Georgetown basketball Coach John Thompson arrived in Kentucky yesterday for the Final Four and immediately became the center of controversy when he reacted angrily to a newspaper column that said, "There will be a Martian in the White House before there's a black coach on the bench where Adolph Rupp once sat."
The issue arose yesterday during a telephone press conference with the four Final Four coaches: Thompson, St. John's Lou Carnesecca, Villanova's Rollie Massimino and Memphis State's Dana Kirk. Each coach was asked by local writers in Lexington, site of the tournament this weekend, if he was a candidate for the Kentucky job, vacated last Friday when Coach Joe B. Hall resigned.
After the other three coaches each said they were not interested, Thompson, speaking from Louisville where his team is headquartered (as is St. John's), was asked the question.
"I read in the paper here that before John Thompson got the coaching job at the University of Kentucky there would be a Martian in the White House," Thompson said.
There was laughter from writers on the other end of the phone line -- in Lexington -- when Thompson finished that sentence.
Thompson then said, "I fail to see the humor in racism and I never have. I read that column to my players because I want them to understand that very clearly."
The column was written by Louisville Courier-Journal sports editor Billy Reed, a highly respected columnist and frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated. The premise of the column was to list 10 people who had absolutely no chance of being Kentucky's next coach. "It was supposed to be funny," Reed said yesterday.
Among the people Reed listed as having no chance for the job were Phyllis George Brown, Sweet Georgia Brown and Bad Bad Leroy Brown.
Reed also said that Jerry Falwell had no chance and said that N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano had no chance "because he has a sense of humor." That, Reed said, would be unacceptable at Kentucky.
Reed then wrote that another who had no chance was Hall's No. 1 assistant, Leonard Hamilton. Hamilton is black. Reed named seven other black coaches who had no chance to get the job: Thompson, George Raveling, Tony Yates, Clem Haskins, Walt Hazzard, Willis Reed and Clarence (Big House) Gaines.
"I wrote that as a knock at UK," Reed said. "My point was that the situation has changed little since Rupp left and that the job is still closed to blacks and that's sad. I was making a commentary on Lexington society.
"Racism is not funny, I would agree with that. But racism is something to be made fun of and that was my intention. If John Thompson interpreted what I wrote any other way, I'm sorry.
"The column was a dig at the UK mentality," Reed said. "If you notice in all the speculation about the new coach, no blacks have been mentioned, even though there are plenty of good black coaches out there. There's a reason for that."
Because of the format of the press conference, no follow-up questions could be asked. Thompson could not be reached for further comment last night.
Thompson's remark came in the midst of what was little more than a one-hour love-in between the four coaches. Each talked about the opposition as if they were the Celtics, Lakers and 76ers rolled into one.
"This is what is called blowing smoke," Carnesecca said at one point.
"In the south, we call it snake-oiling," Kirk said.
"Actually, I'm not blowing smoke because John (Thompson) is too big to cover with smoke," Carnesecca said.
A few minutes later, when Massimino was asked what he remembered about his team's last appearance in Rupp Arena (a Kentucky blowout two years ago), he growled, "I can tell by these questions there are a lot of Kentucky writers there." Then, he added, "I remember I found a good Italian restaurant down there. Looie, we're taken care of for food."
"I brought my own chef," Carnesecca responded. Thompson and Carnesecca did turn serious long enough to talk about their semifinal Saturday, the fourth meeting between the two schools this season. "I don't look at it that way, though," Thompson said. "People get too caught up in the past. This is one game we have to play and one time we have to win or else we're out of here."
Carnesecca, asked what adjustment he might make after two straight losses to the Hoyas by convincing margins, said, "I'm not sure what adjustments you can make against Georgetown . . . When you're talking about Mr. (Patrick) Ewing, you're talking about one of the great pivot men to ever play the game. And that's not blowing smoke."
Thompson also was asked if he thought his team's physical style of play had changed the game or elevated it to a different level.
"That's a bunch of bull," Thompson said. "There are a lot of teams that play well and a lot of teams that play aggressively. The intimidation question is overworked. We play as hard as we can but so does everyone here. There are a lot of teams that don't play aggressively that are going to be watching the four of us on television this weekend."
Thompson was asked about the pressure to repeat as national champions. "I don't think about repeating," he said. "I just think about winning this championship, this time. I'm not keeping count."