 years ago, understood. "He forces you to confront issues you would rather ignore or pretend don't exist," Gavitt says. "A lot of white people would like to pretend racism doesn't exist in sports any longer. John won't let them forget."
This year, Ewing will be the centerpiece of a team that will be picked to win a second straight national title. Thompson will be watched. He will have much to say and he will shout.
He will not be ignored.
HE GREW UP in Washington, the fourth and last child of John and Anna Thompson. His father, brought up on a farm, had moved to Washington and worked as a mechanic. His mother, a teacher, couldn't teach in the city because she had only a two-year certificate. She worked as a maid for $5 a day.
He went to Catholic school and did horribly. He couldn't read, and the nuns often sent him home for bad behavior. "I didn't like them, and they didn't like me," he says, laughing at the memory. "I remember I reacted badly one day when one of the nuns came in the morning after a big boxing match and said, 'The black one won.' That was a long time before black was beautiful."
In fifth grade he was expelled for poor behavior, and his mother was told to send him to a school for retarded children. Instead, Anna Thompson sent her son to public school. There, he learned to read.
Thompson spea softly when he talks about his parents. His mother lived with him until her death in December 1982. Each morning, he got up and helped her bathe and dress, just as she had done for him when he was a baby.
Thompson is extraordinarily private about his family. "I have no interest in you talking to my family," he said last season during a series of interviews for this story. He refused to allow his wife, Gwen, to be interviewed for this story. He has two sons, John Jr., 18, a 6-foot, 4 inch All-Metropolitan basketball player at Gonzaga High School last year who is now a freshman at Princeton University, and Ronnie, 14, a ninth grader. They live in a $300,000 house in Northwest. The house was given to Thompson by Georgetown alumni when they were afraid he might be lured to Oklahoma University.
Thompson is also private about Thompson. He drives a car with Pennsylvania license plates because, "No one will be looking for me in a Pennsylvania car, right?"
As a boy, his first love was baseball. His father took him to games at Griffith Stadium where he rooted for the Cleveland Indians, especially black players like Larry Doby, Luke Easter and Suitcase Simpson. He hated the Washington Senators who, even in the early 1950s, were all white.
By the time he was 13, he was 6-feet, 6-inches tall and basketball loomed. His first exposure to the game came in the streets of Northeast where Elgin Baylor, now in the Basketball Hall of Fame, then the star at Spingarn High School, was the role model.
He played at first because it was expected of him, but later because he loved the game. He spent countless hours listening to older players tell stories. Many of them were about Baylor's coach, Lt. Dave Brown. All of them centered on Brown's discipline, his rigid standards, his control.
In a segregated city Thompson was rarely thrown out of white-only places because he knew not to go into them. Once, when a white friend took him into a drug store, the proprietor said the white boy could stay but the black boy would have to leave. They both left.
"I never missed having things because I knew not to want them," Thompson says, smiling. "I never missed having a bicycle because I knew better than to expect one. When the other boy and I went into the drugstore, he was the one who got angry because he was surprised. I wasn't surprised."
By high school, he was 6-feet, 10-inches tall and much of his awkwardness had disappeared. He was quiet, shy, almost too gentle on the court. Archbishop Carroll High School recruited him to play, offering to have an alumnus pay his tuition. "It was against the rules," Thompson says, "but it was one of those rules everyone broke."
"He was very quiet, but very intense," says Bob Dwyer, the coach at Carroll then. "John's nature was gentle, but he also had a hair-trigger temper. Every once in a while it would go off. I think he's still that way to this day."
Once, the temper showed up in practice when Thompson knocked out a player who had been pushing him around. Later, Dwyer found Thompson crying over losing control and the sight of the other boy unconscious.
Colleges from the North and Midwest recruited him fiercely. Southern schools ignored him. He went to Providence because his mother felt comfortable with the Dominican priests who ran the school and because he felt by going there he would have a chance to play for the Boston Celtics. Bill Russell, the greatest player of all time in Thompson's mind, played for the Celtics.
His college years were frustrating. He felt as if he was never used properly in the Providence offense. But he learned, and he made friends like Bill Stein, a white New Englander who made the team as a walk-on. Both were shy and both were far more comfortable going back to the dorm to talk sports than heading to the local hangout.
Thompson was more comfortable with older people than with his peers. Besides Stein, his closest friends in college were Harold and Marty Furash, a couple 20 years older. Harold Furash was a real estate man who loved basketball. A Celtics fan, he first met Thompson in high school and encouraged him to go to Providence. Often, Thompson spent weekends with the Furashes. The three would sit up late at night and talk. Thompson talked about being black. Harold Furash talked about being Jewish.
"I always say my parents taught me about the world; the Furashes taught me about the white world," Thompson says. "We argued all the time, but whenever I really needed someone to talk to, they were there. My mother always called them my parents in Boston."
Marty Furash found one thing about Thompson disconcerting: "He's the best listener I ever met. I talk so much I don't remember half of what I say. Sometimes John would come up to me and say, 'Now, about what you said three weeks ago, I've been thinking about it and . . . ' He hears everything."
Hears, sees and remembers.
Thompson had one other confidant during his last two years at Providence -- Gavitt, who became an assistant coach when Thompson was a junior. Gavitt can talk at length about Thompson as a player, but his strongest memory has nothing to do with basketball.
"The day President Kennedy was shot . . . we pulled up to the gym steps and there was John, sitting there with a transistor radio in his ear," Gavitt says. "I sat down next to him and he looked at me and said, 'I just hope to God a black man didn't do this.'
Furash, Gavitt and Stein all remember him then much as he is now: deeply sensitive, intense, disciplined and suspicious. "I think a lot of people come to relationships with the attitude that a person is okay until they prove otherwise," Furash says. "John is the opposite. You have to prove yourself to him first . . . "
Thompson graduated with a degree in economics, a minor in teaching. He was drafted by the Celtics and made the team as Russell's backup. But th cattlelike nature of the pro game was a disappointment. After two years with the Celtics, Thompson was chosen in the expansion draft by the Chicago Bulls. Thompson didn't go to Chicago; he opted for another life in Washington. By day he worked as a teacher at Federal City College, by night he coached at St. Anthony's High School. Soon his competitive nature meant that St. Anthony's became a power and his teams became the challengers to longtime great DeMatha. But Morgan Wootten, the DeMatha coach, wouldn't schedule St. Anthony's. When the two teams were paired in a summer league game, Thompson pulled his team from the court, playing the game with cheerleaders and football players.
"After all those years of ducking me, I wasn't going to let people pass judgment one way or the other based on a summer league game," Thompson says. Today, even though DeMatha has outstanding players, Thompson will not recruit there. "People can live on the earth away from one another," he says of Wootten.
After six years at St. Anthony's, Georgetown came looking for a coach to rebuild a team that had lost all but three games in 1972. Everyone Thompson knew told him that at 29 he wasn't ready. They told him he might fail.
Thompson took the job.
Thompson quickly established his own world at Georgetown. He hired Mary Fenlon, a former nun, for a role that at the time was unheard of in college athletics -- making certain Thompson's players left Georgetown with degrees.
After Thompson arrived at Georgetown, the school began an upward-bound program for inner- city teens who might not have been otherwise admissable. And, under Thompson, it began actively recruiting black athletes.
The program has been controversial. Some coaches at other schools say Georgetown has prostituted itself to the cause of winning basketball games, that many players, among them Ewing, had grades and board scores too low to get into almost any college, much less one that claimed academic excellence.
"He's got players in school I couldn't touch," says University of Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell, a longtime Thompson foe.
School officials are adamant that the program is valid. "I'm not going to tell you what Patrick Ewing's board scores were," says Charles Deacon, the school's director of undergraduate admissions, "but I'll tell you this: they weren't nearly as low as people have reported. This is not a basketball factory. If it were, we'd just keep the kids eligible for four years and then dump them. Look at what John's kids who aren't in pro basketball are doing for a living today. They're doctors, lawyers, ministers. They aren't on the streets, or playing minor league basketball somewhere."
One of Thompson's graduates is a doorman. A couple of others are playing minor-league basketball. Michael Graham, last year's star freshman, will not play basketball this year because of poor grades. But most of Thompson's players do go to classes, and they do graduate.
Thompson has always maintained that to be taken seriously as a black coach his players had to graduate, and they had to win. It was not until his third season that they began to win.
In 1975 Georgetown won a bid to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. That raised eyebrows: To go from a season of 3 wins and 23 losses to the tournament in three years was considered miraculous for a small school like Georgetown.
Thompson's winning ways are based on two coaching skills. First, he has an uncanny knack for recognizing talent. Many of his best players -- Mike Riley, Derrick Jackson, Gene Smith, Eric Floyd -- were overlooked by other schools.
"John looks for a certain kind of person and a certain kind of player, too," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "He can see how a young man will fit in and help his team when other coaches are just looking for athleic ability. He rarely misjudges people."
Second, Thompson recruits players who will do it his way. Few coaches can convince their players of the importance of playing defense all out for 40 minutes a game. Thompson does.
Thompson expects loyalty, demands it, and returns it. His team is family and, he believes, you protect your own. Everyone else is an outsider. Even old friends like Furash do not expect to be allowed into the locker room. Reporters are given only the time required by NCAA rules.
"If I pulled some of the things with the press he's pulled over the years I'd be crucified," says Gary Williams, basketball coach at Boston College. "But no one is willing to take shots at John. They're afraid of him."
Not necessarily. Many in the media have gone after him hard:
*In 1980, he was criticized by coaches and writers for not discouraging Ralph Dalton -- a 6-foot, 8-inch high school senior who had already decided to go to Georgeton -- from playing several summer league games under an assumed name. Thompson wanted to keep other recruiters from talking to him.
*He has been accused of using his size to intimidate people. But his intimidation actually comes from telling those who question his methods that they can't understand him, or his players, because they did not grow up black or in the ghetto. Wil Jones, the coach at the University of the District of Columbia, who grew up in the Thompson says, "Remember one thing, he's going to win one way or the other. If making white folks uncomfortable gets the job done for him, he'll get it done that way."
*Other press shots: One West Coast writer called him the "Idi Amin of college basketball." A New York newspaper referred to Georgetown as "the outcasts of college basketball." His protectiveness of Ewing has constantly been called into question. During the 1983 NCAA tournament many writers noted the contrast between the smiling Akeem Olajuwon, Houston's seven-foot wonder from Nigeria, and the stone-faced Ewing.
That is the kind of comment that upsets Thompson: "If there had been cameras in the 19th century, and they had taken pictures of the cotton fields, there would have been a lot of smiling faces there, too."
A nagging criticism of Thompson is that he won't recruit white players. His recent teams have had two or three white players. Last year's national championship team had none. As of the first day of practice this year, there were no white players on the 1984-85 team.
"We've recruited a lot of white kids over the years," says Stein, Thompson's chief recruiter for 10 years, and now the athletic director at St. Peter's College. "A lot of them have told us they don't want to play for a black coach, simple as that. Look, if a white coach has an all-black team, and a lot of them do, he's a humanitarian. If a black coach has an all-black team, he's a racist." THE RESTAURANT grew dark and quiet, almost empty as midnight approached. After several hours of talking, Thompson was ending the evening. "I remember when I was in college," he said. "There was an old priest, Father Heath, who I used to have long talks with, sometimes just walking along at night. One time, we were walking and he looked at me and said, 'John, I am an American white man and I enjoy privileges you don't enjoy because of that, and I won't give that up.'
"This man, if you see what I mean, was no racist. He was making a point. He was telling me that you can't wait until someone gives you these privileges as an act of charity. You have to go out and get them, even demand them yourself, or you'll never get them. That's human nature.
"When I criticize things in white society people say I hate white society. That isn't true. But when I get angry at a racist sign or stand up and say something people don't want to hear, I am perceived as a bitter black man. I'm not bitter, but my position has given me a platform . . .
"What bothers people about me is I don't do what they expect. I'm not 'grateful' for my success. Whites are intimidated by nonsmiling blacks. If you aren't smiling, singing hymns or praying, you are viewed as rebellious. White people like to talk about good black people, but not intelligent black people. It doesn't fit the image.
"When I say I resent something, there's a racial label automatically put on it because it's easy since I'm black. But I didn't react to the signs about Patrick because they were demeaning to a black man. I reacted because they were demeaning to a man."
He paused for breath. "Remember one thing," he said finally. "Slavery wasn't evil because it demeaned black people. It was evil because it demeaned people."