Perhaps the most important words spoken by John Thompson yesterday were, "I am an educator." Remaining one in a very formal capacity at Georgetown may have been more important than the new challenge of the NBA, than owning part of the Denver Nuggets, than making more than $6 million over the next five years.
Thompson didn't say he turned down the Denver Nuggets because he would miss the formal process of education. In fact, Thompson didn't provide very much in the way of detail about why he didn't take the Nuggets' offer, other than to say "the timing was not right for me to leave here."
For that, Georgetown University should be pleased. College basketball should be pleased. The teenagers at Thompson's summer camp should be delighted. The kids who wear Georgetown jackets on the streets of the District, the kids who may have been inspired by Thompson's corny "deflated basketball" story should be thankful. The people who stayed up until 2 o'clock one morning to hear what Thompson had to say on ABC's "Nightline" about our neighborhoods should be happy he's staying.
Thompson pointedly said during yesterday's news conference that he doesn't want anyone at Georgetown (or anywhere else outside his family) becoming dependent on him. He said just as pointedly that he never asked to be a Pied Piper and that he's not foolish enough to think that someone else with his resources and support system at Georgetown couldn't be as effective an educator as he is.
However uneasily Thompson wears the mantle, he wears it well. Better, perhaps, than anybody in sports. Better than anybody sitting in a position of impact in this city. He didn't say, "I am a basketball coach." He said, "I am an educator."
The fabric of professional basketball in general, the NBA specifically, wouldn't have changed one iota had Thompson accepted the Nuggets' offer. Pro basketball, attractive as it has become in this recent internationalization, doesn't need John Thompson. The Denver Nuggets will hire somebody else, somebody who evaluates dribbling and shooting and passing. He will draft players and make trades. The person the Nuggets hire may be great at what he does, he may be better at being a general manager than Thompson would have been.
But the NBA is about the business of basketball. Players get in their fancy cars and go home. Players with big cars and $1 million homes don't need John Thompson. A 17-year-old kid whose elementary school is short on textbooks and whose high school has one part-time guidance counselor needs Thompson.
That's why college basketball would have missed him. A lot of us have been saying that Thompson has nothing more to accomplish on the college level. As a basketball coach, maybe not. As an educator, Thompson won't live long enough to accomplish all that he'd like to. Robert Churchwell, the bright young recruit from Gonzaga, learned a lesson yesterday even though he hasn't yet enrolled at Georgetown. "That's a lot of money; he's got to take that!" Churchwell thought when he heard the Nuggets' offer. Yesterday, after the announcement that Thompson was staying, Churchwell said, "I guess he's about a lot more than money."
Thompson said: "I never felt there was nothing left to accomplish at Georgetown. I have always felt my responsibility was much broader than wins and losses." That, if we can be excused for being judgmental, is because as desperately as Thompson wants to win, and as much as he respects money -- "I am a capitalist, admittedly," he said -- he always has been about a lot more than basketball and money.
Someone asked Thompson if he ever thought, in turning down the Nuggets, that he was waving bye-bye to a once-in-a-liftetime offer. And he said, no, that he hoped in two years to be able to consider an offer for $20 million. His real peace of mind though is probably in knowing in 1972 he received a once-in-a-lifetime offer to teach through coaching basketball at Georgetown, an offer that gave him far more control and responsibility than would ever be at his disposal in the offices of the Denver Nuggets.
Thompson looked physically exhausted yesterday. Making this decision was not easy. Georgetown would have supported him had he taken Denver's offer. So would any rational Washingtonian who appreciated Thompson's contribution to this community. Thompson said, "I live in the whole world, not just Washington," and it would have been interesting to watch Thompson operate in that new frontier of the NBA.
From a selfish standpoint, Thompson staying here will keep the sparks flying at the Northwest D.C. school. He will continue to push, stimulate, challenge, anger and provoke the people who deal with him. He is a presence and a force; and the people who run Georgetown know it.
He also knows when it's time to tweak. Like yesterday, before announcing his decision, he called the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, Georgetown's president, and said, "Father, I'm leaving, I'm out of here." Donovan, thinking Thompson was dead serious, said, "John, you will never leave, you will always be one of us."