Eric Smith's spaceship had been dematerialized by alien forces, and Patrick Ewing's three warriors had been eaten alive by the relentless enemies of Pac-Man. Now, seven or eight Georgetown University basketball players gathered around the big-screen television in the video game room of the Salt Lake City Hilton. This was last week, when Tennessee took on Virginia.
What a game it would be, the TV announcer said, if Virginia should win the Mideast Regional and go on to meet Georgetown in the NCAA semifinals.
"Ralph Sampson against Pat Ewing," the TV man shouted, his temperature rising.
Everything stayed cool in the game room.
Ewing chewed on a toothpick.
Another freshman, Anthony Jones, raised an eyebrow in Ewing's direction and said, "Hmmmpff."
No one else made a sound.
Had game time ever arrived for Virginia-Georgetown, these fellows and their playmates would have raised their temperatures about a zillion degrees. An hour before tipoff, sound passing for music would have exploded from a noise box in the locker room. Freshman Billy Martin brings the box. Dancing, joking, jumping up and down, these Georgetown players would have been transformed from cool-eyed witnesses into hot-blooded contestants.
"You don't go to war whispering," said sophomore guard Gene Smith.
"I designated myself to be in charge of that department," Martin said, "because it relaxes me. It gets me ready mentally. It doesn't bother anyone and the coaches never said a word against it."
"They play that music loud," said senior Mike Hancock. "We all are joking and laughing, jumping around and acting silly. It's all nervousness we're getting out of us."
"The locker room gets extremely boisterous," said the coach, John Thompson. Understand this: When Thompson says, "We don't run a flamboyant program," he deals in understatement. Digger Phelps once led pregame cheers in a Notre Dame jacket; Thompson hides. One imagines that upon hearing Martin's music box in the nervous minutes before tipoff, Thompson might render the box into small pieces.
But no. This student of psychology didn't get to be coach of the year (as voted yesterday by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association) by ironing flat all the little wrinkles of personality that make athletes winners. Of the seemingly uncharacteristic music, Thompson said, smiling, "Even the Marines have a fight song."
Thompson's few good men come to combat with a stern demeanor created by a drill instructor without mercy. The coach/d.i. faces life with worry lines in his brow. He hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst. Confession: "I tend to be pessimistic, so I won't get caught by surprise." Fresno State Coach Boyd Grant said, "Big John seems like a no-nonsense kind of guy to me."
So are Thompson's teams no-nonsense, especially this one, that is 29-6 and in the NCAA's final four. Anyone wanting to define this team's personality, anyone wanting to explain the chemistry that makes it work, is on an archeological expedition in which years of digging may never uncover a clue. If the Sphinx had a jump shot, he could play for these Hoyas. The secret seems to be, cliche or not, that Thompson's powerful insistence on selflessness has created a team in the classic sense of the word.
"We're basically all low-key, not real rowdy," said Eric Floyd, the low-key, not-at-all rowdy all-America guard.
"We have one big family," said Eric Smith, the senior cocaptain. "We eat, sleep and drink together, and we all give up something to make everybody better."
"Win or lose," said Ewing, "we act the same. No egos here."
"It's a coincidence that many of the guys here are very low key," said sophomore guard Fred Brown. "They aren't recruited that way. Some of us are open and aggressive. Our personalities just meshed together. Everybody sacrifices something to make this team go." Kurt Kaull, a junior guard, is one of two white players on the 12-man roster. When he made a basket in the last second of the West Regional championship game, two black teammates, Hancock and Ron Blaylock, rushed on to the floor to hug their buddy.
"They were happy for me," Kaull said, "because I was able to score on TV. Maybe my folks saw it back in Chicago." Without a question being asked, Kaull offered this: "The black-white thing, I haven't seen it here."
"We're all brothers," said sophomore guard Gene Smith. "We work together and like one another. If your brother is crossing the street, you try your best to watch out for him."
This refrain of taking care of each other is so repetitive in conversations with Georgetown players that it can be no mere happenstance. It is, rather, the cumulative product of a highly structured coach (Thompson's rules even include one that forbids him from talking to his players before 4 in the afternoon) and a roster full of players willing to give up part of their egos.
Look at the examples. Ewing is the next great big man. "Patrick is one of the most refreshing young people I've ever dealt with," Thompson said. "He could have pimped himself all over the country. He didn't demand so much as a soft drink from me. He's a humble person who is very cooperative, works very hard and gets along with his teammates. He could have been a disruptive influence. He could have been a guy wanting the ball all the time, but he isn't. He wants the team to be good."
"Patrick could be selfish, or I could be jealous and make demands," said Floyd, "but that hasn't been the case. The key is everybody is willing to give up part of their game for everybody else. Getting people who do that comes with coach's recruiting. He goes for good character. That's something you can't instill later."
If Floyd is happy with 13 shots a game instead of your flashy all-America's 20, it makes a coach's job easier to convince another senior that maybe he shouldn't shoot at all.
"My role," said Hancock, the senior forward averaging only four points, "is to rebound, play defense and do what I can do with my quickness to help us win."
A starter the last eight games of last season, Gene Smith now is the team's fourth guard. Neither he nor Ed Spriggs, a senior displaced by Ewing, have complaints. Two high school all-Americas, Jones and Martin, might be scoring 20 a game somewhere else; for Georgetown, they're 10-minute players, content to be valuable instead of celebrated.
And what, please, has Brown given up for the good of his music-lovin' playmates?
Brown, laughing, said, "I sacrificed the idea I'd never let anybody curse me or order me to run around in that fashion."
He referred to the big d.i., the coach, Thompson, who often has spoken to his charges in a voice very loud.
Even Eric Smith, the old-hand cocaptain, has heard that voice of authority booming into his ear from afar.
"He's super, great, excellent, big," Smith had said of the 6-foot-10, 300-pound coach.
Someone asked whether Thompson's sheer size produced fear and trembling.
"Only when you make a mistake," Smith said with a smile. "If you do make a mistake, you look at the bench and if you see him getting up off it, you run to the other end quickly."
What Thompson has done, with the acquiescence of solid citizens who can play basketball, is this: He has a combative New Yorker (Brown) playing defense so the country boy (Floyd) can shoot; he has the senior cocaptain from suburban Potomac (Eric Smith) as his surrogate on the court, with a D.C. veteran filling his limited role eagerly (Hancock); and the coach has the modest great player in the middle (Ewing) to win games without losing the camaraderie that makes good teams great teams.
Throw in the four top reserves (Jones, Martin, Spriggs and Gene Smith), and Thompson has nine men sold on one idea.
"We like each other," Ewing said, "and we want to win together."