Somewhere in the back office, amid the high-pitched tumult of Boys' Club No. 2, there is a dusty picture frame filled with stories about children who have passed that way. In the corner is a faded picture of the Archibishop John Carroll High School basketball team that had just won its 43rd straight game.
Four of the starting players on the 1959-60 team are receding into the background, fading into time. In the foreground is No. 21, John Thompson, the center: a skinny kid with huge eyes and a furrowed brow, at once both quizzical and somber. It is an enduring portrait.
No matter how you look at it, John Thompson is looking you straight in the eye.
Thompson still goes back to the Boys' Club on New York Avenue to help out. Once he brought Patrick Ewing with him. "When the weather's warm, we stand outside," said Julius Wyatt, who runs the club along with Bill Butler. "The cars slow down and you can almost read their lips, 'That's Coach Thompson.' He's 'Coach' to us, too, but he's still one of our kids."
Thompson has come a long way since he began organizing teams when he was 13. He has won 206 and lost 91 basketball games since becoming the coach at Georgetown in March 1972. He is 41 and a success. He is not prepared to say that. "Success to me is the end," he said. "It's like finishing the sentence. And I don't think I'm ready to end the sentence now."
Success is a strange elixir, heady and risky. It massages the ego and dulls incentive. It allows others to deify, define and distort you. All this makes Thompson wary. He looks at the public perceptions of himself and says, "Sometimes I'm not sure John Thompson exists."
He says he is not convinced he is as successful as he had been led to believe but was a success long before he was recognized as one. "I never will forget coming out of college, my roommate and I were talking. I happened to room with a white fella all the way through college. We were kidding one another and I said, 'I'm a success now. I can lay back and take it easy. I'm the first college graduate in my family. But look at you. In order for you to become successful, you have to conquer the world.'
"That was not really a true statement because I had pride that went beyond just achieving what formerly had been achieved. But I have not yet achieved what my father has. There's a vast difference between being recognized and being successful."
He is a man in the process of becoming himself, becoming successful. He has changed along the way. "He's gotten heavier, wiser, firmer, gentler, stronger; he is more compassionate and more strict," said Frank Rienzo, Georgetown's athletic director. "He has come into the blossom of himself."
Thompson resists, rejects, perhaps even resents, the attempt to reduce him to any one thing. He is a man of paradoxes and contradictions. He is an idealist but not an innocent. He distrusts the world, yet asks, in effect, that the world trust him.
He says the biggest hypocrisy in capitalistic society is that "we talk about money as if it's a sin" but he won't discuss what he earns. He stresses the importance of academics but says it is too personal for his players to discuss. He says intelligent athletes are discriminated against because the world assumes they are not smart. Yet, he refuses to offer proof of their intelligence. In an odd way, then, dealing with Thompson becomes an act of faith.
"It's much harder to tolerate good than evil," said Timothy Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown. "John is, in a quiet, stubborn way, quiet and good. The volubly good like Mother Theresa are a lot easier to take. To say, as John does, 'Here I am, take it or leave it,' is to defy the rest of us who aren't as good."
Thompson says, "I'm certainly not perfect but I resent the hell out of it."
Laughter rumbles like thunder on the horizon. "Because you have achieved fame, they expect you to be perfect in all ways and there are no perfect people. I'm not going to be hypocritical and put myself in that situation. That's why you constantly heard me say when nice things were written about me, 'That is not me always.' "
Lack of confidence is not one of his diseases, he says.
"You take pen to paper and you say this is how this man projected himself to me: as a big man with a plaid shirt and some suspenders, ranting and raving. That's not what I am. Tomorrow, I'll have on a coat and tie. Tomorrow, I may be quiet.
"We want somebody to be one thing in athletics. 'John fools people, he is not an educator, he wants to win.' I don't know if I fool people but they sure are right--I want to win. 'John is not a coach, he is a social worker.' Well, I'll tell you one thing, I probably am a social worker sometimes but I damn sure consider myself a coach. You know, John isn't one of anything. John is a lot of things and an s.o.b. most of the time."
Thompson has detractors but they are loath to make their criticisms public. He is too plugged-in to the intercollegiate basketball hierarchy and community, they say. There is bad feeling over the rupture with the Urban Coalition summer league. Thompson's players now play in the James (Jabbo) Kenner Association Summer League, run last summer by former Georgetown players at McDonough Arena. John LaPrade, attorney for the Urban Coalition, said there would be no comment at this time.
One coach said, "Nobody black is going to say anything about him. Nobody white is going to say anything about him."
Another said, "John is on top. People are not going to come out and say anything. If you want to recruit in the area, you can only hurt yourself in the community."
Thompson said there is some backlash at Georgetown where there is always "fighting for turf," and outside it where "people attribute your actions to your success and not your judgment."
Butler said, "There are those who would rather see a guy play for anybody else than John. Washington, D.C., has a lot of professional jealousy . . . there are those trying to direct kids into other channels, saying, 'I ain't gonna help him.' "
He has many admirers. They provide the insight. "He's no plaster saint," said Healy. "He quite rightly gets furious at his goody two-shoes reputation. I'm not saying he's canonizable. Not much treacle sticks to John."
"He can be very blunt at times or harsh," said Al Dutch, a former player, now studying to be a minister. "You hurt people's feelings sometimes."
On the shelf in his office, there is a sign: "To err is human, to forgive is not my policy." Derrick Jackson, a former player who is a minister, said, "From my point of view, that's not great. I'm not even sure he buys it. It may be a bluff to intimidate. He's big with intimidation. He portrays on the outside that he's intimidating so you don't get close to him. Inwardly, he is a soft person."
Thompson resents the notion that he uses his size -- he is 6-foot-10 and close to 300 pounds -- to intimidate. He says he has other ways to communicate. "I get that all the time; 'I'm not going to be afraid of you. I'm not going to let you intimidate me.' I find that an insult. It's never been my intention to intimidate or buffalo. That goes along with my physical structure."
And the color of his skin. "Exactly," he said. "And that was an accident. I had nothing to do with it. My mouth is larger because my legs are longer and my arms are longer. So I may be a little louder. That also was an accident."
He is not asking to be thought of as nice. "I've said several times that a lot of blacks are not looked upon as being intelligent people, they're looked upon as being good people. Most black people who achieve, they want to make him real good. 'He's a nice man.' People don't pay you for being nice. They pay you for being intelligent. If you express your feelings, it becomes a question of intimidating again, which has the connotation you are not intelligent but a madman."
He is naturally a private, guarded man who grew to be assertive. He says his family -- his wife Gwen, his three children, and his mother who lives with them--is not public property. They live in the house on Colorado Avenue NW that was purchased by alumni in 1980 after Thompson was offered $120,000 a year to coach at the University of Oklahoma (at the time, $120,000 was more than twice his salary.)
Thompson's friend, George Raveling, coach at Washington State, said, "The biggest difference between us is that I have somewhat greater trust in people."
"I think the world has done some things to him," said Jackson. "You can tell by the way he teaches: 'The world is cold, it tries to hurt you.' "
Ric Kentz, a former player, remembers that Thompson would always sit with his back to the wall and say, "I never like somebody behind me."
Friends speculate that the source of the hurt and the reserve is as ancient as discrimination. "I think part part of his reserve comes from being an enormously successful black man in a community and a society that is white-organized and white-dominated," Healy said.
"I also think there is a vision of society, very profound, well thought out, that he cherishes. I don't think he wants to let too many people tread on those acres. I'm not going to let you walk on my garden because you're going to get your big feet all over them."
Those he admits see another side. The day of the NCAA semifinal game against Louisville in New Orleans, the Boys' Club's Wyatt and Butler were sitting in front of the television awaiting Thompson's appearance when the phone rang. It was Thompson. "He said, 'Hey boss, sit back and relax because I'm going to kick his butt,' " Wyatt said. "He wanted to assure us he was going to take care of business."
Again and again players sound the same refrain: he cares about you as a human being. This produces grumbling in some quarters. "It's like, 'Here is a guy who really does care and no one else does,' " said one coach. "That isn't the case. We all do."
The day Eric Floyd signed with the New Jersey Nets after a prolonged contract dispute, Thompson was on the phone with Floyd and agent David Falk, making sure Floyd understood the meaning of deferred payments. "Call me at home tonight, Eric, late," he said.
"He wanted to make sure Eric felt good as a person, that he hadn't sacrificed his honor or dignity," Falk said.
Last summer, when John Duren was working at Thompson's summer camp, Thompson became concerned about Duren's tenuous position with the Utah Jazz. "He told him he shouldn't fall into that rut of basketball 24 hours a day until the day you retire and go cold turkey," Falk said. "He told us we ought to be helping him develop a second career, that it was part of our responsibility."
Thompson often says he learned more from Jackson, who turned down the NBA for the ministry, than Jackson did from him. Jackson's is the only picture in Thompson's office. One Christmas vacation when all the other players had gone home, Jackson was alone in a room atop McDonough Arena. One night there was a knock on the door. Thompson and his family had come to take him to see "Jaws."
Others remember the night years later before a big game when Jackson refused to tell Thompson his ulcer had ruptured. Thompson found him on his bed with a Bible. Jackson went to the hospital. Thompson went to a team meeting to explain.
"John broke down and cried," said Felix Yeoman, an MBA candidate at American University. "He said, 'Where have I gone wrong to make you think winning was so important that a guy would actually risk his life?' That had a large effect on him. He felt he made us get so caught up in winning that we forgot our perspective."