What we're seeing with John Thompson is a high-wire act.
The coach knows his Georgetown University team has weaknesses going into Sunday's 1 p.m. game against Memphis State (WDVM-TV-9). He knows it is young. He knows the team will be better next year. He knows he has to be patient. To judge this team by national championship standards is too strict a measure.
But, shucks and golly durn, he wants to win. Right now.
"David," he shouted.
This was late in Friday night's game.
From 75 feet away in a building with nearly 13,000 people raising a ruckus, you could hear John Thompson calling for his freshman forward, David Wingate, who was guilty of some transgression.
Wingate finally heard the coach and sprinted to his side.
Then Thompson said nothing.
The coach stared at the freshman a second, turned and walked to the bench.
"We had a team meeting back at the hotel," Thompson said. "I told them I was furious. I can understand dropping the ball and making physical mistakes. I can accept that. But mental laziness was what I saw out there. That disturbs me, and I let them know that."
This was Saturday afternoon after a workout.
"Today I am more loving to them."
On the high wire, Thompson teeters in the gales of big-time college basketball.
How much to demand? How to demand it? Does pushing too hard for today's victory ruin a young player's confidence and cost you victories tomorrow? But if you don't push, will the young player ever grow? If you finished second in the NCAA tournament the year before and you have a 7-foot all-America, do you push this team onto the high wire and say, "Dance the way we did last year?"
With 22 victories and nine defeats at the college game's highest levels, Georgetown has had a nice season.
But a "nice season" is not what Thompson pursues. If you're competing, he says, you want to be the best. He said that a decade ago when Georgetown basketball was the source of giggles. Only lately has the public perception of his teams caught up with Thompson's demands of them.
Friday night's victory over Alcorn State made this only the third year in Thompson's 11 seasons that the Hoyas won an NCAA tournament game. A victory over Memphis State on Sunday afternoon would make them one of 16 finalists.
That's a season of accomplishment. If it seems only passable, that's because Thompson's success has raised expectations. Some observers feel Thompson failed to advance Patrick Ewing as an offensive player this season; some believe the other sophomores, Anthony Jones and Bill Martin, have diminished in effectiveness.
Clearly, though, Fred Brown's knee injury cost Thompson the point guard he needs to cure the sickly half-court offense that renders Georgetown vulnerable to any team able to defeat the Hoya press and slow down play. With Brown, Ewing gets the ball where he needs it.
Ralph Dalton's knee injury robbed him of agility and strength. Then, when strong freshmen Victor Morris and David Dunn could contribute nothing (Morris had a stress-fractured foot), Ewing had no help rebounding and no backup for relief from exhaustion or foul trouble.
So a heavy burden fell on six freshmen and sophomores--Ewing, Jones, Martin, Wingate, Jackson and Horace Broadnax.
Thompson, chuckling: "Most freshmen and sophomores don't like me. When they become juniors and seniors, they tend to have a better understanding of what this crazy guy is trying to say."
Gene Smith is a junior, the team captain. "He's probably had the most difficult job of any captain we've had," Thompson said. "He's led on the floor by example, but he has no support by example. Kids teach better than teachers sometimes, and we don't have a lot of examples on the floor. All young kids know is that the coach is saying things in a way that's not so nice sometimes."
It's a delicate balance.
As Wingate played inconsistently, Thompson spoke to him of Eric Smith. "He was our most valuable player last year, but Eric Smith hardly played at all as a freshman."
As Martin grew confused, Thompson spoke to him of a hot-shot sophomore in the early-60s. "My sophomore year was the worst experience of my life," the coach said. "Now Bill is going through some of these transitions I went through."
Who knows with young players?
"Some kids, as freshmen, are very old. Some become seniors with the mentality of freshmen. It's an intangible part of coaching that is never exposed to the public. Only the person teaching knows the little personal things that affect a kid or the physical reaction to playing day to day or the psychological makeup to the pressure around him.
"That's the very delicate part of coaching . . . Sometimes you can be too understanding, and sometimes you can be too demanding . . . You don't want a kid to become crushed . . . You push and pull at the same time.
"You build teams. Last year we went to the final two. But the year before, that team was the most disappointing team I ever coached and I told them that.
"They were juniors and they should have been mature. But I never felt the mental commitment was there. I've never had a team that didn't make the physical commitment. That's a given. But it's just as hard to strain mentally, and I was very disappointed in that."
Those players, Thompson said, never saw as juniors what they saw the next year. With patience, today's freshmen and sophomores also will see new things.
"But I'm an impatient guy," Thompson said, smiling as the wire swayed under him.