John Thompson, a native Washingtonian, always has had the right connections to go after the best local basketball players. But when he successfully recruited Patrick Ewing, a 7-foot center from Cambridge, Mass., considered to be the best schoolboy player in America, Thompson officially went national.
After all, Thompson outrecruited North Carolina and UCLA, among others, to get Ewing. And Thompson may not be finished yet. There are reports he is about to complete a recruiting coup by landing two more outstanding players -- Dunbar's Anthony Jones and Sylvester Charles.
How does Thompson do it? How does a man who says he dislikes recruiting outhustle Dean Smith, Larry Brown and Lefty Driesell? How does he get the nation's best young basketball players to come play in a dingy, 4,000-seat gymnasium at a school known for producing ambassadors and lawyers?
"The difference is John's personality," says Stephen Post of Adlai Stevenson (N.Y.) High School, the man who coached Georgetown freshman point guard Fred Brown.
"Thompson is the drawing factor," Post said. "When yo talk to him, you sense an honest man who isn't putting on an act. Thompson doesn't have a pitch or an angle and he makes no wild promises. He just talks about giving a young man an education. That's all."
John Thompson, the coach, has been well-chronicled. He runs a disciplined offense and emphasizes tough defense. If you want to play for Thompson, you play the game his way or not at all.
But John thompson, the recruiter, is still a mystery.
"John is one of the most secretive coaches around when it comes to recruiting," said George Washington Coach Bob Tallent. "He doesn't pal around with that many other coaches. I don't know if his tactics are that much different from the rest of ours, but he's awfully successful."
Thompson doesn't agree. "I don't feel we (Thompson and his staff) are good recruiters," said Thompson, who added that he has a tendency to let the program sell itself. "I don't enjoy going to games all over the country. I'd rather just stay in the city and catch a game somewhere."
That helps explain why Thompson, who would rather spend the bulk of his budget on his current players, operated from a recruiting budget of $36,000 last year (schools such as Ohio State and Indiana spend about $60,000). "We've got such a wealth of talent right here in this area," he said, "it would be ludicrous to fly all over the country just for the hell of it."
Thompson uses a soft-sell, low-visibility approach. High school coaches like Post say Thompson visits the school and the player and his family once, twice at the most. He explains what he and Georgetown expect (maximum effort in the classroom and on the court).
"The thing that impressed me most about Thompson, besides his size, when he first came to visit," said Post, "was when he told Fred pointblank, 'Fred, go to a school that not only wants you, but needs you.' John visited only twice the entire recruitment period."
By contrast, Ohio State and Duke (the other two schools recruiting Brown) had assistants or the head coach around the school's gym constantly. "The other coaches were just as honest and straightforward," Post said, "but John's personality is too magnetic."
"I don't like doing the things you have to do to get good players," Thompson said. "It's an intrusion to call a guy or his parents at home just to say, 'Hello, how are you. I don't have anything to say, just making my daily check.' That's why Bill Stein (Thompson's assistant coach) has to make me call sometimes just to make sure the kid knows we're interested."
Stein does most of the early legwork for Thompson, scouting countless high school and summer-league games, identifying prospects as early as the ninth and 10th grades, writing letters, making phone calls, serving almost as a liaison between the recruit and the head coach.
Still, Thompson is also actively involved, and he is not above some of the slick and sinister ploys used by most of his colleagues in the recruiting wars.
Last August, one of the players he was recruiting, Ralph Dalton of Suitland, played under an assumed name in several summer-league games around the East Coast to keep other coaches from knowing his real identity. Thompson insisted at the time it was not his idea, although Dalton said Thompson and Stein were aware of it, which Thompson did not deny. Thompson later started, "There are 50 kids in this country who I would tell to play under an assumed name if I thought it would alleviate some of the problems and pressures that go with recruiting as long as it broke no rules."
There was no NCAA violation, but clearly the incident demonstrated that Thompson was not above getting down in the dirt like everyone else. "He may wear the white collar and the halo, but he's no saint," one local coach said.
"I guess the pressure of winning just overtook his conscience for a moment," Post said. "I'm sure he regrets it."
Thompson has since declined to comment on the name-switching incident. He also frequently says, "I am not St. John."
He insists his best recruiting tool is his program and his school. He can tell a recruit that 35 of the 37 players he's recruited over the last eight years have graduated or are on schedule to graduate from a university with a national reputation, located in a chic neighborhood in the nation's capital.
He doesn't have a shiny new arena to showcase his team, but that is the least of Thompson's worries. "There are several programs in the national with big gyms that are not as successful as we are," he said. "You don't get or lose a kid because of the gym."
The Hoyas have been to postseason tournaments six times in Thompson's eight previous seasons as coach. And many Georgetown alumni have jumped on the bandwagon. Thompson says they frequently call from all over the country recommending top players from their area.
And it also helps to have two Georgetown players -- Duren and Craig Shelton -- playing in the National Basketball Association.
"The thing that impressed me most when I was a senior in high school was that Coach Thompson never tried to convince me to go to Georgetown," Shelton said. "He just explained how much he could give of himself to my getting an education. He knows playing professional basketball is a one-in-a-million shot, and he's more concerned with how much his players learn.
"A lot of good players coming out of high school are so confused about so much bull they hear in the streets about where to go that they don't know where to turn. He's completely vulnerable to some guy why can come along who'll say, 'Hey, come to my school. You can start immediately.' It's good for a guy like John to be around D.C. He'll tell a kid like it is, whether or not he likes it."
"Coach Thompson's recruiting success is even more impressive when you think of how hard it is to say to a 17-year-old, 'Hey, you should be an accountant or an engineer or an attorney.' Somehow, even at that age, he makes you realize the value of basketball and education."
Thompson's deflated basketball -- a reminder of what happens when the games end -- has become his trademark. More important to the parents of recruits is the presence of Mary Fenlon, athletic advisor who sees to it that Thompson never hedges on his promise of "education first."
Thompson doesn't have any magic words or work any voodoo. The players, their parents and coaches say they like his personality. "Under that courtside demeanor," said Duren, "is a very likeable man. He doesn't always talk basketball like some coaches. He can kid you about an ugly girlfriend or eating too many Big Macs. It's hard to explain but you just feel confortable."
One other factor weights heavily in Thompson's favor. He is probably the most visible black coach in college or professional sports. Such a distinction in a predominantly city sport is immeasurable in terms of what it means for a black high school athlete (nine of Thompson's 12 players are black) to be approached by a black head coach.
Black or white, 99 percent of all the players Thompson even approaches in high school are what he describes as "good kids." Clean cut. Hard workers. Disciplined youngsters who seem to thrive under Thompson's program.
Like Shelton and Duren, most of his players say they appreciated Thompson's philosophy of not stockpiling players -- recruiting an all-America point guard one year and an all-America at the same position a year later. Post says that was a major factor in Brown's final decision. And it may have influenced Ewing from going to North Carolina, where he would be one of several former high school all-Americas on the roster.
Thompson doesn't guarantee good times or a starting position to any recruit. He battled often with Duren and Shelton and even warned Fred Brown in advance that he would be in for a rough time if he came to Georgetown.
Thompson knew that Brown and Post did not get along initially. While Brown was still a recruit, Thompson accepted an invitation from Post to fly up to New York and speak at a team barbecue.
"Fred, if you think you hated Coach Post," Thompson said, "just wait until you get to Georgetown. You'll hate me much more."
Is that any way to recruit a basketball player? For John Thompson, yes.