"The thing John Thompson wants is a company man but not a yes man," said Ron Blaylock, a former Georgetown player who works on Wall Street now. "The company man is someone who will sacrifice for the whole team, someone who is accountable and responsible and will put out and follow. A yes man is someone who is blinded by the light."
The success of any basketball program hinges on its ability to recruit. The success of Georgetown's basketball program is Thompson's ability to recruit a certain kind of player. "The big key is recruiting," said Bill Stein, who was Thompson's chief recruiter until he became athletic director at St. Peter's College this year. "He hasn't changed any kids. They're all good kids who are used to order."
Thompson, coach at Georgetown since 1972-73, looks for players who are adaptable, coachable; players who are willing to accept his idiosyncratic ways, his procedures, his personality. He says, "I don't coach their team, they play on mine."
"He's a dictator," said Al Dutch, who graduated in 1980. "It's hard to be under that authority. Your four years here you're under his arm. I'm not saying he steps every step with you but he does overshadow you."
Timothy Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown, said, "He has rejected players because he does not feel they will fit the team. What I think he really means is that they don't fit his personality. I think if you pushed him he'd admit that. John would say, 'I have my way of coaching. I have this forum. I use it and work in it in a certain highly individualistic way and I'm only going to have kids in with whom I think I can work.' "
He screens out bad actors, head cases, dissidents. "He also screens out star variety kids: 'Give me the ball and I'll shoot' kids," Healy said.
No one rebels because there are no rebels. "They correct for that with the type of people they recruit," said Eric Floyd, who graduated last year and now plays for the New Jersey Nets. "So there's no problem with rebellion."
Thompson built the program around local, unknown, unsought players. "He didn't get desperate," said Bernie Bickerstaff, an assistant coach for the Washington Bullets. "He always had class people."
His roots in the community helped find them. He knows who the good players are, who the good people are. "I don't think he owns Washington," said George Raveling, Washington State coach and former Maryland assistant. "But he's got a hell of a down payment."
Floyd was Georgetown's first consensus first-team all-America. As Dean Smith, the coach at North Carolina, points out, only one player on the team that went to the final eight in 1980 was offered an Atlantic Coast Conference scholarship.
"Now his tentacles are going to spread everywhere," said Coach Lou Carnesecca of St. John's University.
Some wonder whether the access to national talent, better talent, will change the character of the program. "I don't think we'll ever change the characteristics of the people we want," Thompson said. "You can't win with character alone, but you sure won't win with talent without character."
Bob Wade, the coach at Dunbar in Baltimore, where Georgetown freshman David Wingate went to high school, said Thompson's approach to recruiting is "more personalized" than other coaches: "He puts more John into it."
When Derrick Jackson (1974-78) came to Washington for his recruiting visit, Thompson took him on a tour of the monuments. "I remember Lincoln in his chair and looking up and seeing the writing on the walls," said Jackson, now a minister in Glendale, Ill. "He let me read. He never said, 'Hurry up.' I don't know why it sticks in my mind but that touched me."
Dean Smith remembers the first time he met Thompson, when he came to his house in the early 1970s to recruit Donald Washington. Thompson then was Washington's coach at St. Anthony's High School and his legal guardian.
"He asked what courses Bill Chamberlain was taking," Smith said. "Luckily, I knew. He was asking the kind of questions every parent should ask: what courses does he have to take, does he have a scholarship, what does he need to get in. John wasn't trying to be impressive but he was. I believe he was trying to make every coach who came in uncomfortable. It was like, 'Who's recruiting who? Are you the buyer or the seller?' "
Thompson's recruits know the feeling. He scrutinizes them meticulously. "You'd think you were working for the CIA with the research they do," said Blaylock. "Two years later, I saw my sixth-grade teacher. He says, 'By the way, these people from Georgetown called a couple of years ago.' "
Wade said, "He'll ask, 'How close is he to his family? Does he go to church? What type of church does he attend?' If there is a family breakdown, he wants to know. A lot don't ask that. If he can score 20, fine. Does he like steak for pregame meal? Some come from homes where they're not accustomed to having a steak and baked potato. Are the mother and father in the home? He wants to know about the aunts and uncles."
Stein said, "We'll go watch to see how he (a recruit) relates to his coach, the referees. If he says his coach is this or that, we become leery of him. There are some personalities he wouldn't want: disruptive types. Some take them. If you go into a home, you can tell how he relates to his parents."
One night during his senior year in high school, Mike Frazier, a 1981 graduate, was driving to a game with his coach, who casually mentioned Georgetown. When he got to the gym, Frazier's teammates said, " 'Are you in trouble? There's this big black guy looking for you. He's at least seven feet tall.' I thought, 'Oh, God, what did I do?'
"Thompson introduced himself. We played a little game of horse. He won one and I won the other. That impressed me: that he could outdo me."
Later, Thompson asked where his parents were from, what they did, how they liked it, how Frazier thought they brought him up. At home, Thompson told him, "When you leave you won't be momma's little boy." Frazier said, "It shocked me in front of my mother."
Players say Thompson's appeal is his honesty, his lack of pretense. "Other people were trying to put on a big show to impress you," said Steve Martin, an accountant who graduated in 1979. "They'd take you to the training table and say, 'You can eat all the steaks you want.' They take you to a nice gym. They take you around in a Cadillac. Mr. Thompson, he had an old beat-up station wagon. My big meal was the Rib Pit. We picked up some sandwiches and talked in the car."
He promises nothing. He told Gene Smith, this year's captain, he would never be a starter. He told Blaylock, " 'I'm not going to promise you you're going to play a lot.' A lot of coaches said, 'Come play here: we'll run enough plays around you, a blind man could score 20 points.' "
Floyd said, "He didn't offer me anything. That was the biggest difference. When a college offered something more to come play it was an insult to my intelligence. Thompson said, 'You're going to have to work for everything, a starting job. Work in school.' "
Horace Broadnax Sr., whose son Horace is a freshman guard at Georgetown, said he was sold on Thompson when he saw him on "television ads talking about the importance of getting an education."
Thompson tells parents he will not talk to them about basketball, only academics. He tells players what he told Washington one night during his freshman year at North Carolina.
"He was doing poorly in a course he didn't like," said Dean Smith. "John drove down one night at 11 p.m. and gave one of the greatest speeches I've ever heard. The father of one of Donald's buddies was a president of a company. John said, 'If he doesn't graduate, he's going to go back and have a job. You're dad isn't president. With a degree, it's the only way you have a chance.' "
Ric Kentz, a former player who arrived at Georgetown before Thompson became coach, said, "Not only does he really care, but I think he's a good marketer and he also knows that he can sell the program that way."
Often, Mary Fenlon, the academic coordinator, goes on recruiting trips. Martin said, "She says, 'What do you think you'll major in?' She gives you the background in what to expect, what to take, the percentage that gets in and drops out. After you sign a letter of intent, one of the things they attempt to get you to do is come and take a few courses in summer school."
Fenlon, who declines to give interviews, saying the team has enough stars, helps plan schedules, pick classes, find tutors if they are needed. Thompson introduced her as "my cannon," and describes her as his conscience.
"She is a den mother," said Frazier, who bought Fenlon a lobster dinner for her last birthday. "She helped me in a lot of cases in which Thompson would be mad at me. Miss Fenlon would come to the rescue. She looks after you. She might not admit it. She has an image to uphold."
Former center Tom Scates, who works as a doorman at the Washington Marriott Hotel, said, "Most players need academic help, someone who can talk to teachers. A lot of teachers are not too sympathetic to basketball players. She made sure your head was above water. Sometimes people would try to cut class, she always found out about it."
Scates graduated with a degreee in English in 1979. His first year, he did not study as much as he should have. "I got put on academic probation," he said. "It was a new experience being away from home."
Thompson called him into the office, closed the door and said, "Do or go."
Healy believes teams in the Big East Conference should be required to publish graduation statistics. Thompson has cited those statistics in the past: 40 of 42 players he has recruited have graduated.
Now, he says, "I'm sick of that stuff. It's almost like people who talk about how often they go to communion. The statistics become more important that the fact they're receiving an education . . . I'm concerned that somebody is making an adjustment to the world of work. That's what I'm counting now."
By all measures, they adjust remarkably well. They are an impressive bunch. Still, questions have been raised about the academic qualifications required for players at Georgetown. Thompson becomes impassioned and indignant on the subject. "One of the greatest myths of our society is equality," he said.
He says the program is a pluralistic society: "People are not all equal who I recruit. I believe that people have to function. I'm looking for an athlete who can perform and survive the total responsibilities of the university.
"I go in and present that. Then that's evaluated. But from then, I don't analyze it any more . . . There are kids I've wanted who have not been able to come here. There are kids I've gotten in who probably should not have been here. But I think that's the case in the normal process of any university."
Thompson says greater minds than his will have to define the role of college athletics. He can name some of its elements: to entertain, to educate, to integrate. Athletics introduced him to education. "I was not a lover of knowledge," he said. "I don't know if my ancestors had not been deprived and held in slavery that I would not have originally had a greater appreciation for education than I had for athletics."
Not long ago, Thompson got a letter from a lawyer who hired one of his players for the summer. The lawyer related the comments of another attorney who worked with the player.
"He was skeptical concerning the Georgetown basketball program with respect to the educational opportunity afforded the team members," the lawyer said. "He was very impressed with the player's work and asked if I thought it was typical of the athlete that plays for Georgetown."
The letter infuriated Thompson. "The guy was saying I should be flattered that they were surprised that the kid was an intelligent human being," Thompson said.
His voice deepened, the way it can, and filled with the tones usually reserved for the pulpit. "We don't have a bunch of idiots running around here," he said.