Georgetown University's basketball team got into another fight over the weekend. That's three this season -- two with Pittsburgh, one with Boston College. After two seasons of calm, Georgetown is once again in the brawling mode that characterized the Patrick Ewing teams. There are differences between the Ewing teams and this Georgetown group, but the links that connect them are the coach, John Thompson, and the adamant chest-to-chest defense his Hoyas play. After changes upon changes, their style is more or less the same.
Commenting on CBS following Saturday's fight (immediately precipitated by Perry McDonald deliberately whacking the back of Jerome Lane's skull), former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery shrilly insisted, "John Thompson has to control his team. There are too many incidents over the years. It happens too often."
Sunday night on Channel 5's "Sports Extra," an indignant Thompson dismissed Raftery's comments as "totally ridiculous," before dismissing Raftery himself as someone who was "unsuccessful as a basketball coach on all levels . . . totally incompetent at the profession." Forgetting for the moment that Raftery's career record at Seton Hall was a demonstrably competent 154-141, what does his skill as a coach have to do with his position on Georgetown's history of fighting?
Even their most ardent admirers have to be troubled by the Hoyas' recent behavior. Every time there's a fight in the Big East this season they seem to be involved. Thompson argues these are "spontaneous" acts, but the nettlesome thing is that they are no longer unexpected. The league is beginning to feel like a gang war waiting to happen. Relentless, aggressive, disciplined defense is admirable -- a shot to the back of the head by McDonald, or an elbow to the throat by Lane, is not. Without holding him responsible for the specific act that triggers the violent response, who can most influence a team if not its coach?
Thompson has said that fighting disturbs him, and that he has threatened his players with "worse" than one-game suspensions for fighting. But where is the corresponding action? Thompson is in a position to sway the direction of college basketball by loudly and strongly declaring he won't tolerate fighting by his players. Not only is he one of the very best coaches, but he's the 1988 U.S. Olympic coach. He can and should set a standard for others to follow. There's no question the Georgetown players will try mightily to adhere to his wishes. He's the absolute law in that program. He has the power. The Georgetown players are far more frightened of Thompson's response than of any other team, any other player or any possible directive from the league office.
Georgetown's past fights could be defended more vigorously than these. The Ewing teams were a contentious bunch, with rough-and-tumble players like Ewing, Fred Brown and Michael Graham. Their stern demeanor and frosty relations with the media engendered much criticism and prompted the label, Hoya Paranoia. But anyone who paid attention saw that there was an overt element of racism in the way Georgetown, and particularly Ewing, was hooted. Bananas were thrown at Ewing. That team could not help but be provoked by acts like that.
Racial tension isn't fundamental to this team's brawling. Rather, it is the style of play, the unswerving commitment to a perilous defense. Unlike Ewing's teams, excellent teams on which the offense came from a consistent core of players, this Georgetown group has no dependable scorer other than Charles Smith. It can win only through defense. Its reliance on defense is even more pronounced than with last year's team, which at least had the extraordinary Reggie Williams. And it is precisely that defense, which goes right to the limits of the rules with its clawing and its clutching and its grabbing, that regularly has kept Georgetown in the top 20.
Other than Smith, the parts seem complementary, which may account for why Thompson spreads the playing time so evenly. Because there aren't any stars, no necessary components beyond Smith, there are loads of fouls to give at every position. Georgetown has committed the most fouls in the Big East. Sometimes it seems that more fouls are deserved, but aren't called because referees tire of calling every foul and making the game into a marathon. Kamikaze defense is encouraged because the reality of the team is that if you go down, somebody of comparable ability is always ready to replace you. The rallying cry seems to be: We're zealots. We will not yield.
At Thompson's exhorting, Georgetown teams pride themselves on intimidating opponents through defense. And when superior teams like Syracuse and Pitt allow it to happen, it simply fuels the notion that, like the indefatigable -- and similarly combative -- Washington Redskins, the Hoyas are never, never, ever out of a ball game. But the risk in such aggression on defense is that it incites a response in kind from the opponent. As a game goes on, particularly a taut game, Georgetown's style has the effect of inflaming its opposition toward the flash point. The safety margin shrinks until only a fine line separates control from chaos. It's a strategy of brinkmanship that requires a delicate and disciplined touch. One belligerent smack to the back of the head can discredit a game's worth of praiseworthy effort. Two or three can dishonor the entire season.
At 6 feet 10, John Thompson has a wider view than most of us. What he sees must persuade him to exercise his full influence to prevent any further fighting on the court. He generally gets everything he wants from his players. Surely, he can get this.