"Terrible, Dan, we're playing terrible, if you want to know the truth," said Georgetown Coach John Thompson, sitting in his office talking to a caller. "We have the 'blahs.' I need some of those wonder drugs to get everybody fired up.
"I gave 'em the day off today. Shocked 'em. They expected the slave master to start beating on 'em. Damnest thing in the world . . . Win 13 in a row, then lose two, and you're the son of a gun who doesn't know what he's doing . . .
"Dan, I'd like your natural reaction. Did you hear Bucky Waters call Pat Ewing 'the Darth Vader of college basketball' on TV? How'd you take it? Should I have called NBC? Everybody here was very disturbed. . . more calls from alumni than anything for years. No, I didn't do anything. Looks like I'm crying. Complain when you win," laughed Thompson, signing off.
So, who was that?
"A fan who calls any time he thinks I'm low," said Thompson. "Dan Rather."
The white door tucked in an obscure corner of Georgetown's old-shoe McDonough Arena has no nameplate. If you're like most who come here, you think you're lost. That just what John Thompson wants when you knock on his door.
"I want to be hard to find for the people I don't want to find me. Everything here," he says of his inner sanctum, "has a purpose. Each little thing probably tells something about me."
In recent months, ever since the 7-foot schoolboy Center of the Century for this season--Patrick Ewing--enrolled at GU, the great inquisitive world has been wending its way to this door. Thompson is ready for the buzzing flies who sniff out the famous. Like the methodical 300-pound bear he is, Thompson has spent 10 years in this gym booby-trapping his lair, building his shells within shells of self-defense and preparing for the day he'd meet his final college basketball challenge: being not just good but being great.
As Thompson says: "The wanted posters are out on us. Playing Georgetown is instant motivation. We're learning winning's not bestowed just because you have talent." As Syracuse, Connecticut and last night Providence have proved in the last week.
Those who come to Thompson's door are in for many a surprise. Starting with the door. To look at it, you think it must lead to a stairwell or storage closet. You nudge it open to peek inside.
The shock can make a mouth fall open. Here, in dirty-socks-and-towels McDonough, is an elegant, tastefully underfurnished room--appointed with Oriental lamps, early American furniture, photomurals of Washington vistas, and faint sky-blue walls and rugs.
Mitch Kupchak and Mike O'Koren visited Thompson recently. Both were agape. "They sure didn't think it looked like a coach's office," says Thompson. "Kupchak said, 'Doggone, this looks just like a beautiful Southern home.' "
Thompson's next surprise comes as you cross his threshold. There's no bell outside. And no buzzer goes off when the latch opens. But, just as the door is opened wide enough to get through, a tiny noise begins above your head. From the ceiling hangs a copper Oriental butterfly and copper chimes. The opening door trips it--the gentlest of alarms. Yet, because it hits you a beat later than expected, it makes you feel like an interloper as a gong never could.
"Every player notices it the first time," says Thompson. "They even put one above the door of the training room, so I couldn't sneak up on them . . . It's symbolic of letting a person know that they have been properly announced."
The blank door and the gentle alarm system are pure Thompson. Some men are trivially suspicious. They suspect opponents of spying or stealing players. Other men, like Thompson, are profoundly suspicious. He both loves and yet distrusts life, in general and in all its particulars. Like the Jesuits, he believes in Original Sin and all the other Division I sins that followed it.
The key to Thompson is this constant two-sidedness, his blend of ivory-tower idealism, animated by a Catholic social conscience, mixed with street-wise cynicism. The books on Thompson's shelf are all chosen for impact on players.
There, pragmatic and belligerent, stand, "Power--How to Get It, How to Use It," "Winning Through Intimidation," "You Don't Have to be in Who's Who to Know What's What" and two copies of Machiavelli's "Prince." The only desk motto reads: "To err is human. To forgive is not my policy." Also, there's tame radicalism from Harry Edwards and Dick Gregory. Next, simply utilitarian, are, "Your Mastery of English," "Spell It Right" and "The New Etiquette."
Then, the counterpoint starts. Biographies of Harry Truman and former Chicago mayor Richard Daley; they made things work. Finally, the other side appears: Aesop's Fables, James Thurber, Quotations from Chairman Jesus, an anthology called "A Controversy of Poets," "Ideas and Opinions of Albert Einstein, and, at last, a slim volume of Zen paradox--"If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him."
There's only one basketball text--"How to Break Zone Defenses"--which must be an inside joke because Thompson's teams have never been able to do it.
And, pointedly, there's only one photo of a player, Derrick Jackson.
"He's the model," says Thompson. "Not just for my players, but for me. Derrick taught me more than I ever taught him. You can preach the gospel, but what if you don't live it? Derrick does. He's religious without being intrusive, he's a leader without running his mouth and always philosophizing.
"I talk about having the courage of your convictions, but Derrick's convictions were so strong they terrified me," says Thompson, telling the story of how Jackson, before a big game, told no one that he had bleeding ulcers, instead, trying to cure the problem with prayer. "I'll never forget going to his room and seeing the Bible half-hidden under his bed. That's when I knew how sick he was. If his roommate hadn't told me, he could have died.
"Derrick (second-leading scorer in GU history) thinks I'm much too worldly," says Thompson, relishing the irony of a player worrying about his soul. "When he was drafted by the NBA, he didn't even try out, just sent the general manager, Pete Newell, a thank-you note. Newell still talks about it. Derrick's in the ministry now. He called me after his first sermon."
Thompson recalls the conversation went thus:
"How'd it go?" said Thompson.
"I think it went well," said Jackson.
"More important," needled Thompson, "how'd the collection go?"
"What!!??" screamed Jackson.
"Derrick," said Thompson, "the criterion for coaching is winning. And the critereon for preachin' is collectin'."
So, what we have here in Thompson is a cynical idealist who lives elegantly and proudly behind a door with no name in an office with a butterfly chime to warn him of interlopers. Dan Rather is his friend, but Derrick Jackson is his model. He wants to win too much and has been a fool for glory more than once; but he knows it and wishes he could change pieces of the past, like having a recruit--Ralph (Brown) Dalton--play in a summer tournament under an assumed name. Above all, he's committed to protecting his players from a world of sin and disappointment until they have half a chance to battle it on equal terms, armed with etiquette and rhetoric, a sheepskin and a deflated basketball.
The core of Thompson is that he's one of those rare people who's determined to have it all: glory with wisdom, fame with morals, respect with love. Most settle for half the package, or much less. He wants to preach and collect.
So far, in his 10th season, Thompson is on schedule. But, since Ewing arrived, the task has gotten harder. In a sense, the pursuit of greatness in sports can seem like one of those addictive video games. Your reward for wiping out one screen of invading enemies is that the next wave comes just a little faster. You're on a rush, but you're cooked.
The subject of Ewing shows the depth of Thompson's worry.
"When I think about Patrick's situation, I am very much afraid. . . especially because Patrick is extremely sensitive. He reminds me of a proud warrior in full dress who stands for what he believes in. That inner dignity may come from Patrick's Jamaican heritage. Unfortunately, not too many American blacks have that (dignity). Perhaps something in Patrick stayed intact, not broken, because of where he grew up. He's not an apologetic person . . .
"Patrick is a victim of his own success . . . I worry what he might do to his own image. But I worry more about him losing his competitive edge, becoming too tame. I've told Pat that your public image is not everything, but it is something to someone who plans to live a public life.
"If we have shielded Patrick, it's for a reason. Everybody wants a piece of him and everybody has their sensible rationalization. Well, the intent is always good, but the harm is always real."
Nothing prompts Thompson's righteous indignation more than a chance to stand as Ewing's protector. "I challenge any of these coaches who talk about Patrick's grades to go public with their own players' transcripts. There's at least one player on every team in this area who did worse than Patrick. I dare 'em. I challenge 'em to compare transcripts. . .
If Thompson's heat seems excessive, it's partly illusion. He's convinced that what's happening this year is, basically, what happens every year.
For nine seasons, Thompson's players could lose a game or two each year they should have won. Remember Drake and Oral Roberts and Boston College and St. Joseph's? A young player could commit a few flagrant fouls, or even blow his cool a couple of times. Remember Big Sky Shelton? A senior could have a shooting slump and GU would be awful for two weeks. Remember Jackson? Thompson could get mad and throw his annual tantrum at someone. Like Lefty Driesell. Or he'd put freshmen off limits to the press until midseason. Also, a blue-chip player could have a mildly disappointing career. Like Al Dutch.
And nobody cared. Not really. Folks let the little stuff slide and cheered.
Now, in a sense, nothing's changed. Same old stuff. GU loses to Connecticut at home. Maybe the Hoyas shouldn't have. This time, the freshman with the happy elbows is Ewing. Used to be Merlin Wilson. Thompson likes his centers mean. Learned it from Bill Russell. "It's not a position for saints," Thompson says. And so it goes. The slumping shooter is Sleepy Floyd. The Thompson temper has focused on a reporter or three. The classy Dutch-like D.C. forwards who shoot smooth, but don't yet do much heavy-traffic rebounding, are Anthony Jones and Bill Martin.
The inevitable speculation about "can he take the next step up?" shouldn't bother Thompson. After all, he's addressed this point to his players for a decade.
"People ask me, 'Is Patrick happy at Georgetown?' I tell them that I couldn't care less," he says. "The phrase 'pursuit of happiness' misleads people. You don't have to feel happy all the time. But you do have to constantly reestablish yourself. I've told Patrick that you go from 'Who's Who' to 'who's he?' many times in your life."
Now, the teacher must reestablish himself, prove that he can take his program from good to great. If John Thompson, with all his calculating self-defenses, well-intentioned wariness and genuine ideals, has not laid his groundwork properly for the task, what coach has?