JOHN THOMPSON 44, was born in Washington, D.C., and attended elementary school and John Carroll High School here before going to Providence College. thompson, 6 feet 10 inches, played professional basketball for two years with the Boston Celtics before returning home to coach at St. Anthony's High School and earn a master's degree in counseling and guidance from the University of the District of Columbia. He became head basketball coach at Georgetown University in 1972. His record for the past 13 years is 297-107. He has takes the Hoyas to the NCAA finals three times in the last four years. His 1984 team, led by Patrick Ewing, won the national championship. Thompson is president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. This interview was conducted by George Solomon, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for sports.
Q: What was Washington like when you were growing up?
A: From an athletic standpoint, I didn't have the advantages of the town because there was a lot of segregation in Washington. A perfect example of that is when I first went to John Carroll High School, I could not play in the Jelleff [summer] League, anb our white players on our team could. I remember once being taken by some of my white teammates who were playing with me at Turkey Thicket [playground] to the Chevy Chase league . . . A guy asked me to wait outside . . . He came back and apologized and told me he was sorry, but I couldn't play in the Chevy Chase league. People don't like to hear those things sometimes, but that's a fact.
Q: How did your parents explain segregation to you?
A: I think that life was explained to me in a limited fashion. I mean, you are young and black and growing up in a segregated situation, you learn not to expect certain things . . . As you grew older and as you expand your views and your education, you became very puzzled and very argue by a lot of that. My parents did talk about it, but they didn't harp on it.
Q: Your Carroll High School team won 55 consecutive games. What are your memories of that team?
A: I enjoyed those years an awful lot. Bob Dwyer was the coach at Carroll. I started ti hear a little bit about Carroll and in the back of my mind, being from a Catholic family and not having been successful in Catholic schools, I saw it as a challenge. I wanted to go back and see if I could be successful in school. Carroll was a very good experience for me.
We used to beat DeMatha for exercise. And while we had some tough games, we never lost to a Catholic school. We might have lost, like three games the whole time we were in school.
Q: Looking back when you graduated from high school in the '50s and at the city now, what's the biggest change?
A: I'm able to enjoy and appreciate the whole city. Limitations are not imposed on me in the ways in which they were imposed upon me as a child. I think there's more of a feeling of, "I like Washington. It's my home." I think that's the change. I think that there's more of a feeling of community and I think a lot of that has to do with having your own elected mayor.
Q: How have you changed over the years in your dealings with players?
A: I hope I've changed. I try to provide enough time for them to have an opportunity to get an education and that's where I run into conflict with people about who and what is education. but it remains a fact that there is only one kind of education that will get you a degree from Georgetown University and it's the formal part in the classroom, which I have to set as a priority. But I'm certain there are views of mine that have changed in 10 years and I'm certain that there are adjustments that I've made bvecause the world has changed and hopefully I have changed. But I think there are certain basic principles and philosophies that we have pretty much stuck to. I try to watch myself that I don't get stubborn to change. But I also try no to change for the sake of change. My primary responsibility is to teach, to help my players prepare for the future.
Q: How much guilt is there among college coaches because of the low graduation rate among athletes?
A: I feel that responsibility of a kid graduating lies with the kid and not the coach. The coach has the responsibility to teach and supervise, but I think kids have been misled into believing that the primary reason why they don't graduate from institutions is because some coach deprived them of it. I don't care how much time you spend on the kid, if he's not inclined to want to get a degree or want to get an education, he's not going to get one. I think that there is concern among coaches that kids graduate. What I think is more important than them graduating is whether they are going to be able to function in the world of work. Mary Fenlon [Georgetown's academic coorinator] and I have several discussions of this and how it related to our program. We're more concerned, really, with the fact that when a kid leaves us that he's able to get a job, that he's able to deal with the circumstances he's going to encounter.
I don't care what a kid does for a living. But I think it's more important he be able to function in whatever he chooses to do. It's more important that whatever we do gives us gratification of some kind. That's what I'm more concerned with. The graduation rate can become a statistic. Coaches are conscious of it. I feel the athlete has to take a bigger sense of responsibility for achieving, a bigger sense of responsibility for his own education. I feel that we have we let them off the hook by blaming the school, by blaming the coach, almost as if we are dealing with somebody who's 4 years old. If we were coaching elementary school, I would have to say the coach has to take a large part of that responsibility, but if we're coaching in college, all you have to do is infringe on the rights of these kids and something that they ahve an interest in and they'll let you know how responsible they are, how old they are and how mature they are.
Q: In recruiting, do you find more athletes seeking illegal inducements?
A: Most of the people who we have talked with have not had their hands out. I think it takes two to become corrupt. I think first of all, the suggestion has to be made. We have made mistakes with the kids we've had. But not knowledgeably in my mind have we ever cheated for somebody and I know for certain we've never paid anybody. I'm certain we could have gotten caught jaywalking as well as anybody. But I know that we don't pay kids or do things that are blatantly dishonest. Pat Ewing's mother made it clear in no uncertain terms that Patrick was not going to get anything illegal from anybody and no one had better try to give him anything. I think that made the rules very clear. even a dishonest coach would became honest because he would be dealing with an honest person.
Q: What of the coaches and administrators who say they cannot control what alumni do?
A: I think that's pure bull. I don't buy it when I hear that from a president of a college, an athletic director, or a head coach who says he doesn't know. In the world of work, not knowing is called imcompetence, which a person is fired for.
Q: You're been criticized across the country for your methods, and sometimes for your character. How has this affected you?
A: It's made my income [through speaking fees and endoresements] increase an enoromus amount, because everybody likes to see the fool that they write about. It hasn't hurt me at all. My life has been written about from a racial standpoint, from a personal standpoint, from an athletic standpoint, from a public standpoint, from a prive standpoint almost from everything since I was 14 years old. I try to consider the source. If I try to consider the source. If I can live with myself, I'm not going to lost a lot fo sleep over some strange guy who never talked to me one thime in his life. You let the people you respect be the guide.
Tradition has helped us. When we came to Georgetown Unviersity we were laying a foundation. Some of your own lest teachers are your own students. And they know what to expect and therefore they teach people. They have taken a sense of pride in how we play, how we act off the campus. If I an talking at a practice now, I don't have to say: "Everybody keeps quiet." If we are talking out on the floor and the players are sitting on the bench, you can see an upperclassman touch somebody and tell them: "Hey, keep quiet, because we are listening."
And I think traditionally people ask us how it will hurt us with Patrick [Ewing] and Billy [Martin] gone. I like to tell them that because they were there we are better off. Because of their contribution, their attitude on top of our way of doing things, that reinforced and made better the tradition that we had. So, the tradition teaches.
And that relates to going to class, that relates to doing our schoolowrk. And that related to anything else. All the kids . . . Once you establish a policy, it's much easier, because kids expect to graduate.
I was telling the kids in practice the other day that I didn't really care whether they enoyed the practice and I didn't really care whether they were happy with what I'm doung. Happiness to me is winning. I said, "That's when you will get happy, when you see the success of this thing." I think raising kids is pretty much the same way, that you ahve to have a certain amount of courage to do it for somebody.
Q: What about the problem of drugs and alcoholism in the schools?
A: This is the most frighening thing in the world, because this is something that's going on all around. I tell the kids this: "I'm not a drug counselor." And I don't claim to know the effects of marijuana as it related to being addictive or any of those things. I just know that I don't know it around here. And if you bring it around and have it involved with me, I'm going to put you with somebody who understands it, so that you can get some guidance. But I'm not that man. I tell them I'm old-fashioned. If you bring it around, you're out. And I'm probably wrong. A psychiatrist would do a number one me.
Q: If a player is caught with marijuana, is he out of the program?
A: No, I don't ever deal with any rule that way. I think I would have to sit down and deal with him individually. I'm telling you what I tell them. And knock on wood, I've never been confronted with that decision yet. And I'm not saying that it is not going on around me the way the World is. I could be naive to the fact that the whole team could be high and I not know it.