An hour after his Georgetown-dominated East basketball team lost its chance for a gold medal at the National Sports Festival in Syracuse, John Thompson leaned back in his chair during a press conference and smiled. "Now," he said, "maybe all of you won't rate us so highly. Maybe you'll be writing that Georgetown isn't as good as you thought, because we've been losing up here."
More important, although it might not seem so now, they were learning. His four players, Thompson and those of us who will focus an especially intense sporting microscope on Georgetown the next few years came away from the week-long experience equally dazzled and puzzled.
By being on the losing team three of four games, by not winning any medal, let alone the gold they were favored to capture, Patrick Ewing, Anthony Jones, William Martin and Gene Smith have realized that some other players their age also are quite good.
Being a fine coach, and thus able to turn any situation to his advantage, Thompson said: "There's no way we could have come out of here not profiting from this. There are so many situations you can talk about that are not hypothetical. You're talking about concrete situations, making concrete comparisons.
"Usually, you say (to incoming freshmen such as Ewing, Jones and Martin): "This is what's going to happen (on and off the court) and you've got to be ready for it.' We can back that up with an experience. I think preparation (for the upcoming season) will be better because of what happened here.
"If all went well and everything was great, you're not able to teach as well."
Or be as receptive to it.
As a service to Ewing, some of what he does not do well ought to be emphasized. Too many people have the mistaken impression that he is flawless, all but immortal, that the Hoyas ought not to lose a game that he plays. Assuming too much without watching Ewing, or without watching him closely, causes too much of a letdown when he is exposed as imperfect, after all, and creates unreasonable pressure on him.
What should we expect? A 7-footer immensely gifted and intense on the court, fast and unselfish, a defender, shot-blocker and rebounder capable of making good inside scorers seem helpless at times. He has good shooting form, but is not likely to average anything close to 30 points a game because neither he nor Thompson is so inclined.
Curiously, for all that ability, Ewing is frustrated by some of basketball's simplest acts. He has an inordinate amount of trouble catching the ball in traffic, when other arms also are stretching for it. His size lets him control missed shots, but he often fumbles rebounds when smaller players get a chance to swat at them. More than willing to pass the ball, he is not yet able to do it cleverly enough to make double- and triple-teaming ineffective.
These problems can and will be corrected. Ewing's most difficult moments surely will come off the court. It is difficult, although not quite impossible, to imagine anyone less prepared for a school such as Georgetown or the publicity his special skills attract.
Ewing is the embarrassing ultimate of Georgetown compromising its admission standards for basketball players during Thompson's nine years. But every other school with visions of an NCAA championship also would have taken him. His contacts with reporters at the festival were revealing to both.
Probably, Ewing found most of us not as frightening as a tetanus shot. We discovered a painfully shy young man capable of communicating, after all, although Thompson and other Georgetown officials stayed so close to his side during the limited press conferences that nobody had any chance to get comfortable.
Many reporters and U.S. Olympic officials were startled to learn Thompson is not quite the saint at least one national publication has painted. He can be sassy, rigid and inconsistent, which is to say human. Some were angry that he would want closed practices before an event advertised as relatively low-key, with as many chances as possible for publicity.
Thompson's purpose was to mold a collection of soloists into a team under an impossible deadline -- and he asked, properly enough, if a math teacher could cram calculus into his class with three dozen reporters and two camera crews lurking in the classroom.
While praising Earl Jones, whose performance was the most pleasing -- and arguably the best -- of the competition, Thompson revealed much of himself: "He was somebody I really wanted to have here, just based on a lot of he negativeness I'd heard about him last year.
"I'm going to tell you right now that I'm not the easiest man to get along with and I'm not the easiest man to play for. I know that about myself. Anybody who says this kid's got a bad attitude I want to see. That's the most incorrect thing that I've ever heard. I've challenged him; I tried to needle him a couple times, just to see how he'd react to it . . . I can't say enought about him. I'm happy for him for that."
Martin and Anthony Jones were victims of the festival format. Because everybody had to play an almost equal amount of time, they either did not have enough minutes or were out of position to best showcase themselves. They also must sense that regardless of how well they play at Georgetown -- and each is capable of being a standout for many fine college teams -- most of the attention will go to Ewing.
That may be a jolt.
Thompson prefers specialists, players close to dominant in one or two phases of basketball but who realize their limitations. He reasons that anyone who can do anything with the ball with want to do it constantly and disrupt a team more often than lead it. His sermon this fall will be that each player eventually will be helping himself by playing to his teammates' strengths.
Of Ewing, his great blessing and major challenge, the coach said: "Protecting is a strange word. In protecting Patrick, to some extent I might be harming him. I hope to train him, talk to him, teach him to be capable of dealing with what he has to deal with. Or at least when he's making judgments not to deal with it, he knows what he's doing."
Toward that end, Thompson is trying to anticipate hurdles and make them as easy to clear as possible by trying to schedule background sessions with reporters and reflective meetings with such as Ralph Sampson.
"Patrick has been exposed to a lot of things (mass interviews, two centers his equal, on-the-court roughness) very quickly," Thompson said, "and I think he'll profit from it. No player came into this (the festival with the pressure Patrick had on him, the attention Patrick had on him. Comparisons with other players really aren't fair. All of you know that.
"But from here on in, for the rest of his life, it's not gonna be fair."