Our plate is full today with questions about John Thompson. Why would he be interested in becoming general manager at Denver? Why would Denver want him? If he goes, what would it mean for Georgetown?
This is no frivolous colloquy. Through the years Thompson has been offered numerous college and NBA jobs. Yesterday he conceded he's considering Denver's proposal "far more seriously than any of the others." So let's first discuss some underlying reasons Thompson might consider leaving.
1. He has accomplished everything he can at Georgetown. His stature within college basketball is immense. He has won the national title, and been elected president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. If Thompson stays, his ground has been plowed before; repetition isn't a lesser goal, but it's the familiar one. Whether here or at Denver, he won't get the opportunity to avenge the one blemish on his record -- the Olympic defeat in 1988. Now is as good a time as any to move on, on top, before a fickle public begins wondering why the Alonzo Mourning teams are falling short of the Patrick Ewing teams.
2. There's a new president at Georgetown. Timothy Healy was John Thompson's staunchest advocate. When Healy left perhaps a piece of Thompson left with him.
3. Thompson is collaborating on an autobiography. Some of the things he may want to say about college basketball might sound better from a distance.
4. Thompson suffers from hypertension, and there are less stressful ways to make a living than coaching big-time college basketball.
These are conditions that might prompt Thompson to entertain an offer. But why this offer?
The Denver team is black-owned, the only major sports franchise in America that is. Thompson has a high profile within the black community; he's regarded almost reverentially. He is not unwilling to be a pioneer, and he has a strong sense of the kinds of incremental steps that advance equality. For him to take this job, and align himself with black economic progress, might appeal to him culturally and politically. The NBA is going global. It can give a thoughtful, intelligent man like Thompson a big stage to play on.
Denver is offering Thompson 4 percent ownership. (Dave Gavitt was enticed to Boston under similar circumstances; Chuck Daly is said to be in line for something comparable at Philadelphia.) Five years from now, when Thompson's contract is up, the Nuggets are likely to be worth $100 million. His share -- his free share -- would be $4 million. Nice work if you can get it. The $700,000 yearly salary is up a bit from what Thompson makes now. Still available are extracurricular earnings from lectures and as a spokesman for Nike. Thompson is a capitalist with a sincere respect for money. There's a lot of it there to respect. Yesterday Thompson was asked if owning a piece of the Nuggets excited him. He grinned and said, "It excites me. It excites the hell out of me."
Denver also is offering Thompson total control of the basketball operation, which satisfies a critical aspect of his personality. He has total control at Georgetown; he had total control at the Olympics. He'll accept no less. It's why he declined previous NBA offers. "What I have always asked is, 'Will I have control? Will I have control?' " Denver said, absolutely. (Denver also is close to Las Vegas, where Thompson recently bought property.)
Giving up coaching will not torment Thompson. He compared being a pro GM to being a college coach: "You develop the personnel, you bring them to the team." Realistically, Thompson's signature coaching style, which stresses frenetic defense and self-sacrifice, is a difficult fit in the NBA -- the Pistons' muscular defense is the notable exception, not the rule. The NBA rewards offense. Referees overwhelmingly call blocking fouls rather than charges. And most NBA players would resent any philosophy that wasn't predicated on their individual creativities. But Thompson doesn't want to be GM and coach. "That's suicide," he said.
Why would Denver want Thompson?
Because he knows basketball. Because he has been exceedingly successful as an administrator and leader of a basketball program. Because he is a symbol of success and integrity to black people throughout America, a role model whether he likes it or not, a moral force in a sport that sorely needs it.
Their gamble, though, is that Thompson can succeed at pro basketball, a different game than the one he's used to.
Thompson dismisses any alleged gap, saying, "I believe intelligent people who work hard can adjust." His own career attests to his ability to climb the ladder acrobatically.
And what of Georgetown if Thompson leaves?
I suspect it plummets.
Georgetown is one of the country's preeminent programs, with North Carolina and Indiana. (Duke is on a rocket now, but Mike Krzyzewski's tenure is brief in comparison.) But Thompson's influence at his school is greater than Dean Smith's or Bobby Knight's. Smith and Knight have developed assistants who have left the nest and become successful head coaches elsewhere -- people who can be passed the torch. Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams assisted El Deano. Krzyzewski and Jim Crews assisted Knight.
Thompson has produced no such logical heirs. He has kept Craig Esherick and Mike Riley with him. They have not developed their own coaching personality, to say nothing of an imprimatur. From soup to nuts, John Thompson is Georgetown basketball, a larger-than-life figure -- provocative, intriguing, controversial. Inadvertently, his need for control reduced the size of everyone around him.
Thompson feels great loyalty to people who have been loyal to him. He is said to be trying to place Esherick or Riley to succeed him, and either would have to take it; nobody passes up a chance to coach Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, both of whom could be the first player taken in the NBA draft. But following a legend is a cobbled row to hoe; Gene Bartow found out at UCLA how bumpy it can be.
Without Thompson to close the deal, recruiting will be much more difficult at Georgetown. A white coach won't have the entree Thompson does. A black coach may find life uneasy in Thompson's shadow. Georgetown's next coach may not last long. If Thompson leaves, the spot where everyone wants to sit is second, behind the poor guy with his head on the block.