The thing that keeps coming to mind when I think about John Thompson's treatment of his 6-foot-9 power forward Michael Graham is that it is what a good father might have done for his own son.
Graham, whose aggressive rebounding was a vital factor in Georgetown University's national championship last season, will clearly be missed. But he won't play. Thompson has set him down, not for a semester but for a whole year, to force the youngster to get serious about his academics.
I suppose there isn't a college basketball coach in the country who won't profess a fatherly interest in his players, who won't insist that education, not basketball, is the priority. The difference is that Thompson acts as though he believes it. His players, unlike many big-time college stars, nearly always graduate after four years. Thompson understands that basketball and life are not synonymous.
Graham, a sometimes overly aggressive demon on the court, revealed himself as a too-passive student, and wound up on academic probation. The usual move in such a case would be to suspend the player for a semester while he got his grades together, providing him with a tutor and perhaps letting him practice with the team. Thompson says Graham's athletic suspension will be for a full year "even if he gets all A's" this semester; that he will not play or practice with the team, or even be monitored by the coaching staff. In short, Graham will become a student before he is allowed to return as a basketball player at Georgetown.
It was an extraordinary move by an extraordinary man.
The problem, said Thompson in his role as disappointed "father," is not that Graham lacks the smarts to make it in Georgetown's academically tough environment but that "he lacks the maturity and self-discipline to make the commitment at this time. . . . He's just got to stay off the streets of Washington and stay on the campus of Georgetown. If he doesn't learn that, he will never play basketball here again."
Thompson, who likes to toss his basketball recruits a deflated basketball, to demonstrate the need to prepare themselves for life after sports, said his goal is to help Graham to mature, as student as well as player. Graham's academic problems are "purely attitudinal," he said. "I would fight for a person doing the best he can and just having trouble. But Michael's got to understand that national championships and all the other things are great, but you have to handle the total responsibility."
Like so many fathers, Thompson tried milder approaches before deciding on a year's suspension. Twice last year, Graham was left on campus to study while his team went on the road, including a trip to Hawaii.
"When I put pressure on him or kept him from a game, he did extremely well," Thompson said. "He performed well under those conditions, so I know he can do the work. But he's got to learn to be consistent, not just for the sake of some immediate goal or short-term satisfaction. Now he has to do it for his own sake. I told him a person can't be on scholarship for the rest of his life. I hope this will work. I don't know whether it will or not."
Again, it has the ring not of a coach doing what is best for the team but of a father doing what is best for his son.
It's hard to remember that a kid who is 6- feet-9 and well over 200 pounds is still a kid. But Thompson, at 6f11i and better than 300, understands it well, and he also understands that maturity can't be measured with tapes and scales. He is insisting that his prospective basketball star grow up.
And don't be too surprised if it works. Graham may be embarrassed by the entire episode, but he passed up the chance to transfer to an easier school. He decided on his own to attend summer school.
A lot of us are grateful for what Thompson has done. One day, if he's lucky, Michael Graham will be too.