What Georgetown University's basketball team has, and some others don't have, is class. Hemingway called it grace under pressure. At a basketball game, you can see it in the eyes of players. Forget the gripers and stompers, the moaners and weepers. If it's class you want, look at Steve Martin and John Duren, Craig Shelton and John Thompson.
Georgetown won a championship yesterday, 66-58 over Syracuse, the nation's fifth-ranked team. Thompson, the coach, and the Martin-Duren-Shelton triumvirate that is the foundation of Georgetown's success go on to the NCAA tournament now. If these hands weren't busy typing, they would be applauding.
Only 7,150 people paid to see Georgetown yesterday. Unbelievable. Anyone who claims to love basketball but wasn't in Cole Field House for Georgetown's class act ought to hand in his sneakers and take up dominoes. Maybe some team with more ability and presence has played at Cole this season -- as we all know, the sainted ACC calls it home -- but you'll have to prove it.
Syracuse was a lock. It had a 25-2 won-lost record, had won 19 straight games and came in with a giant center just at a time when Georgetown's big man was hurt and a freshman would have to take his place. Here was Syracuse, rated No. 5, against Georgetown, which in its hometown is so unappreciated it barely half-fills Cole.
Georgetown controlled the game from start to end. The losing coach, Jim Boeheim, screamed about the officiating, which is standard behavior for losers, but it was not the zebras who allowed Georgetown to create a rhythm of play that made victory possible. Martin and Duren did that by running the Georgetown offense with poise and patience, forcing nothing, never wasting a motion.
So total was Georgetown's control that Syracuse, averaging 90 points a game, scored fewer than 61 points for the first time all season.
It was gorgeous to watch. Basketball can be poetry, each line crafted precisely, or it can be cacophony, everyone tooting his own horn according to his whims. Thompson is creation's largest poet.
Taken separately, his players seem to be no great shakes (which among them ever did a reverse two-handed dunk?). The coach recognizes the beauty of their skills. If they do nothing spectacularly, it is not because they cannot; it is because they chose not. They choose, instead, to play under control, to accept a coach's word as worthwhile, to give up part of themselves to make the team better. Longfellow didn't write poems any better than Steve Martin's.
Here's Martin at work: Georgetown leads, 35-32, early in the second half. Even now, Syracuse's frustration is palpable. You can see that look in the eyes of the Orangemen, that self-pitying look of defeat imminent. And at mid-court, Martin's eyes move from side to side in survey of the floor. He is dribbling the bal and waving a hand in direction of his playmates.
As Martin waits, Thompson whispers in Duren's ear near the sideline. Everything is cool. Syracuse may be a big deal in the East, but Georgetown is a big deal at 33rd and O streets, zip code 20057. And when Thompson is done with his sweet nothing, Martin moves down the lane, gets the ball out to Duren and Duren, not to worry, throws in an 18-footer.
Syracuse never caught up, and it wasn't because it didn't have the raw talent. Roosevelt Bouie, the 6-foot-11 center, had a 6-11 buddy and a 6-7 friend -- all of them playing against a Georgetown line of 6-9, 6-7, 6-4. For the season, Syracuse was shooting above 53 percent. None of it mattered yesterday, for the three giants all fouled out and its shooters settled for 40 percent.
Again falling into a loser's standard refrain, the Syracuse coach, Boeheim, said the one-for-11 shooting of a guard did in his Orangemen. The more objective appraisal would be an examination of why the poor fellow was so off form. Such an examination might show the Georgetown defense -- now a man to man, now a zone, now a fullcourt press -- left the poor fellow wondering why he hadn't taken up, say, dominoes.
The test of any coach and his team is the team's performance at season's end. A team that does not improve is a failure. That Georgetown has succeeded beyond any realistic expectation was confirmed innumerable ways yesterday.
The Hoyas ran a fast break; and they ran a "stall" offense. If the 2-3 zone gave Syracuse the ball inside too many times, Georgetown went to a man to man. Without their big man, 6-11 Tom Scates, the Hovas used 6-9 Ed Spriggs, a freshman, for 38 minutes of good defense.
Most telling, though, was Georgetown's work in the last minutes of the game. The Hoyas won entry to the NCAA tournament on the work under pressure of three freshmen, three new men who were under this kind of pressure for the first time.
The freshmen were Spriggs, who was driving a mail truck on March 3 last year; Eric Floyd, whose Gastonia (N.C.) High team had been upset in district play by then, and Jeff Bullis of Forest Hill, Md., whose Bel Air High team had lost out to its arch-rival.
A year later, in the last five minutes of an important game, Spriggs made five free throws, Floyd made two and Bullis made seven.
Was Bullis nervous? Naw. "There's always that little person in you who says, 'I want it,'" Bullis said. He smiled broadly. "That little guy was yelling at me, 'I WANT IT.'"
As for the coach-poet, Thompson, he spoke in irony. "The name of the game is team basketball," he said. "We're not smart enough to be 'creative.' We leave the thinking to people a lot smarter than us who want to spin and twirl and do all those fancy things."