In Washington, because of who he is, the thought that John Thompson might leave Georgetown for the Denver Nuggets has created a tempest. But Thompson is just part of an evolution in basketball, one that threatens to blur all the lines that used to separate the colleges from the pros from international basketball.
Leaving the comfort and security of a great job to pursue new challenges wouldn't be unique to Thompson should he accept the Nuggets' offer to become general manager and part owner. Look at the people who in recent months have left or considered leaving great jobs, some of the best basketball jobs. It used to be, even in the world of sports where transition is the norm, that if you got one of the golden jobs, you either got fired or retired.
But now we see Dave Gavitt leave the commissionership of the highest-profile conference in college basketball, the Big East, to run the Boston Celtics. We see Mike Krzyzewski take a Duke team to the Final Four four times in five years, then seriously consider coaching the Celtics. We see Thompson, having built Georgetown into one of the premier college programs in the country, on the verge of leaving it all for the uncertainty of running a middle-level NBA franchise.
While there has been some movement from the pros to campus, most notably Rick Pitino and the back-and-forth Larry Brown, the people who thought only a decade ago that the college game was the superior product are being forced to reevaluate. Thompson was one of those people. "I must say, there is an excitement that has come into the NBA recently that I didn't think would be there," Thompson said Tuesday. "That the game has become so global, that it is truly international is a very, very exciting thing."
We are seeing the democratization of basketball and we are seeing it explode like no other sport. Pro football is trying to force-feed its product to Europe, and while the effort may ultimately pay off, basketball is being inhaled in Europe and now Africa, where boys wake up and want to know how Akeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo did last night.
Vision is definitely one of Thompson's characteristics. When Georgetown was ready to settle for making the NIT every now and then, he envisioned much more. He has seen, up close, the future of basketball as the U.S. Olympic coach in 1988. College basketball will always be nationally compelling, but it has already taken a back seat on the international stage now that the Olympic movement has been opened to the pros.
While Thompson would be playing on a bigger stage should he leave for Denver, he probably wouldn't carry the presence he has here. Not for a while anyway. As an educator, Thompson can take a stand on Proposition 42. He can threaten to walk out unless something is done about it, and people are compelled to listen. A lot of people win basketball games. Thompson, though, is one of only a handful of people in sports who have impact. Of course, he would be consulted on matters of comparable import in Denver. He could be just as powerful a spokesman, just as sensible, but would people take the same kind of notice? Would he touch young lives in the same way he does now?
Pro basketball is about basketball and money, not much more. Not politics and socio-economics and education, just ball and winning. Primarily what you want to ask a GM is, "Can he shoot it? Can he handle it? Can he get it off the glass?"
Thompson emphatically said on Tuesday that the state of college basketball isn't driving him away. Some people, however, suspect he would not miss recruiting, which has increasingly become more burdensome and less dignified (for all coaches). Some suspect he would not miss all the political, petty squabbling that goes on at the collegiate level but is mostly absent from the pros. You can't have impact without tremendous responsibility. And after 18 years of being the conscience of college basketball, who could blame Thompson if he left that to somebody else? Who could blame him if he wanted to concentrate, for a change, primarily on basketball as it increasingly becomes the sport of choice worldwide?
It is not inconceivable -- in fact it is quite possible -- that in the next 10 years we will see a professional World Cup of basketball. Just as England, Italy, West Germany, Argentina and Brazil are the powers of World Cup soccer, the United States, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would be basketball's international powers. We can envision a U.S. entrant in the "European Championships."
That's where the big action will be in the coming years. And as Thompson is fond of saying, "You always want to be where the big action is." The internationalization of basketball excites anyone who loves the sport as much as he does. Should Thompson leave, he would not only be making about $6 million over five years, he would be exercising total control of a team in a league that is expanding like no other in professional sports. And Thompson, like his friend Gavitt and all the others who want to help shape basketball's future, might have a chance to be one of the powers in the global village.