Dean Smith and his North Carolina players had not finished their ballroom-sized press conference today when John Thompson popped his head inside the door. Aghast, an NCAA official shooed him off, and the Georgetown coach said that was fine. No problem at all. Turning to leave, smiling, Thompson motioned toward the mass of reporters and muttered:
"Will somebody ask him how much he loves John Thompson?"
They already had. Today, yesterday, the day before and last week, to the point where Thompson can make light of a deep relationship. Dean loves John; his top assistant, Bill Guthridge, said one of the highlights of his experience as a U. S. Olympic basketball assistant in 1976 was "getting to know John Thompson better." John hugs 'em both in public.
All of which makes Monday's the damndest NCAA championship game in memory. Most coaches are barely civil before such a collision. Devious and tense, they grab every advantage possible, especially a day away from playing for the grandest prize in semiamateur basketball. These guys all but kiss.
To Thompson as he and his players were waiting their turn to be pressed by the press, Guthridge revealed how long the Tar Heels would be practicing later and said: "If you get there a little early, you can have the court." What in the name of the Wizard has this sport come to?
Thompson had greeted Guthridge as he would any close friend, grabbing him in that bearish, unpretentious way and sharing a joke.
"Think I get into arguments?" he said, and Guthridge and a few others familiar with the sandpaper side of Thompson's personality began to nod. "We go into a restaurant (the other day), and I get into an argument with a waitress; then we get into the bus and I get into an argument with the driver."
Without suggesting that the others in their position were inferior sportsmen, Smith and Thompson might be the two closest coaches who ever went after each other for the NCAA title--and the cleanest since Smith and Bobby Knight battled last year.
"At our final-four pregame meal in '77 (before Carolina met Marquette for the title), John Thompson was there with our coaching staff," Smith said. "We never have strangers at a pregame meal, which shows just how good a friend he is.
"I know his philosophy and he knows mine. When the phone rings between 1 and 2 a.m., my wife always knows who it is. That's the time we always talk." While gushing about his friend's character, Smith all of a sudden said: "Maybe John should run for president some day."
Later, he added: "When you talk about a relationship too much, it takes away some of the specialness."
They became close in an odd way, during and after Smith's recruitment of Donald Washington in the early '70s. Washington was an immensely gifted power forward, very likely the James Worthy of his national high-school recruiting class. Thompson was his coach at St. Anthony's, and also his legal guardian.
"Wasn't impressed at all when he came recruiting," Thompson said. "I was very impressed when I got to know him, and saw the interest he took in Donald when Donald no longer was of any benefit to him."
On and off the court at Carolina, Washington suffered. Became ineligible. Never realized more than a fraction of his potential.
"Some real rapid emotional situations," Thompson said. "His mother died (an undertaker hustling business broke the death to Washington, according to Thompson). And the other things. I ended up getting on Dean. He was so concerned, showed so much interest. I finally said: 'Hey, he's got to develop himself.' "
The coaches have a gym full of contrasts, beginning with their size and color. Thompson could have played on many NBA teams except the one he did, the Bill Russell-dominated Celtics; Smith was a sub on the Kansas team that won the NCAA title in '52.
Smith hides most of his emotions, rarely volunteering anything about himself, his family or his team. A favorite player, Mitch Kupchak, was at Carolina when Smith's first marriage ended in divorce and said he knew nothing of it. Smith doesn't get mad; he gets even.
Thompson does both. He can snort and claw one day and be a 6-10 teddy the next. Cuss a player and then fuss over him. Both make outsiders uncomfortable in different ways, Smith because he masks his feelings so well and Thompson because his are so open.
If his nerves are primed, as they were during his press conference today, Thompson might blurt out a revelation--a death threat to Patrick Ewing after the Big East Conference tournament--perhaps better kept a secret, for at least a while longer.
They both are sporting politicians, articulate and caring, peerless as evaluators of prospects, driven and cunning, not above an occasional bit of gamesmanship. Neither requires much sleep.
Both had ugly fan incidents early in their careers, Smith being hanged in effigy and Thompson seeing a sign in McDonough Arena that stated: "The Nigger Coach Must Go."
One bit of thinking by a brilliant former coach here has Thompson's affection for Smith giving Carolina just the edge it needs Monday in an almost evenly rated game. It goes like this: Thompson is in a position to motivate his players as no other coach at no other time, as a war for blacks and what they have endured for too long. Repressed by a quota system Thompson saw, if did not experience, representatives of a school that would have shunned them two decades ago going against an elitist machine.
Thompson won't create such desperation in his players, because he knows Smith is one coach who has not lived a lie, who has not compromised his essential values, who has been brutally honest when others hedged, who has gone the extra mile when that was not necessary.
How has Smith helped Thompson over the years?
Guthridge twists that some.
"They've helped each other."