John Thompson is what he is: a great basketball coach carrying the same luggage John Wooden did and Bob Knight does. Neither saints nor devils, they are driven men in a hard job.
Wooden seemed prim, even puritan. Beneath his minister's facade lay a predator's cunning. He lashed referees. He scalded opposing players. He looked the other way as a wealthy booster bent rules to keep Wooden's players happy. Satirists call him St. John.
Knight, so ruthlessly honest he would turn in Indiana if anyone cheated for him, creates teams beautiful in their precision. Stark against that beauty stands his barbed-wire personality. He is a moralist with a trucker's vocabulary, an avenging angel in whose judgment there is no gray, only black and white. Those who know Knight best love/hate him.
Two pages of quotes in the Georgetown press guide are designed to convince the reader that Thompson's former players respect and admire him. Whether the quotes are intended for the media or for potential recruits, they are remarkable just the same because their presence suggests the recognition by someone--Thompson himself?--that the coach is misunderstood. Saints need no letters of introduction.
We knights of the keyboard like our heroes and villains simple. It's easy to put St. John of UCLA in the same pigeonhole with Gen. Knight of the Indiana Armored Division. So is it easy, if tasteless, to be so turned off by John Thompson's diffidence that a sportswriter in Utah, being oh-so clever, called him "the Idi Amin of Big East basketball." Sports Illustrated last week said Thompson is a "McEnroean" personality driven by an us-against-them mentality.
The lines of definition are more gray than all this, for if Wooden tolerated a booster's transgressions he also turned out 30 years' worth of inimitable athletes who raised the level of the college game. If Knight rubs our nerves raw, that's small stuff next to his teacher's genius and his insistence that colleges owe coaches tenure and players education.
As for Thompson, ask his players.
Ask Eric Smith, a senior forward, why he came to Georgetown.
"That man," Smith said yesterday.
He nodded toward Thompson half a court away.
Ask Smith what he has learned from that man.
"Life," he said.
Ask Patrick Ewing if he improved this season.
"I've improved a lot," the freshman said, "with the guidance of Coach Thompson."
From freshman to senior to the old-timers quoted in the press guide, every Georgetown basketball player speaks of Thompson as a demanding taskmaster who both knows and teaches basketball well. Eric Smith says Thompson is his coach, not his buddy or his surrogate father. He's a coach/philosopher, Smith said, a wise man who cuts through the bullfeathers of this world. Thompson's players say he makes sure they get an education.
Ask Gene Smith, a sophomore guard from D.C.'s McKinley Tech, what he does for fun in his spare time. Like, is there a curfew for Georgetown's players?
"From 9 to 3, I have classes," Smith said. "Then there's practice, and after that I have to work on my classes some more. There's no curfew, but you just know when you ought to be in. There's no time to be off running loose. Life in the inner city, you know, was rambunctious like. Coach Thompson has life regimented more, and I don't mind it at all. It prepares me for when I get out of school."
Great coaches produce teams that are their mirror images, for they teach life as they learned it. Look at Georgetown, you see tough young kids from big cities. You see kids who work hard. They play with discipline born of accepting the teaching of a hard man. They play with fire born of a need to achieve.
Look at this wonderful team, and you see John Thompson.
Ask him what part of D.C. he grew up in.
"All four parts," he said. "In poverty, you move a lot. I was born in Southwest, moved to Southeast, then 14th and W, and from W we moved to Northeast."
A little smile, lost quickly.
Then: "That's called stability."
As a child, Thompson said he had everything he wanted.
"That's because my mother taught me very early not to want what I couldn't have."
Coaching is not a democracy, the coach said, nor is teaching.
"I learned the Lord's Prayer because a nun took a ruler and beat the hell out of me. That ruler had steel on the edge of it, and I quickly learned the prayer."
Because he is black, Thompson never thought of playing at Georgetown, which 20 years ago had blacks on its basketball floor only when they came with the other team.
"It was not a place where I was invited to come," said Thompson. "Just like there were a lot of places where I wasn't invited to come."
Things change slowly. Thompson still sees a congregation of sinners who would use young black players and discard them without educating them. His work will, in time, help change the perception that college athletics by definition abuses blacks. In the meantime, he distrusts a lot of people, including the curious media.
When a fellow in Utah asked the majors of Thompson's players, the coach bristled. "Come to graduation, all the seniors will graduate, and look in the brochure," he said.
The product of a structured education at the edge of a steel ruler, the survivor of playground basketball wars that led from Carroll to the Celtics, Thompson believes he does his players the most justice when he creates an atmosphere in which the congregation of sinners can do the least damage.
"Don't you protect your children from things that would embarrass them or hurt them?" he said. "Those people who say, 'Expose them to me so they'll know what life is all about,' I say, 'Bull . . . ' I don't believe in this school of hard knocks. You don't teach a kid to swim by throwing him in the rapids."