"The wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain."
John Thompson, Georgetown coach
It's after 1 a.m., the time that John Thompson of ten returns phone calls. His voice is a deep, husky, confidential rumble -- amused, almost chuckling.
Maybe he likes the idea of the phone ringing in darkness, startling the unsuspecting object of his voice; catching people off guard or knocking them off balance on purpose is Thompson's equivalent of the Socratic method.
Or maybe Thompson just likes the ambiance of heightened insight and intimacy that seems to attach itself to the middle of the night. There's little Thompson enjoys more than playing with words, nuzzling ideas to see what new configurations they may fall into against their will.
Or maybe his life is so full it's the only time he's got left. His national championship Georgetown University basketball team has an 8:30 a.m. practice in a few hours, then, immediately after, a cross-country flight to a game tonight at 9 at New Mexico. Thompson sounds tired already.
Perhaps no man in sports wants victory more and trusts it less than John Thompson.
"The real world is the cruelest world I know," he says, and it is a thought appropriate to a dark hour. "We have to anticipate that real world. What we're going through now is a false sense, a fantasy. Feels like a setup."
Some will see this as exhibit 1,001 in the Hoya Paranoia case that has been made against Thompson's program. Others will simply say that it is an extension of an out-of-fashion but defensible world view: that life will get you if you don't watch out, so you better work hard on the D.
"I know what's happening out there. Every coach of every team we play is saying, 'Georgetown is the greatest team ever put on the face of the earth. No way we can beat them.' Then, if they win, they get twice as much credit and if they lose they get no blame. That's called 'fattening frogs for snakes.'
"We are beatable."
In basketball, it sometimes seems that anticipation is everything. How often a half-step of speed loses to a full step of intuition. Anticipation also is part of coaching. The man who best imagines the future can best prepare for it.
Many coaches would see this Georgetown season as a kind of reward for a dozen years of hard work. At the moment, the Hoyas seem to be head and shoulder above any other college team and perhaps a few NBA teams, too.
It's not fanciful to speculate that Georgetown might go undefeated this season and even reach a point where it is compared favorably with the greatest college teams ever.
Senior forward Bill Martin seems to have changed from a solid but tentative player into a truly good one, and point guard Michael Jackson has accepted the necessity of being a leader. Sophomore Reggie Williams always has had NBA talent, with David Wingate not too far behind. With Patrick Ewing at center, they are as swift, acrobatic and exciting a team as college ball has seen since Bill Walton was at UCLA.
When Thompson is asked about going undefeated, he gives the standard reflexive answer, "We'll be very lucky if we beat everybody in the Big East."
Then basketball's most cautious coach pauses and adds the words, "by 20 points."
The whole meaning of his thought changes. It may be a bona fide, yellow-tailed Freudian slip caught in the wild. Thompson's not talking about how tough it will be to win his league title; his implication -- maybe his real goal -- is that, with some luck, GU might demolish every team it plays by 20 points. No. 2 De Paul lost to the Hoyas by exactly 20 last Saturday, so who knows.
Still, nothing goes against Thompson's grain like success, especially easy success.
"If we didn't believe the 'experts' last year when they said we wouldn't win the NCAA, why should we believe them this year when they say we will? Last year taught us to believe in ourselves among ourselves."
If Thompson has a bedrock passion, it is for exposing what he sees as false values. His top compliment to Ewing is that "this young man's done miraculously in this world of distorted values. He's far more personable than people think, especially when you consider that he's been propositioned by so many people. He's naturally a little suspect of their motives. When everybody seems to be trying to get a piece of you, rather than just talk to you as a person, it can make you that way."
One liability of adopting a high moral tone (and that's certainly the most familiar string on Thompson's violin) is that you get on the nerves of just plain folks who wonder where you got so smart and, especially, where you got so sure.
If his Hoyas have a disappointing season -- you know, something disastrous like losing a game -- there will be plenty of folks in the basketball subculture who'll have to suppress a smile.
Yet it is another of the subtleties of Thompson's viewpoint and coaching style that his methods and morals are exactly the kind designed for life on top of the mountain where that wind blows.
He has always taught his teams to ignore outside judgment and appraise themselves. He's always insisted that no loss means anything except an NCAA tournament loss.
Even when nobody much wanted to talk to his players, he insulated them from the press as though they were, well, amateurs, or, maybe, teen-agers put in his charge, or even college students with school work to do and personal problems to solve.
What was, for a decade, a prickly policy adopted on principle is now a very practical aid. That is, unlesss you think a 20-year-old plays better after giving 1,000 interviews about how great he is and how important his half-formed opinions are.
For the next three months, Thompson will worry and complain and argue and chastise. Nothing will please him.
"Last year, I was tellin' them how awful they were until the final buzzer of the final game," Thompson said laughing, deep in the night. "When they looked at the score and saw they'd won the national title, they must have thought, 'This is over. This guy is crazy.' "
When the wind blows hard at the top of that mountain, the best advice is to grab something big and solid and hold on tight. Fortunately for the Georgetown Hoyas, John Thompson, who may be even better suited to staying at the peak than getting there, is available.