The wind chimes that softly signal the presence of an intruder in John Thompson's domain were finally hushed. And Thompson, who believes there are no untimely surprises for those who are prepared, was ready to answer a question.
Who, he was asked, was the model for his basketball program? His former coaches: Red Auerbach? Dave Gavitt? Joe Mullaney? His friend, Dean Smith?
"Dave Brown," he said. "Lt. Dave Brown."
When Thompson was growing up in Northeast Washington, Dave Brown was coaching Elgin Baylor at Spingarn High School, winning championships and teaching basketball the way Greek and Latin are taught: as a discipline.
"I knew he was a person who obviously had a feeling for his players because they talked about him always," Thompson said. "But I always heard about his discipline, his order, his way of doing things."
Although Thompson never played for him, his friends did. "I was Lt. Browned to death," he said. "I knew he was a firm person. It showed me young people do want discipline and order."
In 1972, when Georgetown finished 3-23 and asked Thompson to come up to the Hilltop and bring a basketball team with him, he went to see Dave Brown, who encouraged him. When Thompson took the job, Brown sent a note and a poem. Thompson keeps the yellowing 3-by-5 card on the shelf; Brown keeps the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, "The Ladder of St. Augustine," in his head:
The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
"I wanted him to know it was going to be steady work and struggle," said Brown, who is 70 and retired now. "If you want to get a message across, you've got to send a poem. Prose just doesn't glow."
Ten years and many struggles later, Georgetown lost the NCAA championship to North Carolina by only one point, one errant throw. Dave Brown sent a card saying congratulations on the season. "John didn't need my pat on the back," Brown said. "He had lots of pats. But I just wanted him to know. You know, the difference between a pat on the back and a boot in the butt is only six inches."
The school on the hilltop has reached the giddy, precarious heights of college basketball: giddy because you can see how far you've come; precarious because, with five players -- three of them starters -- gone from the final four team and Fred Brown injured, the 1982 Hoyas will be a young team of whom much is expected right away.
Giddy, too, because, as Thompson says, the "story is being told nationally." And precarious because if national exposure means access to national talent, it also means a demand by the media for access to his players.
At Georgetown, there is euphoria. Classes were canceled the day of the NCAA final, as one professor said, in honor of "Our Lady of the Backboard." Around the area, there is jealousy from some coaches whose teams are not scheduled to play Georgetown this season. "Animosity," said Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, "why should there be any animosity?"
"He is almost a cult figure here," said Ed Tapscott, coach at American University. "He has been so successful and he's done it at a small Jesuit school that is among the top academically in a predominantly black city with a team that plays fast, plays slow and always plays intelligently. They win, they graduate and they all act like gentlemen. What a story."
It almost seems too good to be true. Tapscott, who is a believer, says, "Our cynicism dictates there must be some dirty drawers at the bottom of the laundry."
Success issues its own challenge, what Thompson calls "the crab-in-the-basket mentality, where people try to find something to tear you apart, to pull you down with."
But, Thompson says, "A mountain climber doesn't fear heights." He adjusts to the change in altitude. This year will bring several new Hoya highs: 8,500 season tickets sold, 75 commercial proposals for Hoya merchandising (72 of them rejected, including one for Hoya deely bobbers); at least 16 regular season national television appearances (via cable and network) including the Dec. 11 broadcast of the Virginia game (on WTTG-TV-5 here) via the Turner Broadcasting System. TBS reportedly paid $500,000 for those rights. In addition, the Hoya Hoop Club, in its fourth year of existence, has gone from 76 members to 1,050, a fourth of whom have no prior connection with the university; money brought in has gone from $12,000 to a projected $140,000, according to spokesman Brian Maguire.
Last year, the program earned about $270,000 after postseason expenses, according to Timothy Healy, S.J., president of the university. That money was put in an endowment-like fund designated for athletics, none of which can be used without Healy's approval.
"What I'm saying is that you can't touch the principal," Healy said. "If you start monkeying around with it, you've got to replace it every year and then winning becomes everything . . . That is the way to set up corruption, to say, 'You've got to get to the final four or we'll cut your budget.' "
If, as Healy says, one of the greatest challenges for the program this year is keeping its success in perspective, the challenge for others is understanding how it got there. The answers were provided by Dave Brown years ago: order, discipline, hard work, caring.
There are rules: when to talk, what to wear, what is personal, what is private. The crab in Thompson's basket, it is said, is that he is secretive. "You tell me something that I do that's secret," Thompson said. "I tell the world why I do it. It's not secret. It's not accepted."
The key is to find players who accept four years of protective custody. Eric Floyd, who graduated last year and now plays for the New Jersey Nets, said, "There is a basic understanding that a player has when he enters Georgetown: who is in control. It is the foundation for the remainder of his college career. You have to do things his way. Even though it might go against your thinking, it is the right thing at Georgetown."
They call him Mr. Thompson, never coach. If you ask him what he does, he says, "I teach." Dave Brown was a teacher who happened to be a coach.
Coaching is his methodology. He teaches responsibility, preaches caution. "He does not want them babied," said Bill Stein, his former assistant coach and college friend, now athletic director at St. Peter's in New Jersey. Though Thompson resents the use of the word, he does protect them. It makes for an odd dialectic.
Thompson says: "We think our function is to educate, to tell them the name of the game when you get out of school is to make money, don't be ashamed of that; is to be a decent person, don't be ashamed of that; is to be competent and strong and able to make a decision, don't be ashamed of that."
Because Thompson says the biggest challenge is not the ball games but making sure they adjust to the real world after the athletic fantasy, there is no team dorm, no training table. Isolation is a fantasy.
"Last summer, every one of us had a job," said Patrick Ewing, who worked as an intern on Capitol Hill. "He wasn't going to let us go anywhere and play. We could all have gone to Europe and played. But he wants us to know how it feels to work for a living like our parents."
There are no wake-up calls on the road. "We're given an itinerary," said Ron Blaylock, who graduated last year to a job in the government bond division of Citibank in New York. "My freshman year I didn't have a watch. He came up to me and said, 'Son, you better get a watch. You're going to have to know the time.' Three years later we're in an airport and he gives Anthony Jones a calendar."
In airports, he gives them their tickets and says, " 'Gate 25, 11:15,' then he's gone," Blaylock said. "We actually left somebody in an airport once. We didn't take off but it was damn close. The stewardesses were giving the signals when he arrived."
They wear suits and ties and bring their own uniforms to games. They carry their own luggage; freshmen carry the equipment. If there are not enough seats, freshmen get up.
Freshmen are expected to check in with the office every day. "I want to know where they are, what they're doing, whether I think they're going off the deep end," Thompson said. "As a guy gets to be a senior, you can loosen up a little bit. But with the freshmen, I'm a mother hen. Father hen."
Everyone signs The Book every Friday, in and out of season. They must leave a name and telephone number where they can be reached if they leave campus for the weekend. "That's paternal, isn't it?" Thompson said. "But suppose you want an interview. That's business. It has nothing to do with being paternal."
Every Friday, they list the tests they have taken, the grades they have gotten and the grades they would get if the class ended that day. "If you put a B for physics, the challenge was to get a B," said Floyd. "They hold you to it."
They list the problems they are having, the classes they have missed. Assistant coaches sometimes visit classes to see who is there. "Each week you have to update your grade," Blaylock said. "If you don't make the adjustment, he gets upset and consequently you have to suffer along with the others: 5 a.m. practice."
It's a matter of responsibility to yourself, accountability to others. There was one 5 a.m. practice last year, Stein said. "A guy missed a class early in the year."
Sometimes, Stein says, he'll call a 5 a.m. practice or schedule a 7 a.m. flight "just to inconvenience them." "He likes to see how we react to adverse situations," said Al Dutch, a 1980 graduate who is now a night supervisor at Yates Field House on campus and is studying to be a minister.
Practice is closed. He'll run them hard and ride them to test them. "There is a lot of yelling, cussing, fussing," said Mike Frazier, who graduated in 1981 and now is a supervisor for special markets at Miller Brewing in Wisconsin. "A lot of things go on we might find offensive if others were there. But he's calmed down. I used to think I had another name for a while."
"Practice is hell," said Gene Smith, this year's captain, in an equally cheery tone. "I've called him every name in the book."
Other coaches have barred outsiders from practice. Thompson tells his team, "The door is only locked on the outside." The better the Hoyas do, the more people want to get in and the more Thompson says, "I will have to be the heavy."
Agents are screened, as are reporters. In hotels and planes, the team stays away from the press. Freshmen do not give interviews until January. No one gives an interview until it has been approved by the basketball office, even some graduates. When a reporter reached Eric Smith at the Portland Trail Blazers training camp last month before he was cut, the first thing he said was, "Did you talk to him about this?"
Order offends, Thompson says. Last spring, his rules, his order, led one Salt Lake City columnist to call him "the Idi Amin of Big East basketball," an exercise in offensive, racial hyperbole. George Raveling, Thompson's friend and the coach at Washington State, said: "I one-hundred-percent agree with the intent. But I don't know if I'd have the guts to do what he does. I tend to be more public-relations conscious than him."
Tapscott said, "He's pretty protective of his kids. He has a certain rationale for that. I tend to think you let kids handle things until they make mistakes. He's kind of spoon-feeding them. If there is a down side, it is that a reporter's job is to be curious. When there's a limitation on access, it creates suspicion, as if there's something to hide. It creates the illusion that there is something you should be digging for."
"I hear that: too protective, too secretive," Thompson said. "More people in the world have been hurt from freedom while learning than so-called protecting to teach.
"Why do I stay at a hotel away from the action? Because I think it's distracting. When we travel is one of the few times I can talk to my players in a relaxed situation. I don't want to be interrupted. I'm selfish about that. We've had kids who have never flown before, never stayed in a hotel before. There are things to be taught in those places."
"We kind of enjoy it," said Ewing. "We don't have to be wary of what we say. We won't see it in the paper the next day."
The freshman rule gives players time to adjust to school and to the media. "I think he thinks it turns kids' heads to be yakking to the press in the first part of their freshman year," Healy said.
Players do not seem to chafe at the limitations. After Fred Brown threw the pass that threw away Georgetown's last chance at the 1982 NCAA championship, he stayed in the locker room and answered every question. But when he returned to school, Thompson told him not to talk about it. Brown was relieved. It helped him concentrate on schoolwork. "I'll tell you how I feel," he said. "I feel safe."
Morgan Wootten, the coach at De Matha High School, said, "I maintain you have to grow up and the sooner the better. Maybe there is more difficulty in meeting the press and the public the longer you hold them back."
"He overprotected me," said Dutch. "He never let anyone come down on me. In some ways, it was good. It did keep a lot of negative things from coming out, especially when I had a bad game. People thought I should never have a bad game. But I guess it cuts off things you could experience. Sometimes you have to take adversity and deal with it.
"No one says, 'Don't you say this,' " he added. "He only says, 'Be cautious about what you say. Think about the question because anything you say can be blown out of proportion, even the good things.' "
Gene Smith, who is naturally ebullient, said, "We don't think you (reporters) are out to get us. We don't have anything to hide. But some things you don't need to talk about like the classes you're taking. That puts you in a fish bowl. You (reporters) are wondering if there's a company line. They don't tell you what to say. They don't give us cue cards."
In the world according to Thompson, the line between what is personal and public, like the one between amateurs and professionals, is anything but fine. So you don't get much of a sense of his players as people, thoughtful, well-spoken people with a lot to say, until they graduate. Thus the whispered accusation: they are programmed.
And in a sense, they are. Eric Floyd remembers once at a press conference, a reporter asked him why his answers sounded rehearsed. With some exasperation, Floyd tried to explain: "People can't see a guy 18 or 19 accepting the way John Thompson is, his rules, not talking to reporters, wearing a coat and tie. People can't believe the type of respect they have for the things that go on. They say, 'How can an 18-year-old kid really feel this way about the guy? How can he accept a program with discipline?'
"That's your problem."